While the American public eyed the White House on Election Day with paranoia, another one of Trump’s last-ditch effort executive orders slipped through the cracks. In a late September conference, Trump announced he would be creating a more “patriotic” history curriculum. In his proclamation made from the steps of the National Archive, Trump stated he would establish the “1776 Commission.” This executive order would unlock funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities to provide grants for the development of a new and more “pro-American” curriculum.
The new curriculum is designed to depict the Founding Fathers of the nation in a more explicitly positive light, preventing any nuanced discussions surrounding their influence on America. Trump drafted the Commission in rebuke of the New York Times 1619 Project, an alternative curriculum that reframes American history around the arrival of slaves in the U.S. His address also attacked the late historian Howard Zinn, responsible for the popularization of the bottom-up approach to history, as well as the “radical left” as a whole, accusing them of “(bullying) Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage and their very way of life.”
Trump’s Commission is anticipated to take inspiration from conservative historian Wilfred M. McClay’s book Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, a book which has been praised by conservative politicians and historians and deplored by more left-leaning academics. Historian and professor Michael Kazin remarked that McClay’s history book, “ignores most social movements,” as well as gives “silent treatment to the long struggle for Black freedom.” While the book itself does not use explicit forms of racism in its pages, McClay himself has been quite vocal with his views on race relations, dubbing the recent removal of Confederate statues, “a blind and abstract hatred completely devoid of any impulse of charity towards others.”
Modeling America’s new history curriculum after a historian with an implied anti-Black bias is just one among many warning signs that this executive order is a defensive response to the Black Lives Matter movement. However, altering school curriculums is not Trump’s first attempt at omitting racial injustice from public discourse. Shortly before his Constitution Day speech, Trump passed an executive order banning racial sensitivity training sessions in federal contracting, saying that they were “efforts to indoctrinate government employees with divisive and harmful sex and race-based ideologies.” In reality, these trainings were intended to inform federal contract employees of the identity politics in play within the workforce, which would create a less hostile federal work environment. Trump’s ban on racial sensitivity training is essentially a ban on conversations about racism in the workforce, a ban that has since made its way into public education.
While this executive order may be tossed out once Trump leaves office, it holds a dangerous rhetorical weight that has been exploited by conservative politicians for decades. The language of the executive order itself is an attempt to villainize the recent resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement that has brought a wave of reckoning with American history and a call for American accountability in regards to its racist history. This accountability is a threat to the conservative camp, as it forces them to acknowledge their ideological ties to the oppression being opposed by Black Lives Matter. While Trump’s executive order was unique in timing, its rhetoric and intentions follow a longstanding trend of conservative censorship for the sake of self-preservation.
Trump’s belief that “students are now taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes, but rather villains,” is, in reality, a recycled notion used by conservatives from the 1920s and beyond. Following the Red Scare and communist-induced paranoia, conservative lawmakers called for a more conservative history curriculum that drove home the “American Experiment” and the great success of capitalism. While the main goal of this curriculum change was to defend against communist ideology, it also created a fog around the injustices experienced by victims of the Red Scare who were suspected of being communist for completely faulty reasons. A pro-capitalistic curriculum would silence the many people who became unemployed, publicly shamed, and harassed for suspected communist sympathies by justifying the need to harass citizens in the name of safety for the children absorbing this curriculum.
A similar push for a more conservative curriculum was made in the 1960s amidst the Supreme Court decision to end state-sponsored prayer. This loss for Christian conservatives, coupled with the civic unrest within the Black Power Movement, the anti-war movement, and the rising LGBTQ+ population, contributed to a sense of vulnerability among conservative lawmakers. This led to yet another national push for a more conservative curriculum.
It seems that this trend of reconstructing and censoring history curriculum follows times of civic unrest, moments in history in which marginalized voices squeeze through the cracks and make their voices heard. The push to reframe history reveals that the true nature of conservatism is one shrouded in evasion of accountability for the sake of remaining virtuous in the eyes of the public. The constant conservative push to erase race relations from history curricula points to unresolved guilt within the conservative camp, an unspoken understanding that conservative ideology directly fuels America’s racist history and present.
The conservative pursuit of the public education system is a double-pronged tactic to remain in power. It is meant to erase the history of oppression caused by conservative ideology in action while simultaneously antagonizing the marginalized communities. This is what makes Trump’s November 2 executive order frightening. It is not necessary for the executive order to be completely carried out for the desired effect to occur. Trump’s intent was not to create and enact a more “patriotic” curriculum. The intent was to antagonize the Black Lives Matter movement while simultaneously calling for the erasure of the history they wish to be brought to life. This executive order was Trumpian conservatism’s last-ditch effort to maintain the image of virtue while avoiding accountability. This tactic existed prior to Trump, and it will likely return again post-Trump. Trump’s assertion on the steps of the National Archive that nuanced conversations about race in history curricula are an attempt to, “scare you out of speaking the truth,” is merely a dog-whistle tactic. This tact is meant to fuel the conservative push to leave their direct association with racial injustice in the dark.
Categories: Domestic Affairs