The Uses of History: Trump, 18th C. Airports (?), Racism, & Beyond

By Robert Shaffer posted 17 days ago


“Air power” in the Revolutionary War? 

            For a while there, it looked like the big history-related story of the summer was going to be President Donald Trump’s gaffes during his much-trumpeted July 4th speech on the Washington Mall.  Perhaps inspired by the military jets that he insisted participate in this demonstration of American strength and patriotism, the President declared as he reviewed the achievements of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, that this 18th century army not only “seized victory from Cornwallis” at Yorktown but that “It took over the airports.”  He continued, in a mash-up of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, that “at Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, it had nothing but victory.”  USA Today headlined the story: “Donald Trump trips up on history for 4th of July speech, mentions airports during Revolutionary War” – almost as if Trump were a student whose oral presentation in History class went awry (

            The Associated Press quoted Trump as saying that “the teleprompter went out,” which might have been an opening for the modern-day equivalent of “the dog ate my note-cards,” but then the President seemed unaware that anything had been amiss: “I knew the speech very well so I was able to do it without a teleprompter” (

            Social studies teachers preparing for the return of students in the next few weeks will, I imagine, be of two minds about this flub.  On the one hand, we can use the incident as a “hook” to get students to pay attention to history, along the lines of “Are you smarter than the President?” or “Know your facts, so you do not get made fun of in public.”  On the other hand, we will also bemoan the reality that the President of the United States is a poor role model for our students, mangling even the most basic facts of chronology and technology.  We probably should discuss both of these angles with our students in the early days of the new school term.

            Of course, there is a deeper meaning here about the “uses of history.”  Trump, who had refashioned the longstanding July 4th celebration in Washington, D.C. into a more political event that literally put our military prowess on parade, was engaging in the timeworn tradition of using the American Revolution to highlight this nation’s exceptionalism: our come-from-behind victory in that war showed our pluck and the reasons we are a great power today.  To be sure, if he had been more historically accurate about the victory at Yorktown, Trump would have to have mentioned that the Continental Army relied on the French navy, and even thousands of French soldiers, to get Cornwallis to surrender.  But that would have been a most inconvenient message for a President who disdains alliances. 

            The entire incident is tailor-made for a lesson or two at the beginning of the school year introducing students to why history matters today, and in the process introducing them to the National Council for the Social Studies’ C3 (College, Career, Citizenship) framework: developing questions about the background of the speech; applying the disciplinary concepts of history to assess the meaning and accuracy of the President’s remarks; evaluating sources; and communicating conclusions to others by taking informed action.  Not only would such an analysis encourage students to identify the President’s simple errors of fact, but it would encourage them to apply broader criteria of critical analysis to his statements, here and elsewhere.

Trump on “The Squad”: Go back where you came from 

            But as it happens other, more recent, statements by President Trump have led public commentators to invoke historical lessons and comparisons even more widely and vehemently, in ways that tie directly to the insistence by the NCSS and the C3 framework that history is inextricably bound to current concerns, which we often refer to using the short-hand term “citizenship.”  I refer, of course, to the President’s disparaging remarks in mid-July about the four newly-elected Democratic and progressive Congressional representatives who have become known as “the squad”: Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  The President then added to his negative depictions of these women of color similar disparagement of the long-time African American Congressional representative from Baltimore, Elijah Cummings, and African American New York City activist and media commentator Al Sharpton.  The tweets and off-the-cuff remarks included exhortations to the four women representatives “go back to where you came from” (although three of them were born in the U.S. and the fourth is a naturalized American citizen); the descriptions of their districts and “countries” (sic) as rat-infested and crime-infested; and the quite open expression of the idea that the five members of Congress, although elected by their constituents, had no right to comment on American politics or Trump administration policies.  This combination, along with the President’s history of derisive comments on African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, and others have led many to deem these comments – and the President himself – racist. 

