A medieval historian explains how Trump is trying to control narratives of the past with 'nostalgia for a fabricated vision' of America
Donald Trump has responded to a public health emergency affecting the entire American public with a startling combination of ignorance, arrogance and total incompetence. His two closest advisers, Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, are a white supremacist and real-estate plutocrat, respectively, with no expertise in public health, viral biology or epidemiology.
Trump has commanded that scientists and other experts whom he deems insufficiently loyal should be systematically purged from the federal government. As part of his racist vendetta against Barack Obama's administration, federal programs designed to help prevent pandemics and other diseases, both in America and around the world, were terminated. Because Donald Trump and other Republicans have no conception of the public good, the federal government has been hollowed out, leaving it crippled in its ability to respond to a large-scale public crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic.
Ultimately, lies are the connective tissue of the Trump regime's ineffective and irresponsible response to the coronavirus pandemic.
To wit: CNN has documented at least 28 times when the Trump administration has imperiled the health and safety of the American people by lying about the coronavirus pandemic.
These lies are predictable. Authoritarian regimes lie in order to confuse the public and (in theory) to prevent or blunt resistance. Authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump – who himself has publicly lied at least 16,000 times since becoming president – lie to soothe their malignant narcissism and other mental health problems. Lies also help authoritarians to maintain control over their servants and followers.
In a public health crisis, lies are lethal. The Trump administration's lies about the coronavirus and related matters are likely to kill people, if they have not done so already.
I recently spoke with historian and journalist David Perry about the urgent question of how America recovers from Trump's regime of lies. Perry's work has appeared in many publications, including the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Atlantic, CNN.com, The Guardian, The Nation, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and others.
Perry explained why, in his view, the United States will ultimately need a truth commission to begin healing from the harm done to the country by the Trump administration's lies and systematic abuses of the rule of law, not to mention its criminality, corruption and other assaults on democratic norms and values. Such a commission would also be a necessary first step in documenting the Trump regime's crimes and assaults on truth, reality and America's collective memory.
Perry also outlined how the Trump regime's assault on the truth serves another agenda: enabling increasing cruelty against nonwhite Americans, black and brown immigrants and other "racial undesirables" through a campaign of "soft ethnic cleansing."
How are you feeling in this fourth year of the Age of Trump?
Like everyone, I am a bit exhausted. Many of us are ready to figure out what the next phase of politics looks like. I know that every day I encounter people with whom I should be allies, and I get angry about something and we break up. We break up on social media and we block each other. There is a kind of exhausting fracturing that is happening in America right now. I believe much of that has to do with how authoritarianism breaks a person down.
What is the Age of Trump doing to America's collective memory? Navigating this state of malignant reality and the Trump regime's ongoing torrent of lies is not healthy.
In the context of history, there is nothing particularly unusual about Donald Trump in terms of 20th- and 21st-century authoritarianism. I'm a medieval historian. Thus, I can draw obvious analogies between Trump and kings and emperors and similar types of rulers in history. So yes, I think it helps us to think about Trump surrounded by a court, rather than a bureaucracy, with courtiers who are trying to please him. But ultimately Trump is governing in a very typical kind of 20th- and 21st-century authoritarian way. That includes the corruption, the manipulation of the judicial system, his media messaging, and also the psychological effects that Trump and his authoritarian regime have on the American people. To say that Trump is not unusual is not to diminish the challenge and threat he represents.
Trump's presidency has forced many actual experts, such as historians, political scientists, sociologists, philosophers and others, to find a public voice. That is very unusual in America. These experts have been sounding the alarm about the Trump regime yet, for the most part, reporters and pundits are very late in explaining the truth about the harm that Trump and his agents have been doing to America. Why have so many traditional voices in the establishment news media been so slow to respond to what is so obvious to others?
We are in an amazing moment in terms of the public discourse and the prominent role of experts. There is a large group of powerful people in American society who would like to believe that Trump's rise to power and the presidency are just some type of blip or outlier that will end. These same elites did not think that Trump would be elected, and they made a lot of bad bets based on that assumption. They assumed he would lose. Former FBI Director James Comey, the New York Times and others fall into that group.
These powerful voices thought that Trump would lose and America would just go right back to where we were in 2015, with a Democratic president who has to deal with a hostile Republican Congress. There are many people invested in that arrangement, who actually believe that is the best form of American government. Those people work in legacy news media — but more importantly, their bosses represent powerful interests who support the status quo, and Trump unsettled their priors.
I describe such people as "hope peddlers." Do you believe they actually know the truth about Trump but are just choosing to downplay the crisis? Or do they really believe the overly hopeful fictions about American society they tell the public?
