- Pundits keep saying that history will repudiate Donald Trump. But that can’t be guaranteed.
- American history often leaves out ugly truths and sanitizes the powerful.
- If we want history to say something, we need to fight for it in the present.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
I know you’ve been hearing this proclamation on network news and reading it in columns for years.
“History will judge us.” “History will repudiate Donald Trump and the January 6 rioters.” “History will see people like GOP Sen. Mitt Romney as heroes for bucking their own party.” “History will show that the Democrats were people who took a stand for our democracy and our values.”
This sounds good, but there is a danger in the notion that history will reveal the truth of our moment and sort the good from the bad. Past events don’t change, but the telling of history is a conversation that goes on for as long as we exist on this planet. In our own lifetimes Americans have discovered things they’ve forgotten, and rehabilitated individuals in our history who were once maligned.
If we want history to tell the true story of Donald Trump’s violent presidency long after we’re dead, we have to actively, vigilantly reinforce that truth while we’re alive. We cannot guarentee that Americans will get the story right after we’re gone.
A history of holes
The past does not change, but our telling of it does. Americans are famous for concealment by omission. It is only in the last year or two that there has been widespread awareness of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, for example, when racists destroyed “Black Wall Street” and murdered the people who lived there in a fit of organized rage.
That was only one of our country’s multiple genocides against Black Americans, but we don’t talk about a lot of those. They aren’t pleasant, and they do not fit in with the narrative that America is the longest standing multi-racial democracy in the world.
Just as it was easier for Americans in the past to forget the importance of the Tulsa Massacre, it could be easier for Americans in the future to forget about the ugliness that led to the January 6 attack on The Capitol.
It’s also possible that future Americans could manipulate the events around January 6. We already saw that happen immediately after the attack. Some right wing media tried to pin the blame on Antifa and polling indicates that now that what half of Republicans believe. It’s quite possible that future generations could believe that as well.
We already know that history changes when different people have the power to do the telling. Almost every president worth thinking about has been imagined and reimagined. President Ulysses S. Grant was maligned as a corrupt drunk for decades, in part by Americans who wanted to repudiate the Reconstruction and his support for civil rights for black Americans.
It is only the 21st century that historians have attempted to recover his heroism, not only as a general but also as a president. That’s not because he changed (obviously), but because we did. As our society embraced racial equality, it became clear to historians that our telling of Grant’s presidency was colored by white supremacy. Turns out, he may not even have been an alcoholic, he just liked to drink (Who among us?).
All of this is to say that we assume history will get things right, when history has actually showed us that it often gets things wrong. It is highly dependent on the people who write it, their power, and how they want us to see ourselves in a great American story.
See it, be it
The ability of history to be influenced and written in real time is why you can’t have a racist, a demagogue, or authoritarian in the White House — especially not one who knows the power of story as well as Trump. Given the chance to rewrite history these sorts of leaders will take it and distort it with lies.
The Trump administration attempted to do that in ways large and small. It tried to delay Harriet Tubman’s appearance on the $20 bill. That was both a way to conceal the importance of Tubman’s work rescuing slaves and serving in the military as a spy, and a way to preserve the glorification of President Andrew Jackson, a racist.
And then of course there was the “1776 Report” — a shining example of what happens when a young man who spends too much time in racist chatrooms tries to write a history thesis after never having been to class or done the reading. This report, published on the White House website on January 18, was the Trump administration’s attempt at “patriotic education,” a retelling of our history that that minimized the importance and brutality of slavery, and demonized the American left.
Upon taking office, the Biden administration promptly removed it. That’s the kind of vigilance we need to maintain over the telling of what happened on January 6 and for the four years that proceeded it. There are powerful, relentless forces in this country that will wish to conceal it, or distort it to glorification. It is up to us, right now and in the future, to make sure that they do not have their say.