            Some of these commentators have already brought a welcome historical perspective to these issues, showing similarities to other episodes of racism and xenophobia in the American past.  Whether at the beginning of the new term, to underscore the importance of history in understanding current events, or at the particular points in a U.S. history curriculum when these topics arise, teachers should use such articles – and there will undoubtedly be more in coming weeks and months – to help students develop questions about U.S. society, to evaluate sources, from multiple viewpoints, and to communicate their conclusions based on this knowledge as the nation gears up for the 2020 elections – and as issues of race, ethnicity, and immigration continue to play such an outsize role in American life and politics.

            Here are a few such articles published in just the last three weeks, each of which could be easily incorporated in middle school, high school, and college classes.  Teachers should take care to critically examine with students the expertise of the authors (generally either op-ed columnists or professional historians) and how they shape a historical narrative (rightly or wrongly) in order to draw conclusions about the present.  These analytical skills, of course, are at the heart of the Common Core for language arts and social studies, as well as the C3 framework.  (Most of these articles are from the New York Times; dates and titles may differ slightly between print and on-line versions.  There is a monthly limit to the number of articles that an individual can access on-line without a subscription, but most libraries provide such access, too, on-line and/or in print.)


Trump’s Racism in Historical Context: Op-Ed Columnists

            When Trump, after the initial accusations in early July of racism, responded, “I don’t have a Racist bone in my body,” op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof fired back with “Racist to the Bone,” on July 18 (  After cataloguing Trump’s decades-long history of racist comments and actions (“a lifetime with a narrative arc of bigotry,” as he summarizes it), Kristof discusses “two of the most shameful strands” of American history which Trump’s comments and actions resemble.  These are the nativism that ran from the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in the 1840s to the internment of Japanese Americans a century later, and the attacks on political opponents which defined them as un-American, exemplified by McCarthyism.  (Kristof, to be sure, carefully notes the more open and tolerant aspects of American society and politics, as well.)

            Charles Blow, Kristof’s colleague as op-ed columnist, uses history in two ways in an equally scathing July 29 essay, with the self-explanatory title, “The Rot You Smell is a Racist POTUS” (  Blow focuses on Trump’s persistent use of the word “infested” to describe African American neighborhoods and non-white nations abroad, linking that to the racist tradition of “rendering nonwhite people as subhuman.”  Blow goes on to show that Trump’s habitual linking of African Americans to criminality harks back to 19th century attitudes of white native-born Americans that immigrants – almost all of them European – made northeast cities “crime-haunted and dangerous.”  Blow’s comparison of past and present, then, demolishes the racist linkage between criminality and race.


Historians on Trump’s Racism

            Yale historian David Blight, whose 2018 biography of Frederick Douglass won the Pulitzer Prize, contrasts the ideas and actions of Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party of the 1850s to 1870s with Trump and Republican leaders today, in “Lincoln’s Party is Long Gone”  (  Blight contrasts the prosecution of the Civil War by Lincoln’s party with the “safe haven for Confederate memory and neo-Confederate ideas” among today’s Republicans. He also counterposes the birthright citizenship and racially inclusive commitment to voting rights of the 14th and 15th Amendments with the party today “that has done its legal and illegal utmost to suppress the votes of brown, black, young and old people who do not tend to vote Republican.”  Blight’s rhetorical conceit here is to invite today’s Republican leaders (he personalizes it with House minority leader Keven McCarthy) to return to the views of their Party’s founders, although most readers will presumably conclude that such a reversion has no chance whatsoever.  Nevertheless, both the Common Core and the C3 framework emphasize that we explore with students the use of rhetorical strategies in writing and speaking, and one standard strategy is to urge people to live up to their alleged ideals.  (By the way, in my thirty years of teaching history, at both the secondary and college level, I have found that the question of why and when African Americans, in general, switched their loyalties from Republican to Democratic has been a historical puzzle of great interest to students.  The explanation, of course, leads to an equally puzzling picture of the Democratic Party from the late 1930s to the 1970s as simultaneously the party of Northern African Americans and Southern white segregationists.)

