From sea to shining sea, historians across the U.S. were doing shots of whiskey, mixing stiff cocktails, and binge-eating chocolate in the middle of the day on Thursday—not to celebrate any sudden interest of our fellow citizens in learning about the American past, but to fortify ourselves to watch the White House Conference on American History. This event—held on Sept. 17 in the great hall of the National Archives building and livestreamed via the White House YouTube channel—was, like all things Trump, part infomercial, part self-indulgent whining, part 1980s nostalgia, and 100 percent anti-intellectual.
The same president who made up a Civil War battle in order to put a faux historical marker on his golf course, whose administration meddles with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to alter or suppress information, and who still denies the truth of climate change, trotted out a panel of quasi-experts, along with two actual historians—and, inexplicably, Ben Carson—to advance two ideas simultaneously. The panel argued the case that American historians (besides them, of course) have abandoned the Enlightenment ideals of the Founding Fathers to engage in free inquiry. At the same time, they proposed that historians should stop examining the complexities of figures from the American past, and instead offer our nation’s children simple heroes they could unreservedly admire. These two ideas are fundamentally incompatible—a fact that didn’t seem to bother the panelists.
We historians who are observing this regime rather than enabling it have long realized that the Trumpian approach to history is a muddle of confused hagiography. But how did Trump find a panel of so-called experts to back him up? As a historian who writes about the field of history’s place in the culture wars of the 1980s, I watched this conference and saw one long exercise in logrolling for the participants’ politically intertwined institutional commitments. They put their reputations as defenders of historical truth on the line for Trump’s sake, and in return they got to shill their publications, their think tanks, and their charter schools.
All of the panelists, as it turns out, were there to promote the adoption of American intellectual historian Wilfred McClay’s recently published American history textbook, Land of Hope—including McClay himself, whose presence on the panel, along with that of Civil War historian Allen Guelzo of Princeton, served as a scholarly fig leaf to cover the naked polemicism of the event.* Theodor Rebarber, a champion of charter schools and a critic of current K–12 approaches to history education, was there to argue that an entire curriculum based on McClay’s book, and funded from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, should be adopted—if not mandated—in all American schools.
At least four panelists, including the lead discussant Larry Arnn, have connections to Hillsdale College, the alma mater of many a cultural conservative and a school proudly hewing to “the classical curriculum” (as if there had ever been only one). And two of the panelists, historian Mary Grabar and political activist Peter Wood (not to be confused with the other Peter Wood, an actual historian), are affiliated with privately funded neoconservative organizations trying to mint their own academic legitimacy, Grabar with the Alexander Hamilton Institute and Wood with the National Association of Scholars.
This connection with the NAS is one of the things that gave me 1980s flashbacks. The first meeting of the NAS, held in 1988 and covered by the Washington Post, featured speakers complaining (as the Post summarized it) that academe was “dominated by administrators and faculty drawn from the radical left of the 1960s” and was committed to “a kind of curricular affirmative action.” The main declared purpose of the NAS in 1988, and the stated purpose of both the NAS and the AHI now, is to champion the centrality of “Western Civilization” as the bedrock of the college curriculum.
In 1988, the NAS decried Stanford University’s decision to slightly revise its Western Culture reading list to include some works by minorities and women; today, if we can judge by their contributions to this benighted “history” conference, privately funded scholars of the NAS and the AHI are still championing “Western Civilization” and a “Great Books” curriculum at the college level, still decrying those 1960s radicals, and still complaining that historical inquiries that seek to understand the lives and experiences of Americans who were not elite white males amount to curricular affirmative action.
At the White House event, Mary Grabar carried the old culture wars torch against “the left” on college campuses by railing against the popular (not scholarly!) A People’s History of the United States, written by Howard Zinn and first published in 1980. In this she joins such conservative thinkers as … Michael Kazin, a well-known leftist historian. Like most American historians, Kazin doesn’t regard Zinn’s book as an adequate or particularly reliable account of America’s past—which is why most American historians don’t assign this work to their students, and why we find it so singularly bizarre to see the book used as a cudgel against our field.
So while Grabar railed against a straw man textbook to score points against an imagined left cabal, Peter Wood condemned historians’ commitment to uncovering, examining, and honestly representing a diversity of viewpoints and historical actors who contributed to the American past. In a remix of the greatest hits of the 1980s culture wars, Wood argued that foregrounding diversity was antithetical to valuing Western civilization. Apparently, the great intellectual heritage upon which the fate of America depends is a singularly monotonous, monochromatic, and pathetically fragile strand of human experience that must be protected from exposure to new ideas, new questions, and new interlocutors. Sad!
Indeed, several panelists condemned the commitment of contemporary historians to diversity among those who produce scholarly history, as well as our interest in pursuing and reading diverse inquiries about many more subjects than have ever before been considered in the practice of professional history, as the true enemies of historical knowledge. In a scene that would warm the heart of William F. Buckley, an undergraduate from the University of Virginia who is active in her campus chapter of the Buckley-founded group Young Americans for Freedom raised the specter of current historical inquiry as grievance culture focusing on historical wrongs rather than historical triumphs, averring that she thought everyone should study “great ideas, not great injustices.” At the other end of the prestige ladder, Allen C. Guelzo, a Princeton historian, complained about the nefarious aims of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, focusing on the opening essay and ignoring the substantive work of the historians who contributed to the project.
That brings us to Ben Carson. Clearly, given the conference presenters’ stated annoyance at the idea of “diversity,” he could not have been there simply to mix up this all-white panel of six men and two women. Carson’s role, as it turns out, was to add a soupçon of Christian dominionism to the thin intellectual gruel on offer. After hearing all the panelists present their brief papers and engage in a scripted Q&A, Carson, noting the august surroundings in which the conference was taking place, within sight of the original signed copy of the Constitution, said with great feeling, “I believe that’s a divinely inspired document, and something that need not be tampered with.”
So much for lauding the Enlightenment view, which would favor reason over revelation. At this point, I am sure, those great American sons of the Enlightenment, those recently invoked Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson, who took a pair of scissors to the Bible to cut out all the parts that he felt to be untrue; James Madison, who championed both a diversity of factions and interests as the surest guarantee of a robustly representative government and an amendment process so that the Constitution could be tampered with as often as might be necessary; Benjamin Franklin, who asserted that the public purse should not be dedicated to any particular religion but rather guarantee the free expression of all—rolled over in their graves.
Finally, Trump himself disgraced the dais to deliver the Constitution Day keynote. He lauded the Constitution in slightly less theological, though much more chilling, terms than had Ben Carson, calling that document “the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western civilization.” He name-checked the familiar villains of current right-wing grievance politics: Howard Zinn, cancel culture, protesters who pull down statues, the 1619 Project, and “far-left demonstrators [who] have chanted the words ‘America was never great.’ ” On he rambled, sounding sedated, slurring his speech, championing his plan for mandatory “patriotic education”—another chilling nod to the fascist regimes of the 1930s.
And we historians who will not ever become mouthpieces or props for Trumpist propaganda, we whose professional ethos instead requires us to engage with the complexities of the American past honestly, fully, and fairly, poured ourselves another drink in the middle of yet another dark, dispiriting day.
Correction, Sept. 19, 2020: This piece originally misidentified historian Wilfred McClay as William McClay and misidentified his book Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story as Land of Promise.