Trump's dangerous triumphalism
If President Trump has his way, the 2020 presidential election won't be a referendum on his actual performance in office — his ongoing failure to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting destruction of the economy — but about who gets to define American history, and how.
The president made his intentions clear during a pair of Independence Day weekend speeches, ordering the creation of a "Garden of Heroes" to contain monuments to his favorite historical figures — such as the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia — and vowing to defend existing monuments, as well as a triumphalist telling of America's history, from those who might tear them down.
"Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children," he said. "Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our Founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they are doing this, but some know exactly what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive. But no, the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them."
Ignore the hyperbole for a moment. At first glance, this is odd ground for Trump to fight on. He gives little sign of knowing American history, or much willingness to learn from it. He doesn't even seem to have much sense that history — to paraphrase the Hamilton song — has its eyes on him: Surely a man who feared the judgment of future generations might work harder to forestall the disaster that is currently befalling the country.
On another level, though, this makes perfect sense. Monuments are signifiers of (supposedly) great persons and great accomplishments. This president, of course, values the signifiers and symbols of success — crowd sizes, ratings, magazine covers, and gold furnishing as far as the eye can see — more than he wants to do any good, laudable work. He probably expects one day to find his own statue in the proposed Garden of Heroes.
Given his lack of accomplishments in office, and the downtrodden state of American morale, symbols and signifiers are all Trump has left. So it should be easy to dismiss the president's attempt to inflame the culture wars as cynical, empty, and desperate. But this stuff actually matters. After all, it is said that those who control the past control the future. So is America's story one of ever-escalating triumphs? Or are those triumphs leavened with hypocrisy and tragedy?
The triumphalist narrative is the one most Americans heard in school, and it is the one that makes us feel best about ourselves. It also seems like a form of cheating. It's a telling of history that wants credit for America's good intentions and ideals, but doesn't want to give commensurate weight to the country's crimes and failures. We're to revere the Founders for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," while shrugging at their decisions to make a nation where the pursuit of those ideals was unavailable to all people. This is history as hero worship — history as self-esteem training, participation trophies, and public relations. It is understandable why that kind of narrative would appeal to Trump, who similarly fashions his own story as one of ever-greater success, omitting the bankruptcies, lawsuits, and stiffed contractors along the way.
Which means it's ironic that the triumphalists and Trumpists accuse their opponents — those who are advocating for the removal of statues, renaming military bases, or even telling America's story from a different point of view — of "erasing history." Many of the iconoclasts (though not all of them) arguably have a fuller, often more nuanced understanding of what that history entails. They don't just count wins and virtues against the country's ledger, but also the losses, sins, and tradeoffs. And they do so because, for the most part, they really do want to make the country great. Yes, there are some "blame America" types out there who can't abide a good word about the country, but most folks believe and hope that the moral arc of the universe — and their country — bends toward justice.
The triumphalist narrative often undergirds a collective hubris that ends in disasters like Vietnam and Iraq. A country that is all-too-aware that it has failed to meet its ideals is somewhat more humble — and, hopefully, a bit less likely to stumble into deadly misadventures believing its own inherent goodness will fix everything. America's sins do not erase its virtues, but neither is the opposite true. The most sensible approach to understanding and applying history probably involves acknowledging our collective flaws while aspiring to meet the promise of our ideals.
That approach requires a sense of nuance. This president doesn't do nuance. There is little reason to believe he is truly interested in defending American history and values — the goal of his weekend speeches was to defend his own power. Absurdly, the country's story now includes Donald Trump as a key figure. That's reason enough to be skeptical of the triumphalist version of American history.
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