            Where Blight goes back to the 19th century for a historical analogy, Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, a specialist in recent U.S. history, goes back only to the 1960s and 1970s, with “How Trump is Worse than Wallace” (  (For those with especially long historical memories, we will specify that Kruse refers to George Wallace, not the 1940s Progressive Henry Wallace.)  Textbooks and survey curricula point out George Wallace’s naked racism in his 1960s efforts to stop integration, along with a brief mention, perhaps, of the Alabama governor’s 1968 third-party campaign for President which may have tipped the election from Hubert Humphrey to Richard Nixon.  Kruse goes in a different direction here, identifying a switch in Wallace’s approach beginning in 1968: foregoing overt racism for a more coded approach denouncing criminals, rioters, agitators, and federal bureaucrats.  In his campaign rallies making these appeals, says Kruse, Wallace depicted his targets in general terms, not as specific individuals.  That Trump, by contrast, identifies his targets by name makes his appeal more dangerous than Wallace, concludes Kruse, because Trump’s followers are more likely to engage in violence in response to his rallies and rhetoric.  The comparative framework here, drawn from a time within living memory of many teachers and professors, if not our students, is helpful both in illuminating the present and in highlighting both continuity and change between these two “populist” political figures whose appeal depended so much on white racial resentment.


Nativism Then and Now

            National Public Radio weighed in early on Trump’s exhortations to the Congresswomen to “go back where you came from,” with a July 15 story carrying the historically-inflected subtitle, “The Long Rhetorical Roots of Trump’s Racist Tweets” (  (An audio version of this article, with a slightly different text, is available through that same URL.)  Quoting American University historian Alan Kraut and University of Houston professor of rhetoric Jennifer Wingard, among others, author Colin Dwyer not only covers the same 19th century nativist ground as Kristof and Blow, but goes back to the anti-immigrant provisions of the 1798 Alien & Sedition Acts.  George Washington University professor Michael Cornfield states that the use of this phrase forms “a long, ugly strain in American history,” based in part on the idea that “the mixing of ethnicities and races would somehow aggravate issues.” 

            The New York Times, meanwhile, posted on-line and then printed an extraordinarily moving compendium of first-hand accounts by several dozen readers of having been told to “go back to where you came from” (  (These had been chosen out of 16,000 readers submissions, say the editors!)  The focus of the compendium is not historical, although many of the incidents described occurred decades ago, but the publication could be used in classes to place Trump’s recent remarks in their broader sociological context – or in any class discussion of immigration, diversity, and inclusion/exclusion.


Et Tu, Reagan and Nixon?

            Tim Naftali, a New York University historian who formerly directed the Nixon Presidential Library, linked Trump’s comments to breathtakingly racist remarks in a 1971 telephone conversation between Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.  The California governor referred to Tanzanian delegates to the United Nations as “those monkeys from those African countries – damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” (  The URL also includes a link to the audiotape itself of the conversation).  Nixon just laughed, and proceeded to repeat and embellish Reagan’s comments to numerous associates, alluding to the racist tropes of cannibalism, trees, and tails.  Naftali, who had only recently succeeded in declassifying this conversation, presents it as “a reminder that other presidents have subscribed to the racist belief that Africans or African Americans are somehow inferior.”  Even so, Trump’s recent remarks stand out, Naftali concludes: “The most novel aspect of President Donald Trump’s racist gibes isn’t that he said them, but that he said them in public.”

            To be sure, teachers, especially in earlier grades, may be wary of discussing these particular comments of Reagan and Nixon in the classroom, for fear of introducing hurtful stereotypes to students.


The Uses of History: Beyond Trump

            Of course, it is not only the comments and policies of Donald Trump which have given rise recently to the invocation of historical comparisons and analogies. 

            The well-known essayist Ian Buruma reacted to the selection of Britain’s new prime minister in late July with the blunt assessment: “Churchill Would Despise Boris Johnson” (  While not discounting Churchill’s imperialism and racial prejudices, or even Johnson’s superficial mimicking of some of Churchill’s attributes, Buruma emphasizes the World War II leader’s internationalism in contrast to the new prime minister’s myopic belief that Britain can go it alone in the modern world.

