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Jeff Sharlet on ‘Patriotic Education’

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No, Trump can’t rewrite school curriculums himself, but a thousand mini-Trumps on the nation’s school boards canSchoolchildren pledging allegiance in the 1950s. Photo: Lambert/Getty ImagesIt feels strange, as mourners gather outside the Supreme Court, to be writing of anything but the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the looming prospect that Donald Trump will seal the court into a new era of right-wing absolutism unprecedented in our lifetimes. It’s hard not to think of the future, of all that will be lost. But the past, too, is under threat. The news cycle moves so fast now that you may have already forgotten Thursday’s outrage, Trump’s announcement of a “1776 Commission” to promote a “patriotic education” that defines love of country as unquestioning loyalty to (some of) its leaders.

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No, Trump can’t rewrite school curriculums himself, but a thousand mini-Trumps on the nation’s school boards can

Jeff Sharlet on 'Patriotic Education'
Schoolchildren pledging allegiance in the 1950s. Photo: Lambert/Getty Images

It feels strange, as mourners gather outside the Supreme Court, to be writing of anything but the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the looming prospect that Donald Trump will seal the court into a new era of right-wing absolutism unprecedented in our lifetimes. It’s hard not to think of the future, of all that will be lost. But the past, too, is under threat. The news cycle moves so fast now that you may have already forgotten Thursday’s outrage, Trump’s announcement of a “1776 Commission” to promote a “patriotic education” that defines love of country as unquestioning loyalty to (some of) its leaders. But Trump — and the aides who drove the project — have more in mind than the current moment. “Patriotic education” is his historical hydroxychloroquine, a know-nothing attempt to cover up the past that challenges his present — the 1619 Project and generations of work by scholars and activists to recognize the centrality of white supremacy in American history and to topple it, just like the Confederacy’s stone tributes to treason and hate.

Liberals who want to dismiss Trump’s latest salvo as so much campaign fodder point to the fact that the federal government doesn’t set school curriculums — a failure yet again to grasp that Trumpism is a noxious movement as much or more than the work of a man; that, while no, Trump can’t instill “patriotic education” in the nation’s schools, a thousand mini-Trumps, school board strongmen, can; and that many more teachers will censor themselves for fear of running afoul of parents such as the one who, according to NPR, wrote that America-hating faculty will only grasp what Trump called “the magnificent truth” of our past “once they’re looking into the barrel of a gun.” Christian nationalists have been getting that gun ready for a long time. Patriotic education isn’t a last-minute campaign stunt of 2020. It’s the result of a decades-long effort, beginning with a modern Christian right that built its power not through national elections but through local school boards.

Some years ago, I took a course in “patriotic history,” subjecting myself to a term of textbooks such as United States History for Christian Schools and The American Republic for Christian Schools and the teachings of scholars such as William Federer, author of America’s God and Country. This oddly titled collection of quotations (the United States is its own country, no?) was compiled to demonstrate Federer’s thesis that America is a Christian nation, the separation of church and state described by Thomas Jefferson as a “wall” actually a myth. The wall is one-way, argued Federer then and Mike Pence now, meant to protect churches from the state but not the state from the churches of a nation made, in this vision of the past, by Christians, for Christians.

Lest that sound fringe, consider that last week the Trump-appointed head of the Federal Election Commission declared separation of church and state a “fallacy” and falsely claimed that John Adams deemed the Constitution Christian. (He did not.) Bringing this unsolicited history lesson into the present, the FEC chairman further signed on to the idea that the 2020 election he’s charged with overseeing is a “spiritual war” to return the United States to a “Christian moral foundation” — despite the explicit work of the founders to guarantee both freedom of and from religion.

