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A Civil War Historian Responds to Trump

[ 86 ] May 3, 2017 |

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A journalist called up David Blight, one of the greatest living historians of the Civil War, and asked him what he thought of Trump’s Andrew Jackson comments. Blight clearly hadn’t heard of this yet. The spontaneous reaction is pretty great.

“He really said this about Jackson and the Civil War? All I can say to you is that from day one I have believed that Donald Trump’s greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution. Saying that if Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however they wish. This is simply a fifth-grade understanding of history or worse. And this comes from the president of the United States! Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance and twisted understanding we would simply ignore or laugh at him. But since this man lives in the historic White House and wields the constitutional powers of the presidency and the commander in chief we have to pay attention. Trump’s “learning” of American history must have stopped even before the fifth grade. I wish I could say this is funny and not deeply disturbing. My profession should petition the President to take a one- or two-month leave of absence, VP Pence steps in for that interim, and Trump goes on a retreat in one of his resorts for forced reeducation. It could be a new tradition called the presidential education leave. Or perhaps in New Deal tradition, an ‘ignorance relief’ period. This alone might gain the United States again some confidence and respect around the world. God help us.”

Trump in a reeducation camp is something we can all get behind, I hope.

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  • Trump in a reeducation camp

    “Re”?

    • Karen24

      My thoughts exactly.

    • DrDick

      Indeed.

  • Colin Day

    Of course we would not have had the Civil War under Jackson. Why would the Southern States have seceded with AJ in the White House?

    • CP

      “Would World War Two still have happened if a strong leader like Adolf Hitler had been in charge instead of that pansy Neville Chamberlain when the Nazis started making trouble? Discuss.”

    • tsam

      Lincoln tipped it, but there were still lots of vicious battles in Congress over expansion and fugitive slave laws, etc…Remember what these wanna-be aristocrats acted like–GIMME WHUT I WANT SUH, OR WE SHALL SHIRLAY DYUELL!

      The Civil War was happening one way or another, IMO. The only unsure part was the date.

      • DrDick

        More to the point, Jackson was a strong supporter of slavery, so I doubt they would have felt the need to secede.

        • tsam

          It’s a fair point, but Jackson wouldn’t have stopped abolitionists from having influence in Congress–even with veto power, the perceived threat was probably enough.

          • timb

            My understanding is that Jackson supported the gag rule in the House and the censorship of abolitionist tracts from Southern mailboxes

      • Colin Day

        Yes, but it would have required a different president from Jackson.

      • Colin Day

        GIMME WHUT I WANT SUH, OR WE SHALL SHIRLAY DYUELL!

        Unless you are Charles Sumner, in which case they will cane you on the Senate floor.

  • pbfriedman

    Watch out, Erik: you’re going to be accused of wanting to put Trump in a reeducation camp circled by fence posts topped by the heads of your enemies.

    • brewmn

      He has tenure. He can do that now.

      • Colin Day

        Ward Churchill on line 1.

        • The Dark God of Time

          I don’t think Prof. Loomis has any plagarism in his background that can be used against him as was true for Ward Churchill.

          • efgoldman

            I don’t think Prof. Loomis has any plagiarism in his background

            He plagiarized an anti-ketchup comment once

            • Anti-ketchup comments enter the public domain upon first utterance.

              • Colin Day

                That only makes it not a copyright violation. Newton’s Principia is in the public domain, but you still can’t take credit for it.

  • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

    A re-education retreat assumes a willingness to learn for which there’s no evidence, in a 70 year old man. Also an ability to learn, scant evidence.

    • so-in-so

      If you won’t let him out until he demonstrates understanding, it would be a win.

      Except for the President Pence part.

    • Have we established that he can read?

      • John not McCain

        He uses those evil teleprompters that have suddenly become merely an aid to assist a man who is a super-genius. Although I suppose there could be some sort of bluetooth which allows the words to be fed directly into his brain.

        • N__B

          “Brain, brain, brain! What is brain?”

    • Mike G

      For Republicans, willful ignorance combined with blustering arrogance in their ‘leaders’ is a feature, not a bug. They want someone stupid, who doesn’t threaten to make them think.

  • sleepyirv

    I enjoy this conspiracy theory that Trump read the first paragraph, but not past the first paragraph, of Jon Meacham’s biography of Jackson.

    Though I’m sure many of you will think this gives him too much credit.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      no, actually I think that gives trump about the right amount of credit. Saying he’d read a *chapter*, though, of the book would be too much

    • I suspect he just read the Cliffs notes. Of the first paragraph.

      • Tzimiskes

        I would be surprised if he gets past the book jacket. Probably sees it as the bookish equivalent of an executive summary.

      • NonyNony

        Started listening to the audio book, fell asleep and never got back to it.