            New York Times deputy editor Clay Risen, author of the recently-released book, The Crowded Hour: Theodore Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and the Dawn of the American Century, contributed a thoughtful op-ed – published the same day as Buruma’s – entitled “Who Owns Theodore Roosevelt?” (  Risen shows the conflicting claims on TR’s legacy by left and right.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a leading “progressive” Democratic Presidential candidate, looks up to him for “taking on” big business, while Sen. Josh Hawley, a conservative Republican from Missouri, admires TR’s attacks on racial and ethnic “cosmopolitanism.”  (Risen quotes Vice President Mike Pence comparison of Trump to TR, as men of similar energy and “can-do spirit.” The bombast and impulsiveness of each do exhibit similarities, though TR’s war record and the premium he placed on actual engagement in the world might lead historians to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen’s withering comparison of Dan Quayle and John F. Kennedy: “We have studied Teddy Roosevelt, and Donald Triump is no Teddy Roosevelt.”) 

            TR’s preference for a strong federal government which helps direct the modern economy, in what TR called “the new nationalism,” poses a challenge to his right-wing admirers today, says Risen, but the former President’s nationalism – edging over into racism – and militarism poses an equal challenge to those on the left who would claim him as one of their own.  TR may be a particularly thorny example of a leader in terms of how his legacy can or should be appropriated for the present – Thomas Jefferson is probably the other major American figure in this category – but that is precisely what makes Risen’s analysis so useful in the classroom.  Teachers and professors should be emphasizing the difficulties and complications of “the lessons of history,” even as we analyze how people across the political spectrum try to “use” history – sometimes too simplistically, and sometimes with appropriate attention to nuance.


The Uses of History: Symbolic Sites of Speeches and Events

            Risen refers to TR’s 1910 “New Nationalism” speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, which leads to a further observation, beyond the bounds of his brief op-ed, that we could explore with our students.  That is, people use historical sites to associate themselves with certain historical figures and events.  (The best-known example, of course, is the 1963 March on Washington converging on the Lincoln Memorial, precisely 100 years after the Civil War president’s Emancipation Proclamation.)  Thus, TR chose Osawatomie quite deliberately as the site for that speech arguing for a stronger federal government.  The abolitionist John Brown had clashed with pro-slavery forces in that small Kansas town in 1856, convincing many Americans to support Republican efforts of the need for stronger federal power to stop slavery's spread.  Barack Obama, not coincidentally, and exhibiting the same attention to “using” history for present circumstances, returned to Osawatomie in 2011 to outline an economic program which explicitly echoed and amplified TR's 100-year-old message of the need to rein in the power of the wealthy and the corporations in order to provide economic opportunity to all ( 

            Elizabeth Warren herself did something similar with her announcement of her campaign for President this past winter.  In Lawrence, Massachusetts, “against a backdrop of old red brick mill buildings at the site of one of the nation’s most famous labor strikes,” as the New York Times account of the announcement put it, “she said workers now, like workers then, had had enough.”  That 1912 “Bread and Roses” textile strike, as it has come to be known, included many immigrants and many women, and Warren was quite direct in comparing the problems these workers faced due to a system “rigged by the wealthy and the well-connected” to the problems of most Americans today.  “Like the women of Lawrence,” she declared, “we are here to say enough is enough!”  (

            One might, of course, dispute many of the specific circumstances between Lawrence 1912 and the United States of today, and certainly we would wish to analyze with our students the pros and cons of all such uses, whether by Trump or Warren, or right and left more broadly.  But the general point is clear: efforts to use and shape history to serve current purposes are as old as history itself, and people of all political stripes have done so and continue to do so.  These historical analogies and comparisons, whether in text or in symbolic venues and iconography, form part of the nature and context of historical and contemporary sources, which we as teachers and professors have the privilege and obligation of analyzing with our students as part of “citizenship education.”