“Patriotic education” — a merger of Stephen Miller’s fascism with Mike Pence’s fundamentalism — is both old and new. It is a return to the “great man” vision of history long taught (and still often taught) to our children, not to mention the biblical education that dominated American schools until the 1930s. But what once was an unexamined given of a white supremacist system is now a weapon, mobilized in explicit opposition to examination of slavery’s centrality in U.S. history. As Jean Guerrero writes in Hatemonger, her political biography of Trump commissar Stephen Miller, Trump’s intellectuals recognize the larger restructuring of knowledge necessary to the triumph of personality as power. For Miller and the cynics and believers who provide Trump with the targets to which he applies his invective, Trump isn’t everyman, he’s uberman. His “victories” — whether in fact or in declaration — are presented as “your” victories. You win when he wins, because whiteness wins. “That which God has given us,” as Trump proclaimed on July Fourth at Mount Rushmore. That speech, in which Trump paid tribute to the genocidal doctrine of Manifest Destiny, was widely seen as his historical turn, the moment in which his speechwriters began to retrofit “Make America Great Again” with a right-wing revisionist history that casts Trump’s ascendency as inevitable.

But Trump has long subscribed to a typically Trumpian take on what Nietzsche called “the uses and abuses of history.” Overlooked in 2016 was an early meeting with conservative evangelical leaders at which, according to Christian bestseller God’s Chaos Candidate by Trump evangelical adviser Lance Wallnau, Trump proposed his merger with the Christian right in “historical” terms: “We had such a long period of Christian consensus in our culture that we kind of got… spoiled. Is that the right word?” he asked. “We’ve had it easy as Christians for a long time in America. That’s been changing.” In public, he spoke of “our Christian heritage,” a phrase so seemingly absurd coming from his mouth that critics failed to take stock of the historical project embedded within it. Privately, he told this gathering of evangelical leaders that “Christians” — he’d picked up on their belief in themselves as the only ones worthy of the name — had gotten “soft,” that it was time to be hard, to concede nothing, to brand it all — past as well as future.

“Trump spoke their language and told their stories,” writes Harvard Divinity School scholar Lauren R. Kerby in her new book Saving History, a study of the booming Christian nationalist alt-history tourism industry. That is, he distilled Christian nationalism’s historical jeremiad of a fallen nation into a four-word formula for its certain restoration: “Make America Great Again.” At Mount Rushmore, and again at the National Archives on Thursday, he spoke of history not as the ongoing study of an only partly knowable past but as an “unstoppable” force. There is no debate to be had, no consideration, for instance, of the 1619 Project as part of a larger conversation — only variables to be plugged into a fundamentalist equation of history that always equals Trump.

The right’s parasitical genius is its repurposing of critiques of power for the sake of power’s glory.

So it was no surprise when Larry Arnn, PhD, president of conservative Hillsdale College, opened Thursday’s proceedings by quoting George Orwell’s 1984: “He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future.” Arnn, whose scholarly work on the “divine” origin of the Constitution is not as well known as his dismissive description of minority students as “dark ones,” was slightly misquoting Orwell, but such errors have become protocol for P.E. — patriotic education — instructors. When Federer of America’s God and Country tried to quote the same passage to me, he attributed it to Orson Welles — inadvertently apt, since Welles’ most famous film was Citizen Kane, a fictionalization of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, American jingoist forebear of Fox News. It is also, as it happens, one of Trump’s two favorite movies. (The other is The Godfather.) The right’s parasitical genius is its repurposing of critiques of power for the sake of power’s glory.

As much could be said for the entire project of “patriotic education.” Arnn argued, falsely, that schoolchildren are taught only the villainy of Jefferson — that he was a slave owner but not that he was critical of slavery. He was both, of course, even if the latter didn’t lead him to liberate the human beings he kept as private property. For Arnn, apparently, it’s the thought that counts. Patriotic education implicitly makes Jefferson’s critique of slavery into the only fact that matters with regard to the 600 Black lives Jefferson held in monstrous captivity across the span of his one “great” lifespan, just as in the speech that followed the panel, Trump declared the enshrinement of slavery in the Constitution as a kind of precondition for white America’s act of abolition. Freedom, in this telling, wasn’t a result of Black struggle; it was the fruit of the very white supremacy that necessitated it. Such is the same logic as the “American carnage” Trump now declares he will resolve.

Of course, this isn’t logic at all. It’s theology, a form of what Rousas John Rushdoony, the ultra-right father of the modern Christian education movement, viewed as “providential history” — history written with an eye for God’s interventions. Trump, of course, need not undertake such a study; in his mind, and that of many of his followers, he is the intervention. But American students will need to be taught to see such truths as clearly as the Chosen One. “Who, knowing the facts of our history,” begins a junior high textbook popular with the patriotic education set, “can doubt the U.S. has been a thought in the mind of God from all eternity?” Trump said so himself on Thursday, describing the inexorable process that brought America “your favorite president” as “the fulfillment of a thousand years of Western civilization.”

