Back in September 2020, soon-to-be former President Donald Trump formed a “1776 Commission,” charging it with the following little mission: counter the New York Times’ 1619 Project; refute the entire field of critical race theory; reverse the “toxic propaganda” currently produced by most history professors and educators; and promote something called “patriotic education.” The commission’s 1776 Report came out on Monday—on Martin Luther King Jr. Day!—and quickly rendered our morning fun with the bizarre list of names to be included in the “National Garden of American Heroes” a distant memory.
I read the whole Report, in all its two-spaces-after-a-period glory, and I need a shower—no, a car wash. As historian David Astin Walsh, who writes about the 20th century American right, noted on Twitter: “In tone the 1776 Report was identical to a John Birch Society pamphlet”—and boy, do I feel like I read one. The document is a screed forwarded by a Fox-poisoned aunt, one that might best be politely ignored. “I feel so uncomfortable even bringing attention to this mess,” historian David Blight, speaking for us all, wrote.
Over the last four years, Historian Twitter has become finely honed at responding to Trump’s madness, and it dutifully jumped into action. Torsten Kathke rounded up the bios of the various commission members and found only two people with American history–adjacent expertise; many are in the leadership of far-right institutions like Patrick Henry College and College of the Ozarks. (This observation created an evergreen little subdebate over whether the writers’ lack of expertise should matter.) Next, Courtney Thompson ran the text through the plagiarism identification software Turnitin and found some passages that looked suspect—then figured out that they were probably self-plagiarized. (This was confirmed by Politico’s Tina Nyugen on Tuesday afternoon.) Did we mention the thing has zero footnotes, in any style?
All of this collegial byplay was far more entertaining than reading this disgusting, confusing document, which is one long argument for white Americans’ permanent innocence. The basics: The ideas the country was founded on were Good; in fact, they were, and remain, Perfect, Eternal Truths. Therefore, nobody who really believed in those ideas could do anything wrong! (No racist bones here!) Therefore, the fact that some founders said privately that they believed slavery was evil, yet continued to hold people in bondage, was not evidence of their hypocrisy, but of their inherent righteousness. Therefore, “the foundation of our Republic” (yes, this document is sure to use the word Republic, itself a dog whistle) “planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America.” If it took a few more decades for this “plan” to end slavery gradually to come to fruition, so what? As for Native history, that’s a simple circle to square: It’s just not in here. Not a word.
The passive voice gets a workout, trying to explain away everything bad in our history. “Despite the determined efforts of the postwar Reconstruction Congress to establish civil equality for freed slaves,” the report intones, “the postbellum South ended up devolving into a system that was hardly better than slavery.” Which parts of the Congress wanted civil equality? Which parts of the government fought against this? Who, in the South, made it “devolve” into this terrible new “system”? These invisible actors just float around, unnamed.
The document makes a truly mind-blowing connection between the racist ideology of John C. Calhoun—yes, that one!—and … wait for it … everyone who has ever argued that certain groups in America have had it rougher than others, or that membership in those groups disadvantages Americans born today. “This is the most insidious paragraph of that 1776 tirade,” wrote Imani Perry, pointing to a passage that describes how the civil rights movement, a good idea at the start, “was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders.” The movement’s worst sin, according to the writers, was this claim for “group rights.” As Perry points out, this paragraph is even more awful by the (intentional? unintentional? who can say!) slippage the writers make between the founders of the country and of the civil rights movement—people who did not accept the ideals of the original founders without criticizing them.
Right-wing demonization of the reformers who worked for the causes of public health, sanitation, and other improvements of everyday life during the progressive era is not new, but to see it codified in an official document is chilling—especially at a time when we seem to be backsliding on beliefs about science’s usefulness for the public good, and shedding regulations left and right. The identification of the progressive era as the time when everything started going wrong feels less obviously scandalous than the connection between John C. Calhoun and civil rights, but it’s significant. “Perhaps the biggest tell in the 1776 Report is that it lists ‘Progressivism’ along with ‘Slavery’ and ‘Fascism’ in its list of ‘challenges to America’s principles,’ ” Tom Sugrue pointed out. “Time to rewrite my lectures to say that ending child labor and regulating meatpacking = Hitlerism.”
The progressives were often believers in eugenics, as every historian knows and (hopefully) teaches. But in the commission’s cosmology, while the founders can be forgiven for preaching piety and practicing slavery, those complex progressives are beyond the pale. After all, they created “what amounts to a fourth branch of government called at times the bureaucracy or the administrative state.” By doing so, they also contributed to the country’s “high standards of living,” lauded elsewhere in the report—but that’s neither here nor there.
What’s scariest of all, the report is profoundly patronizing—borderline dehumanizing—to anybody who might disagree with its vision of what American history is about. In the report’s framing, any American—not just today, but throughout the centuries—who doesn’t think that this view of American history is correct has been deluded by some outside force, or is simply corrupt and power-seeking. In a recent column for the New York Times, my former colleague Jamelle Bouie wrote about the longtime project to delegitimize every Democratic vote through claims of “voter fraud.” This feels like a parallel project and an insanely dangerous one. If there is no other belief about American history but this, what choice do we have?
What’s a person who wants to speak publicly of America’s room for improvement to do? A citizen’s desire to improve upon her country’s record can be accepted, but only if the desire for improvement fits in particular parameters. The document honors right-wing movements by bothsides-ing them into relationship with actually good things that reformers have done. “There is room in the Constitution for significant change and reform,” the authors write. “Great reforms—like abolition, women’s suffrage, anti-Communism, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Pro-Life Movement—have often come forward that improve our dedication” … blah, blah, blah. What did I just read?
There’s surely a lot to laugh at in a report that calls John C. Calhoun “perhaps the leading forerunner of identity politics” and waves centuries of humanities scholarship away with an airy sentence describing how we know which works of philosophy, political thought, literature, history, oratory, and art are “timeless” and should be taught in schools: “Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, these works are not terribly difficult to identify.” And it’s tempting to dismiss all this badness, landing in our laps two days before Inauguration Day, as just another bullet dodged.
But some sounded a note of caution. This report, Diana Butler Bass argued, is “a huge gift” to white evangelical Trump supporters, who have long taught this vision of history to children who are enrolled in Christian schools or home-schooled. As educator and historian Kevin Levin pointed out: “The fact that it was published by The White House gives this project a heightened level of legitimacy. Those of us who work in history education ignore it at our own peril.” Tom Sugrue added: “The 1776 Report will undoubtedly shape deliberations about history and social studies education at the local and state levels, especially in places where right-wing activists have taken over educational policymaking.” And Ananya Chakravarti told a cautionary tale, describing how a loss of belief in evidence-based history and science in India over the last two decades has led to a “basic distrust of science and academic knowledge.”
What can historians do about a danger signal as strong as the 1776 Report? “More important than an op-ed in the NYTimes,” Chakravarti said, “is producing a handbook for people to fight this report in local school board elections.” It’s a good reminder that Trump may leave tomorrow, but the fever swamp that gave us the 1776 Report is going nowhere.