The only thing I remember from kindergarten (other than the distinctive smell of paste) was the red, white and blue ribbon the teacher gave me when I correctly answered a question about American history, thus beginning my lifelong love affair with learning about America’s past. I think the teacher’s question was about George Washington who, I was shocked to learn from President Trump the other day, was exactly like, and no better than, secessionist leaders Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. Who knew?
With apologies to George Santayana, those who do not learn history are doomed to a whole lot more than just repeating it. They are also condemned to stumble through their lives in a state of perpetual amnesia, never knowing who they are, where they came from or what happened the day before yesterday. We do not study history merely to avoid repeating its costly mistakes. We study history for the sense of wonderment it provides, for the saving grace of humility it can bestow, and for the events, ideas and people it offers to us as objects of veneration.
This might be my own personal quirk, but my first clue (I only needed one) that Donald Trump was manifestly unfit for the presidency was his appalling ignorance of American history. Clueless about history, what at the end of the day does Trump value or revere? Is anything sacred? Is there anything worth dying for? Being the biggest, strongest and best – i.e. “winners” – isn’t what makes America “exceptional.” I doubt Trump knows that.
When Trump isn’t mangling history, or lying about it, he behaves as if each historical nugget he does manage to unearth marks him as the very first person in the unabridged record of mankind to have learned this.
Thus, at meeting of the National Republican Congressional Committee last March, Trump thought he would wow the crowd with this cringe-worthy late-breaking bulletin: “Most people don’t even know [Lincoln] was a Republican. Right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that. We have to build that up a little more.”
We’ll be sure to get on that right away, Prez.
In her New York Times column today, Gail Collins correctly warns that we are just beginning to understand how critical it is for America’s commander-in-chief to have at least a minimal command of American history – and this one, says Collins, only recently discovered that he and Abraham Lincoln shared the same party. Who knew?
I wonder what Trump would do with the information that the Founding Father’s core objective when writing the US Constitution was to eradicate to the greatest extent possible the corruption of human selfishness and self-dealing. These defects always stand as the principal impediments to the public interest, which Walter Lippmann once defined as that which “men would choose if they saw clearly, thought rationally and acted disinterestedly and benevolently.”
The Founders hoped that checks and balances, separation of powers and other constitutional safeguards might serve as artificial antidotes for the infirmities of human nature. As James Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers: “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice.”
Would knowing this history persuade Donald Trump to undertake even a moment of self-reflection to account for those self-centered and ego-driven flaws in his own character at odds with the founding aspirations of the republic? Or, would Trump think putting the public’s interest ahead of their own marked the Founding Fathers as losers and chumps?
Sadly, I think we know the answer.