    • cleek

      i assume he learned what he knows by listening to people who read books, don’t understand what they read, but nevertheless feel comfortable lecturing other people.

  • eyerolld6

    A Trump reeducation camp run by Pence should go just swimmingly. Bigly swimmingly.

  • Fats Durston

    Pfft. Millard Fillmore v. Predator had much better special fx, and I actually cared about the characters.

    • Cheerfull

      What’s the green thing that Jackson is holding in his right hand? It doesn’t look it’s going to be of much help against Alien.

      • tsam

        BULLSHIT THAT’S A FUCKIN LAWN DART. GAME OVER, ALIEN

      • NonyNony

        Pretty sure it’s a broken bottle.

        • tsam

          NO IT’S NOT IT’S A LAWN DART

        • Cheerfull

          {Ignore Tsam}

          Yeah, on closer look, it’s a broken bottle. Still doesn’t seem to even the odds much.

          • bs

            I’m with Tsam. lawn darts are banned because they’re FUCKIN DANGEROUS MAN!, but you can find a broken bottle in any parkin lot in the USA. Hell you can even make em yerself. so, LAWN DART QED.

      • bexley

        It’s a lantern obviously.

        • N__B

          I thought it was a Libyan flag.

    • Colin Day

      Still not as good as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

      ETA or Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.

  • CP

    Under normal circumstances if a real estate tycoon weighed in on the nature of American history from such ignorance and twisted understanding we would simply ignore or laugh at him.

    Unfortunately, in post-Reagan America, I’m pretty certain that no matter who or how dumb the tycoon was, you’d find at least one talk radio station somewhere that would argue “but he’s a businessman! He must Know Things! Why would we listen to some piss-ant historian about history, anyway? How much money does the historian have?”

    Most likely, far more than one station. But certainly no less.

    • UnderTheSun

      Academics and interlektools might but the average man in the street not so much.

      but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution.

      The same could be probably be said of at least 50% if not 60-70% of the American population.

      • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

        We used to laugh at the late night comedians doing “man on the street” interviews. Now we realize it was a good sample of American voters and their level of knowledge.

    • Mark Field

      They’d also deny that the historian could “really know”, because he wasn’t there.

  • keta

    Who cares what a puny historian thinks? Just know that president Trump thinks like a journalist, and that’s ” a skill that helped him win the presidency: Trump instinctively understands the reporter’s psychology.”

    America should count itself blessed to be led by a man with such wonderful insights.

    • Nepos

      Actually, that part may be true–the media certainly helped him win the presidency, and that was partly because his campaign exploited inherent weaknesses in our current news media. Now, how much of this was understanding of the psychology of reporters and how much was luck on Trump’s part, I can’t say, but the theory isn’t implausible.

      Not that it’s in any way a benefit to the country for Trump to have such skills.

  • Trump’s “learning” of American history must have stopped even before the fifth grade.

    I would expand that to include Trump’s understanding of the world in general, much like his base.

  • AMK

    Saying that if Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however they wish.

    The “great man” theory is how many if not most people interpret history, including plenty of people in the political establishment who are not Trump-level cartoon stupid.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      I read that sentence and thought, “Oh, so says the detail obsessed nuance-bargler of academia. How many volumes of Hitler speeches does he have on his nightstand?”

      (Of course, Hitler made his mark on history, yes, but things did not move history as he wished for very long.)

      • N__B

        How many volumes of Hitler speeches did Jackson read?

        Check and mate.

        • Ahuitzotl

          no, no, Czech and Slovak

  • Sly

    “In [Jackson’s] most autocratic moments, he really thought that he was fighting the battle of the people and doing their will while baffling the purposes of their representatives. If he had been a man of knowledge as well as force, he would have taken the part of the people more effectually, and left to his successors an increased power of doing good, instead of better facilities for doing harm.

    He appears to have meant well. But his ignorance of law, history, politics, science, of everything which he who governs a country ought to know was extreme. [Jackson’s personal secretary Nicholas Trist] remembers hearing a member of the General’s family say, that the General did not believe the world was round. His ignorance was as a wall round about him – high, impenetrable. He was imprisoned in his ignorance, and sometimes raged around his little, dim inclosure like a tiger in his den.”

    – James Parton, Life of Andrew Jackson, Vol. III, 1860.

    • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

      Thanks for the quote.

      Now we know why Trump is so enamored of Jackson. (Except few would say Trump “appears to have meant well.”)

      • BiloSagdiyev

        Thank goodness Jackson lived in an era before TNT. Alas, Donnie has nukes and bunker busters and cruise missiles and 20,000 lb. bombs.

