That’s a long time ago

David Graham at the Atlantic on Trump’s history lesson:

“I said, ‘When was Andrew Jackson?’ It was 1828, that’s a long time ago, that was Andrew Jackson,” Trump said, a sign that the history to follow would be somewhat shaky. Reminiscing about a visit to Tennessee in March, Trump continued:

I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

I italicize “really” because that’s how he says it.

On an historical level, Trump’s remarks are full of problems. It is difficult to know what the president means when he says that Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.” Jackson died in 1845, 16 years before the war began, though the challenge to national unity posed by slavery was clear by then. It’s possible Trump is referring to the Nullification Crisis, a conflict between the federal government and the state of South Carolina.

No it isn’t. That would be a possible interpretation of what Trump said, in the abstract, but it’s not possible that it’s what Trump was referring to. Trump’s references to history are on the level of “very tough” and “big heart” and “Honest Abe.”

It is difficult to imagine that Jackson, as a Southern slaveholder and defender of slavery, would have been willing to stand against the South in the event of a civil war. But that’s ultimately beside the point: Even if he had, such a position would likely have stood little chance of preventing the war, which flowed from the Southern commitment to slavery.

Trump’s assertion that Jackson could have staved war off is a manifestation of Trump’s central, and perhaps only truly committed, political beliefs: a faith in the power of strength, and a faith in the power of dealmaking. It is why the president rushed to congratulate Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a referendum empowering him and sapping democracy; it is why he is so fond of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; and it is why on Sunday he invited the vicious Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House.

What I’m saying. That’s his level of understanding. It’s the level of a fan of “reality” tv – it’s all about personalities. He thinks it’s all-important that he “likes” Xi; he thinks Obama “likes” him; he thinks it matters which heads of state he “likes” or doesn’t “like.” He can’t understand anything more complicated than that. He’s not a bright man.

It’s perfectly possible that Trump, despite attending good private schools in New York and then graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, is, like many Americans, ill-served by his education when it comes to the Civil War. Many Americans are still taught, incorrectly, that the war was essentially a conflict over state’s rights, with abolition as a byproduct of the war. This revisionist view flourished after the war, and though gradually being displaced, is common across the country. (Many erroneous beliefs about the war remain similarly common. In 2016, Coates and others criticized Hillary Clinton for her historically faulty gloss on Reconstruction, rooted in the revisionist “Dunning School” approach.)

I was taught Reconstruction that way. Fortunately I later read Eric Foner and David Oshinsky and learned better. Trump of course didn’t sit around reading history, he was too busy building a fraudulent real estate empire.

Recent presidents make great show of their reading of history. Bill Clinton went on the Today show in 2011 to recommend a set of dense historical tomes. George W. Bush released reading lists full of historical works during his presidency, and he told Jay Leno in 2013, “I did what I did and ultimately history will judge.” One book Bush read in the White House was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a selection he shared with Barack Obama, who liked the book so much that he depicted his own cabinet, including former primary opponent Hillary Clinton, as a “team of rivals.”

Trump’s attempt to replicate this plays as caricature. Had the president read Goodwin’s book, it’s difficult to imagine he would have made the statement he did today. Trump has betrayed a weak grasp on American history, and in particular mid-19th century history, on several occasions. In February, he posted a fake Lincoln quote to Twitter. Marking Black History Month, Trump delivered a perplexing paean to a great abolitionist that suggested he believed the man was still alive: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” In March, speaking about the most famous Republican president in history, Trump said, “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican.”

That’s his solipsism yet again. He means he didn’t know until someone told him, so he assumes most people didn’t know. He underestimates us.

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