I try not to spend too much time getting into their heads. Instead I focus on what they are doing and saying, and the consequences of what they do and say. For example, I do not care what James Comey's motivations were in his behavior. I care about the harm that he's done to the country. There should in turn be consequences for Comey, in terms of how much his public voice and recommendations are trusted in the future. I apply that to racism as well. I'm not interested in how people feel in their hearts or whether they "have a racist bone in their body." Racism is as much a thing as it is an action. Racism is a performance, and people perform racism every time they vote for Donald Trump.
If you were to craft a narrative about the Age of Trump, what would it look like?
We don't know yet. For example, during Trump's impeachment people kept saying, "History will show." But that is not how history really works. I do take some hope from how every time the American people have voted [since 2016], they have voted resoundingly against Trump. He is not very popular. In a free and fair election, I believe Trump would lose by a huge margin. But the harsh truth is that we are not going to have a free and fair election in America. We are far away from having a full story about this moment with Trump as president. There are many things that are going to happen. That is especially true given how Donald Trump is now unleashed, knowing that, post-impeachment, there is no accountability. Donald Trump will start a war to try to win the 2020 election. He will order arrests of people if he thinks that his power is in jeopardy. We have also learned from Donald Trump's presidency that America's political institutions are much weaker than we were told previously.
As a historian, what do you see and understand about the Age of Trump that others may not?
I study the ways in which people change narratives about the past in order to serve their interests in the present and the future. There is much nostalgia at present on both the right and the left, among the pro-Trump forces and the anti-Trump forces.
There is Trump and his supporters' nostalgia for a fabricated vision of 1950s America. This also includes an incorrect, nostalgia-colored vision of the American Civil War. The struggles of memory around the Civil War are critical to understanding Trumpism. On the other hand, there is also a type of nostalgia on the left, a belief that America is just fine, and that the institutions will be just fine after Trump is gone. The left believes that if we just convince people to vote, everything will be OK. The left also thinks that we as Americans can somehow vote our way back to freedom. But that narrative is not really holding up when confronted by the facts of Trumpism. We as Americans must be very alert to the types of stories about our past and present and future that are being told in this moment with Trump.
That is one of the reasons that America will need truth commissions after Donald Trump's presidency, in order to gain clarity and really understand all that has happened under his rule.
One little-reported story is that the Trump administration has mandated neoclassicism as the official architectural style for federal buildings. That is also connected to how the Trump regime has been systematically lying and altering public records in the National Archives and elsewhere to literally rewrite history. How are those moves connected?
There is an attempt to ensure that all federal buildings will be built in a neoclassical style. No more modernism, no more subtle architectural innovation. This is ultimately about the idea of America and "Western civilization." But that language, especially as used by the Trump administration, has a very specific white supremacist framing. "Western civilization" is a term that came into being in the age of European colonialism and imperialism as a way of creating a kind of past for European whiteness and then asserting it as the dominant and most advanced heritage on the planet. That logic helped to justify European imperialism.
Within that narrative, people cherry-pick. They take Egypt and they take Mesopotamia and they take only some parts of Persia and then they take Greece and Rome, and then they keep sliding out of the Mediterranean up into Northern Europe. They then proclaim that as the "true" European heritage. And in the United States there is the specific claim that America is based upon some type of "Judeo-Christian" Western tradition.
This neoclassical mandate is yet another example of Trumpism trying to assert control not only of the present, but also control of narratives about the past.
The global New Right is fighting a full spectrum battle to shape public memory. This even includes video games and other types of media which they believe should not depict a "diverse" European and American past. This literal whitewashing of history is prefaced on an assumption that so-called Western civilization is superior and the "best" in human history. How do you expose the incorrect assumptions and lies upon which those fantasies rest?
I do that work in several ways. I focus on accuracy and narrative. The accuracy is that there is no such thing as "the West." The idea of a sealed Europe that's a hegemonic, patriarchal white space is just false. That is just not true about the Middle Ages.
One cannot fact-check your way out of white supremacy. But that doesn't mean one should not in fact intervene against white supremacy on a factual level. And then the other way is to try to make the story visible, and by doing so to talk about 18th-century books on the Anglo-Saxons. That is another place where there are big arguments at present about how the very language of "Anglo-Saxon" and "Nordic" reveal how modern notions of race were and are constructed.
This is connected to the recent controversy about the New York Times' "1619 Project," about the history of white-on-black chattel slavery.
The people, almost all white, who are marching to preserve early 20th-century cheap Confederate statues, and who say "Get over the past" to black Americans, are obviously either in denial or not very critical. Again, I do not care what is in their hearts. Their hypocrisy is obvious. It's about hegemony. Conservatives are trying to erase difference. Therefore, in terms of the color line, they want to claim that there is only one true narrative about American history — and their story is the only one they want told. No one who participated in the 1619 Project was saying, "This is the only way to talk about American history".
