The presidency of twice-impeached Donald Trump is over. Since the time he stepped into office, there have been recurring conversations about how historians will write about the Trump legacy.
Some are confident that future Americans will feel shame over shit-hole countries, “grab them by the pussy” and other locker-room talk, calling Mexicans “rapists,” saying “Islam hates us” and Muslim bans, asserting that President Obama wasn’t born here, making fun of a disabled reporter, lauding the “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, “Stand-back and standby” to vigilante groups and white supremacists, a shameless response to a global pandemic, inciting insurrection and so many other things. Even President Joe Biden, the target of many of the president’s attacks and the figurehead of his election conspiracies, has argued that this president was an aberration.
Many argue that when the dust settles and when enough time has passed, history will look harshly upon President Trump, the Congressional Republicans who enabled him for political gain, the media ecosystem that amplified his lies, and the supporters who rioted in his name.
I’m just not convinced this is true.
History will be kind to Donald Trump. And that’s the problem.
I think history will be kind to him because of the great American insistence that we are not just exceptional, but mythically so.
We treat American history like a Greatest Hits album — a curation of its best qualities and valiant virtues, editing out sins like songs that don’t make the cut. We assert that our country is the herald of freedom, democracy, unalienable rights; the shining city on a hill built with the sweat of progress. Yet those who mention the blood and tears are called “anti-American.” Things like slavery and native genocide aren’t things you should talk about. We are told that studying their effects on society is a line of inquiry we shouldn’t pursue; a mix of “political correctness” and a gross attempt to rewrite history to make America look, not just unexceptional, but evil.
From the classroom to the movie theater, we teach kids that how they feel about our country is more important than the facts of its history. It’s why folks felt no ambivalence when comparing Trump to Andrew Jackson as a compliment. It’s why the folks accusing the 1619 Project of “indoctrination” can’t see the contradiction in calling for “patriotic education.” It’s why everyone has a grandfather who walked with Dr. King, but no one seems to have a grandfather who threw rocks at him.
American exceptionalism dissuades us from naming, led alone examining, our contradictions. It’s the downside of cognitive dissonance — the ability to reach a conclusion that makes you feel good, as opposed to accepting facts that challenge your worldview. Part of it is a very human flaw — we need to make sense of the world and conform reality to our experiences. But when it consumes our politics, it’s difficult to notice the disconnect between our beliefs and our actions. If American history is essentially heroic, what would we need to hold ourselves accountable to? If we are, by definition, a country of “better angels,” then who better to appeal to than ourselves?
We venerate the Constitution, but a Marquette poll estimated that almost three-fifths of Americans have never read it. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center suggested that only 8 percent of high school seniors could identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. If we can convince ourselves that, to quote playwright Lorraine Hansberry, our “greatest conflict didn’t have at its base the only thing at its base,” how can we possible agree on something as complicated and technically subjective as a president’s legacy?
My best guess is that President Trump will be another “Lost Cause” — the contemporary Confederate statue or flag; his tenure described in terms similar to “heritage, not hate.”
Of course, there has been and certainly will be appropriately scathing analysis of and reflection on this presidency. Historians will undoubtedly do their job. But when I say “history,” I more so mean it as a cultural entity. We should wrestle with the false memory but potent nostalgia fueling “Make American Great Again.” But I already hear the critical mass arguing that our reactions to him were exaggerated, and that we are wrong to suggest that he reflects anything but the politics of a shrinking political extreme. And that’s not to mention the people who see POTUS 45 as the best we’ve ever had.
James Baldwin, one of the most prolific and prophetic writers in American history, wrote that people “who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.” We should take those words and their implications seriously.
I don’t say any this as a condemnation of the United States. But I believe in love in the way Baldwin believed in it — that in order to love your brother, you have to make him conscious of what he does not see; to hold each other accountable as gardeners of democracy. While progressives often have a dialectic stance towards America’s history — wishing to illuminate its messy record—even they should not overlook the fact we do live in a great country, and this experiment in pluralism is unlike anything else in human history.
I love our country. But I refuse to let it gaslight me.
We have to be clear-eyed about what President Trump represented: the retrenchment that follows any period of progress. The mythologies we coddle eventually collide with reality. If we can never have a true accounting of our history, then things will never add up. If we don’t know what we went through, then everything we go through feels unprecedented. If we can’t declaratively say that Donald Trump was a horrible president, then we will deny the mirror its corrective power.
After the insurrection at the Capitol, Sen. Mitt Romney said “The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth.” Though he was referring to an attack that forced him and his colleagues to flee for safety, his words are relevant in a bigger conversation. We have to be honest about how these last four years affected our lives. The president leaves office, but the forces that empowered him aren’t leaving any time soon. Forgetting Donald Trump just so we can purge ourselves of shame will perpetuate what led him here in the first place.
So what will we do?
His exit is an opportunity to reflect on what this country is and what it could be. If we don’t take it, then it won’t be long before the story we tell about this period of “American carnage” is that it wasn’t all that bad. We launder his legacy at our own peril.