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Facing History In the Age of Trump

Tempting as it is to isolate Donald Trump as the worst president in history (and “worst” is putting it mildly . . . more like the most narcissistically infantile, the most Nazi-friendly), doing so achieves nothing beyond a fleeting sense of satisfaction.

Yeah, he’s scary. His supporters are scary. But he comes in a context.

Whether or not he’s impeached, or removed from office via the 25th Amendment, his effect on the country won’t go away. Trump can’t be undone, any more than an act of terror — or war — can be undone.

But maybe Trump can be addressed beyond a sense of outrage. Maybe he can foment, in spite of himself, not simply change, but national transformation. Realizing this, and seizing hold of the moment he has created, may be a far more effective way of dealing with his unhinged presidency than merely exuding endless shock.

This, of course, is how the mainstream media is dealing with the situation. Journalism has never been so yellow. Extra! Extra! Trump tweets a whopper! Read all about it!

The assumption quietly lurking behind such reporting is that the national interest is best served by containing the president’s outbursts and normalizing him: keeping him on script, making sure he utters nothing but clichés for the next forty months, and business proceeds as usual again.

But business is finding a way to proceed as usual anyway. The generals and the military-industrialists have their war in Afghanistan back, for instance. Trump may be a blowhard and a white supremacist — he may be an international laughingstock — but he’s no match for the dark forces that actually run the country.

What Trump does offer, however, is a means of disconnecting actual values from the sacred bullshit at the foundation of American “greatness.” This country is a paradox in progress. It was founded on a certain, modest belief in human equality; it was also founded on slavery, genocide and the exploitation of resources, human and otherwise. And sometimes Trump blurts out an obvious truth about this — with the audacity of a bratty kid who doesn’t know any better. It’s the basis of his popularity, such as it is.

Let’s revisit, for a moment, his post-Charlottesville rant. As he defended white supremacists and the statues of Confederate generals, he also tossed this bone out there:

“George Washington was a slave owner. . . . So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Good. Are we going to take down the statue? ‘Cause he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You are changing history; you’re changing culture.”

Taking down the statues of the Confederacy — these symbols of the moral righteousness of owning human chattel, which were put up during the height of the Jim Crow era to reinforce the new form that white dominance was taking — is long overdue, and Trump’s defense of them smacks of a bully’s cowardice. Nonetheless, his equating Washington and Jefferson with the likes of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee pokes at a serious national wound.

The typical mainstream rebuttal is to point out that the Founding Fathers are revered not because they owned slaves but because they gave us the Constitution and the nation. It’s as though the whole slave thing has been dealt with — but of course it hasn’t. What Trump did was violate the political correctness that locked into place half a century ago, shutting down the civil rights movement with an apologetic shrug: Slavery was wrong but everyone is equal now. Let’s move on, OK?

This is the default point of a Washington Post article on Trump’s remarks, in which numerous historians point out the differences between the Founding Fathers and the leaders of the Confederacy. In the process, however, the article stirs up some deep questions that it fails to address.

For instance, uh . . . “Twelve United States presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, owned slaves,” we’re told.

“Washington became a slave owner at age 11. More than 300 slaves lived on his Mount Vernon estate, and he owned 123 of them. Jefferson owned about 175 slaves when he wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Historians say one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, bore six children by him.

“But that does not mean they should be equated with people who worked to destroy the union they helped to create . . .”

No, perhaps not. But it does mean something. At the very least, it means this is a country founded on a remarkably contradictory notion of equality — an equality subservient to ownership and wealth, you might say. These are the devil’s own temptations, right, President Jefferson?

The consequences of this are not miniscule. At the very least, should we not be asking how these consequences still manifest themselves in our imperfect society? What institutions does this fact call into question? What about the presidency itself?

Eight presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, owned slaves while they were in office. The others were: James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk and Zachary Taylor. Four others owned slaves at one point in their lives, but not while they were president. They were: Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson and — oh, the irony — Ulysses S. Grant.

Trump has torn open this reality. He hasn’t done so in moral outrage but in obeisance to such power. He has revealed how far back in time his baseball-hat slogan — “Make America Great Again” — really goes. And he fits, a little too neatly, into the country’s historic racism and narcissistic sense of exceptionalism.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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