All those scholars were arguing is, "What we are discussing is true and it is a piece of a larger story that has not largely been told to the public." Speaking as a historian there is nothing objectionable about such a mission.
You and others — myself included — have been arguing for truth and reconciliation commissions in America as a way of confronting the impact and harm done by the Trump regime. What would that look like in practice?
We're in a moment in which the corruption of the government is running so deep and so wide and in so many different ways that there is not going to be any one pathway out of it. To look forward and not back will just enable people to continue to steal and will enable distrust in institutions.
In America, we need to have a system that is dedicated to exposing the truth. This process of truth-telling must be based upon some principles: "These are the things that happened. Here are the records. Here are the documents. Here are the things we know that have been altered, that we've been able to track down." Consider how the Trump administration changed the photo of his 2016 inauguration. That was only discovered by happenstance.
How many other things have been changed that the American people and the world do not know about? And that they won't know about unless dedicated resources and investigators go through receipts, go through emails, look at images and check for documents? How will we know? The American people and the world must know the truth.
What would this look like in practice? Past presidents have formed these commissions. The president sets the agenda at the beginning and gives them their powers and a budget. The 9/11 Commission is one example. There are many examples of truth commissions throughout America's history.
I would prefer a truth commission that is really dedicated to looking at the functioning of the federal government. But this commission must be independent, with enforceable subpoena power and an ample budget for investigators who would go through documents, figure out where they needed to have testimony and bring people in. And all the testimony is available on public. The truth commission's work should be streamed on C-SPAN and other media outlets. Their discoveries must be put on the record. Afterward, we as a country can fight about what it all means.
Any truth and reconciliation commission would also need to examine the human rights abuses and other crimes of the Trump regime. The commission should also try to explain why so many millions of white Americans were willing to support Trump's authoritarianism, white supremacy, nativism, general cruelty and other evil. The Age of Trump is a moral crisis that must be exposed, so such a thing does not take place again.
I believe that a future president should order that: "I want every document that hasn't been shredded, every email we can find, including the ones that have been deleted in which Steven Miller proposed the family separation policy. We are going to put them on the internet, We're going to put these discoveries in archives. We're going to put them in the Library of Congress."
I do not know if a truth and reconciliation commission's findings would result in Donald Trump being arrested for obstruction of justice or some other crimes. The impeachment records and related documents all need to be released. The Democrats need to campaign on a promise that all the evidence related to the Trump administration is going to be made public.
The result should be that we as a country can say, "Here's the truth. Here's the evidence that we know. Even though the argument about what it means and what should happen will be bitter, and the divisions in America will not be eased, at least there will be a shared narrative and facts."
How does Trump's proposed 2021 federal budget fit within your model of authoritarianism?
Presidential budgets are a statement of values. They never go into full effect, even when they have both houses of Congress in their pockets. Budgets are negotiating positions. Therefore, when we see a presidential budget do things such as take a billion dollars out of Medicaid, that is a preference for what Trump wants. The Trump administration also sees no role for the federal government to promote the spread of knowledge or the arts. Independent knowledge production is a threat to authoritarianism. When you empower scholars to be independent, that does not serve the authoritarian state. Authoritarians only want intellectuals and artists who are beholden to the state and involved in propaganda.
I use this language intentionally and with full knowledge of the weight of history that comes with it. When I look at Trump's budget and the priorities and policies of the Republican Party more generally, it is clear to me that they want to "kill the useless eaters." As a historian, is that framing appropriate?
Donald Trump's and the Republican Party's 2021 budget is going to kill people. There are people dying in cages right now. I am not sure if the Trump administration wants to kill off the "useless eaters" but they are for sure going to kill people. Certainly, since Reagan if not Goldwater, there's been a narrative in America — especially among the right — of the "useless poor" versus the "worthy poor." Of course that narrative involves race. The so-called deserving poor are white rural people. Black urban people are not deserving of assistance. Latino immigrant communities are also not deserving of help.
The Republican Party under Trump is going all-in on ethnic cleansing. Trump and the Republicans want to create a whiter America where white people are the majority and forever remain in power. Trump and the Republicans can accomplish that goal by incarcerating nonwhite people and then not letting them vote, but still counting them for the census. The goal of a white America can also be accomplished by deporting nonwhite people. It can happen by scaring nonwhite people into silence. It can be made real by impoverishing people so that they cannot be engaged in civic life. That includes marginalized groups in general, such as disabled people who rely on federal intervention for basic support.
"Ethnic cleansing" is a language that we as Americans should be using more. When I talk about ethnic cleansing and Trump and the Republicans and the right wing more generally, people tell me I am being too shrill, that there are no forced marches and the other horrors commonly associated with ethnic cleansing. In response, I tell those naysayers, "Well, not yet."