        • Nepos

          Indeed. In an earlier thread someone said that Andrew Jackson was not on the same level as Hitler–I feel that if Jackson had possessed the same technology as Hitler, he might well have had a higher body count, or at least wiped out a higher percentage of the targeted population. Jackson’s hatred for Native Americans equaled and possibly surpassed Hitler’s hatred of Jews–he certainly would have killed them all if he could have.

          • The Dark God of Time

            Or, as in one Russian intellectual’s envisioning of the future in the 1850s, “Gehngis Khan with a telegraph.”

          • CP

            Although I don’t believe any presidents were ever named, Hitler approvingly cited America’s westward expansion and the way it dealt with the tribes along the way as a model for what he intended to do to all the Undesirables east of him in order to turn the region into Greater German Reich territory.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      [Jackson’s personal secretary Nicholas Trist] remembers hearing a member of the General’s family say, that the General did not believe the world was round.

      I’ve got slightly more patience for that in that part of that century. Kyrie Irving, however, was born after we put an airplane 354,000 feet above the ground, and after we put men on the moon who stood there, looked at earth, and took a damned picture.

      • so-in-so

        Clearly that’s what “they” Want you to think.

      • Q.E.Dumbass

        [F]irst of all, if I’m having a conversation with you…we’re not even going to — the conversation’s not even going to start;[…]anybody new I meet, I ask them one question: Do you think the earth is round or flat? If they say flat? [There’s] nothing else to talk about. There’s no need for us to have a discussion about anything.” (He was referring to B.o.B., but still relevant).

        Also, hadn’t the flat earth theory been conclusively killed in a series of fires (Europe by the 1500s, China by the 1600s) until Washington Irving pulled the Salamanca anecdote out of his ass?

        • Hogan

          People who understood the question knew from classical times on that the earth was round. Almost everyone else in 1492 would have replied, “Who the fuck cares? I’ve got millet to harvest.”

        • Ahuitzotl

          having never heard of Washington Irving, I’ve just wasted a few minutes sifting through pages of his ‘memorable quotes’, and my conclusion was, what a twat. Couldn’t find any reference to a Salamanca anecdote though

          • Hogan

            In his biography of Columbus he invents a debate at the University of Salamanca between the hidebound professors, who all know the earth is flat because that’s what Aristotle said, and Columbus, who knows in his heart that it’s round. Thus the founding of America was itself a triumph of science over religion and of new knowledge over ossified tradition.

            (The actual debate was about whether the Atlantic crossing to the Indies was as short as Columbus thought it was. The professors were right, by a considerable margin.)

    • tsam

      He appears to have meant well.

      This sort of statement always gives me a shudder.

      He was imprisoned in his ignorance, and sometimes raged around his little, dim inclosure like a tiger in his den.

      Welcome to the USA. Jackson was by no means exceptional in this regard.

  • The “great man” theory is how many if not most people interpret history

    That’s true as far as it goes, but for a lot of people who haven’t studied history since high school, they’ll talk about the “great man theory” in opposition to some other nameless theory that says history was all accidents, minorities, and probably something about the gays. In popular consciousness, which, yes includes a lot of the political and media establishment, “great men” stand in opposition to the vaguest straw outline of a straw hut filled with fuzzy straw men.

    For most of the semi-educated ignoramii who populate political talk shows, saying “great man” history really just means opposing the idea that history doesn’t have towering figures who – heh heh – happen to be men. Like so much else, it’s tribal signaling that left the realm of real argument long ago.

    [Edited to note that this was supposed to be a reply to AMK above, but didn’t nest for some reason. I blame Andrew Jackson’s failures of leadership.]

    • Tzimiskes

      It doesn’t help that the US seems to not place a high value on teaching history. Anecdotal but when I was in high school in a small town in the US the history teacher was the football coach, and it was really obvious that he had been hired to be a football coach and then given the subject where he could do the least damage. When I moved to Canada while the history teaching wasn’t great there weren’t a half dozen students that knew more history than the teacher.

      It isn’t surprising that many people hate history, my high school exposure to it was little except memorizing names and dates with no attempt to teach interpretation. I don’t think this is an unusual for people’s exposure to history.

      • NonyNony

        My explanation for this is wrapped up in local control of school boards. You can’t do interesting history in a high school history class because the students will be presented with facts that will piss off some percentage of parents who will then demand that changes be made to the curriculum. This has already happened, in fact, which is why high school history curricula are terrible.

        Add to that a high school football culture for a lot of schools (especially Midwestern and Southern ones) and you get a perfect storm. Parents don’t want their kids to learn history and we need a spot for the football coaches – seems like a match made in heaven to a school administrator!

        (There are exceptions I’m sure – but not that I had the fortune to witness in my own primary/secondary education back in the 80s).

        • BigHank53

          Some states adopted paranoid cold-war codes as well. New Hampshire forbid the teaching of any components of communism. Made that Russian history class get pretty weird.