In Trump’s vision for patriotic education, the past is confirmation of the present. “Heritage,” like inheritance (say, $413 million, the amount bequeathed Trump by his father), like the “good genes” for which he praised his nearly all-white crowd in Minnesota last Friday night after a tirade about “patriotic education,” is as much a fundamentalist concept as biblical literalism. Your father is your father, and his father his. There is nothing to interpret, only a genealogical — and a racial — inheritance to claim.

Back during my own course in patriotic history, Bill Apelian, director of Bob Jones University Press, one of the biggest publishers of Christian educational materials, told me he liked to think of history as “heritage studies,” a chronology of “God’s working in man.” The same paradoxical logic as in Arnn’s deployment of 1984 comes into play in that idea: Patriotic education is objective and yet through divine influence on history’s heroes it is immune to the discovery of previous overlooked facts, such as Jefferson’s relationship with enslaved Sally Hemmings, as documented in 2009 by Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed, or George Washington’s pursuit of escaped slaves, as documented in 2017 by Rutgers historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Such are the challenges of scholars who actually work in archives like the one in which Trump staged his conference on American history, for whom actual evidence outweighs the myth of inevitability. But heritage studies is a cult of personality. History matters not for its progression of “fact, fact, fact” according to Christian nationalist educator Michael McHugh, but for the “key personalities” that determine it. Not social forces or popular movements, certainly not structural racism or anything that really acknowledges race at all. The “great man” view of history is, ultimately, a strongman’s view. History is merely the object upon which it gazes. He who looks, he who names — Trump, Trump, Trump, it’s all branding — is its hero and its true concern.

Trump doesn’t need to know the particulars of Christian nationalist history to know it points to him. He surely doesn’t know John Witherspoon, the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, from whom many Christian nationalist intellectuals derive a means of viewing divine rule as a democratic outcome. It is enough for Trump to be familiar with men such as General MacArthur, another “key personality” celebrated in nationalist education despite — or because of—the fact that he was fired for steering the U.S. toward what could have been World War III. That’s what “patriotic education” wants American boys to be. (Girls, meanwhile, are patriotic education’s parenthetical, not actors but acted upon, venerated by history’s heroes lest they be violated by its villains.) These men are in Trump’s terms “killers,” on the right side of history’s division of humanity into winners with “killer instincts” and losers without it. Or, more simply, the rulers and the ruled, who should be grateful for each other.

They are, they are. You see it at Trump’s rallies, arena-sized classes in patriotic education, rituals in mutual recognition at which the crowd sees greatness in Trump and he sees his greatness reflected in their eyes. Critics of Trumpism puzzle over how he can speak so brazenly of “mob violence” — Secretary of Health and Human Services Ben Carson opened the White House Conference on American History by framing it as a response to the “mob violence” of a “coordinated attack” on American history and humanity itself — when he thrills his masses to screaming rage and ecstasy. He praises those who “hit back,” he revels in grotesquely detailed accounts of hurt endured (by American martyrs, mostly female and blonde, victims of immigrant “animals”) and inflicted (by American warriors, mostly on Muslims). He unknowingly invokes “regeneration through violence,” as historian Richard Slotkin described “the mythology of the American frontier.” But when liberals cry hypocrisy, they reveal only the impoverishment of our schools and the danger of actually studying such history. “Mobs,” they should have learned, are the many, lacking a hero to unite them. “Our people,” as Trump calls those he says may be moved to violence, will move as one, agents not of social forces but the great man’s will. They will move against America’s enemies. They are not masses but a singular mass, and it sees what Trump sees, present, past, and future.

Miles Kimball
Miles Kimball is Professor of Economics and Survey Research at the University of Michigan. Politically, Miles is an independent who grew up in an apolitical family. He holds many strong opinions—open to revision in response to cogent arguments—that do not line up neatly with either the Republican or Democratic Party.

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