          • The Dark God of Time

            In Florida there was a high school classes called “Americanism versus Communism” that was taught into the late 70s.

      • Woodrowfan

        I am appalled at how little history most of my students know when they arrive to take a college history class. And most of them go to “good schools.” I teach material in my survey class they should have learned before they even thought about college…..

        • DAS

          I think your statement (if you take out the part about “good schools”, where students do emerge knowing at least some sciency-stuff) applies in pretty much all subjects. I know that when I teach intro level chemistry courses, students don’t know science and math topics that they should have learned in high school if not middle school.

          Although FWIW, my high school (which is, according to USN&WR, in the top 1000 high schools in the country) did do a reasonable job of teaching history: our high school teachers were pretty explicit that history was about more than just memorizing on which dates which great men did what.

      • efgoldman

        my high school exposure to it was little except memorizing names and dates with no attempt to teach interpretation.

        “Freshman Western Civ”
        High school and college both

  • BiloSagdiyev

    I think we can all agree, if Andrew Jackson were alive today and all of his friends were being hunted by a nearly invisible space alien, he would have exhorted to them to get to the helicopter.

    • Nepos

      Say what you will about Andrew Jackson, but he is one of the few Presidents I could see having a chance against a Predator. He was damn hard to kill.

    • N__B

      I think we can all agree, if Andrew Jackson were alive today

      he’d be screaming and clawing at the inside of his coffin.

      • bob333

        Dave Letterman did a variation on that with regard if Abe Lincoln was alive today.

        • N__B

          It’s a lot older than that. I heard it about George Washington in elementary school in the early 70s and I doubt it was new then.

  • Mark Field

    You laugh, but it won’t be long before you’ll be seeing answers like Trump’s on actual tests. Lynne Cheney will demand that the texts be changed to reflect this more “realistic” assessment of Jackson and the War.

    We should take Poe’s Law both literally and seriously.

  • Bruce Vail

    I’d never heard of David Blight till about two years ago when my son lent me his copy of ‘Race and Reunion.’

    I had a very high opinion of Blight after reading, but his press and TV appearances in the last couple of days have kicked it up even higher.

  • bob333

    Reading this all I can hear in my head is the Monty Python sketch were Prof. DP Gumpy insisted that the battle of Trafalgar was actually fought at Cudworth in Yorkshire.

    When asked why Prof. Gumby replies: “Because Drake was too clever for the German fleet”

    which makes as much sense as the various toadies trying to defend Trump’s gibberish.

  • partisan

    I’m actually slightly sympathetic to Trump here. Not because he’s right, or even remotely right, but because his delusion is very widespread. It would be hard to think of any president who had a particularly sophisticated knowledge of history. After all, at best they’re intelligent lawyers. And those politicians who could be considered at the forefront of American history at the time–Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge–would hardly be considered historiographical models today. Part of the problem is that people with a vague knowledge of history–and that’s most people–are aware that Pierce and Buchanan were bad presidents. But they don’t know why specifically. They’re as likely to think it was because they were “weak” and “indecisive.” I haven’t looked at “Plain Speaking” in decades, but I believe that was Truman’s approach to the last twenty years before Lincoln–seven weak Presidents. And while the fact that there were five presidents in twelve years isn’t why there was a civil war in 1861, it’s sufficiently egregious that people might understandably think so. And there is, of course, the MSM’s strong belief that compromise is valuable in and of itself, regardless of its content. Taney and Buchanan’s compromise didn’t work, but many people, including Lincoln, thought Henry Clay’s compromise could have pulled it off. These ideas still have some influence in David Potter’s The Imperiled Union. And if that idea has faded among conservatives since then, leaving aside a vocal Neoconfederate contingent, it hasn’t been replaced with a clear understanding of the role of slavery in American history, but with a partisan and romantic emphasis on Lincoln’s “greatness.”

    • Chetsky

      Maybe what you’re saying is, “Americans are all morons”. B/c that’s the only way this washes, I’m sorry, but that’s true.

      Because even in blood-red Texas, even in a lily-white small town, our 1979 freshman Am. Hist. teacher Mr. Witherspoon taught us about the controversy about extending slavery westward (the Missouri Compromise) and that the Civil War was over slavery.

      OK: maybe you mean that since then, it’s no longer taught that way. But really: someone who believes at this point that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, and who thinks that there was a way to avoid it ….. they were asleep in that class, weren’t they? Or they were morons.

  • Rob in CT

    All I can say to you is that from day one I have believed that Donald Trump’s greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution.

    Hmm. Can I nitpick? Blight is great, but…I think the authoritarianism is worse than the ignorance.

    They’re both bad, but I’ll take an ignorant bumbler who isn’t an authoritarian asshole who loves him some strongmen past & present over Trump. Any damn day.