WASHINGTON — President Trump pressed his case Thursday that schools are indoctrinating children with a left-wing agenda hostile to the Founding Fathers, describing efforts to educate students about racism and slavery as an insult to the country’s lofty founding principles.
Trump, speaking before original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as "left-wing rioting and mayhem" that "are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It's gone on far too long."
Meanwhile, at a Thursday town hall, the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, went after Trump again and again over his handling of COVID-19, calling Trump’s downplaying of the pandemic "criminal” and his administration “totally irresponsible.”
“You’ve got to level with the American people — shoot from the shoulder. There’s not been a time they’ve not been able to step up. The president should step down,” Biden said to applause from the drive-in crowd in Moosic, outside his hometown of Scranton.
Speaking about Trump’s admission that he publicly played down the impact of the virus while aware of its severity, Biden declared: “He knew it and did nothing. It’s close to criminal.”
Later, Biden decried Americans' loss of basic freedoms during the pandemic, like the ability to go to a ballgame or walk around their neighborhoods. “I never, ever thought I would see just such a thoroughly, totally irresponsible administration,” he said.
Trump, in his appearance, focused on schools. The federal government has no power over local schools' curriculums, and the notion that those at public schools are too secular or too critical of the nation’s legacy has been a frequent complaint of conservatives. Trump said he would create a national commission to promote a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” which he said would encourage educators to teach students about the “miracle of American history.”
Trump is calling the panel the 1776 Commission, in what appeared to be a barb at The New York Times’s 1619 Project. The project, whose creator won a Pulitzer for its lead essay, is a collection of articles and essays that argue the nation’s true founding year is 1619, the year enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of what would become the United States. Trump said Thursday that the 1619 Project wrongly teaches the United States was founded on principles of “oppression, not freedom.”
“Our children are instructed from propaganda tracks like those of Howard Zinn that try to make students ashamed of their own history," he said.
Zinn was a historian and professor at Boston University. He wrote the nonfiction book “A People’s History of the United States,” which tells the history of the US from the viewpoints of African-Americans, Native Americans, women, and the working class.
As he campaigns for reelection, Trump has repeatedly cast education that examines the nation’s failures as a betrayal, seeking to rally his base and tap into hostility toward the protesters who have taken to the streets to denounce racial injustice and police brutality.
His argument casts any criticism of the United States, even of slavery, as unpatriotic. It stands in sharp contrast to American leaders such as President Barack Obama, who spoke more frankly of the nation's shortcomings, painting it as a country constantly striving to perfect itself.
Trump's speech Thursday was a continuation of a message he has pushed since the Fourth of July, when he declared at Mount Rushmore, under the gaze of George Washington and other titans of the presidency, that public schools are "teaching children to hate America."
In a lengthy speech to the Republican National Convention, he pledged to restore “patriotic education.” And last month, when reflecting on the unrest that had erupted in US cities over police brutality, he also blamed schools.
"What we're witnessing today is a result of left-wing indoctrination in our nation's schools and universities," Trump said at a news conference. "Many young Americans have been fed lies about America being a wicked nation plagued by racism."
Yet educators and students say that Trump is wildly out of touch with what happens in public school classrooms, where the United States is still held up as a beacon of freedom and democracy, and a moral leader.
Trump’s gambit seeks to turn local schools — already beset by a global pandemic and many other problems — into another front in the culture war he champions, positioning history teachers as opponents of American greatness, along with kneeling football players, police misconduct protesters, and racial-sensitivity trainers. It fits neatly into his argument that Biden and other Democrats want to “Abolish the American Way of Life,” as Trump tweeted in July.
The president also has worked to rewrite what federal employees learn in racial sensitivity trainings. The White House compelled agencies to cancel training that mentioned the words “White privilege” or frame the United States as “an inherently racist or evil country.”
Trump’s history campaign arrived as protests against police brutality and racial injustice began roiling the country. While many Americans work to reckon with the nation’s racist past, Trump and other conservatives are working to preserve a narrative that casts the United States as a moral leader, as virtuous and exceptional.
Their efforts sometimes overlap with those who seek to preserve monuments to Confederate military leaders and who cast them as heroes, despite their fight to preserve slavery.
On Thursday, Trump said he would erect a statue of Caesar Rodney, who cast the tie-breaking vote to declare independence from Britain in 1776, in a “National Garden of American Heroes” that he hopes to establish. Rodney was also a enslaver, and a statue of him was removed from a city square in Wilmington, Del., in June.
For many on the right, any narrative that challenges American exceptionalism is, by default, anti-American.
"Instead of emphasizing that America was built on slavery, we emphasize that America was built on liberty," said Noah Weinrich, spokesman for Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
Others say that leaves out the nation’s history of inhumane treatment of Black Americans, women, and immigrants.
"They don't want us talking too much about America's flaws," said Albert L. Samuels, chair of the history and political science department at Southern University. "Let's not deal with the fact that many of the framers were slaveholders."
For schools, the pressure campaign is more about politics and the bully pulpit than federal policy. What’s taught in classrooms is always a local decision, said Arne Duncan, who served as education secretary under Obama.
When it comes to setting curriculums, Trump "has no ability to do that. He's a fraud."
But Trump’s line of attack is part of a decades-long thread of conservative activism targeting public schools, said Andrew Hartman, an Illinois State University professor of history who studies culture wars. Conservative parent activists have attacked schools for teaching sex education they regard as immoral, for example, or assigning books they view as lurid.
“This has become a bedrock of the conservative movement since the ’70s — that the public schools are secular, that the public schools are liberal or even radical, and that the public schools are destroying the fabric of America,” Hartman said.
Albert Broussard, a professor at Texas A&M who specializes in Afro-American history and has written history textbooks, viewed Trump’s comments less as a serious policy proposal and more as an effort to stoke his base. Broussard believes it’s a backlash against recent efforts to present a more varied narrative of US history.
"Trump plays to this idea of White grievance and White fear and White insecurity," Broussard said. "The country's population has changed racially and ethnically . . . I think that will continue to provoke anxiety among some people."
Educators expressed bewilderment with many of the president's comments.
"I am not teaching my students to hate America," said Chris Dier, a high school teacher in Louisiana who was the state's 2020 teacher of the year. "We are teaching our students to embrace our country, even the things that are negative. We're choosing not to ignore the ghosts of our country's past."
Emma Chan, a 16-year-old student at a New Jersey private school who has had her history research published in a student journal, said her history courses had inspired neither love nor hate for her country. It was more complicated than that.
"I don't think that there's anything that's so perfect or so evil that we can exclusively love or hate it," Chan said, "especially with something as complex as a country with a history that's so convoluted."
To her, casting criticism of the United States as unpatriotic is unfair.
"You can love a country and feel it's worth defending and still criticize it," Chan said. "I think pressing for change is a patriotic things to do."
Trump's fight for schools to emphasize American exceptionalism is running up against efforts by students and teachers to include more voices and perspectives in history education. Students have rallied around the country to urge their schools to teach more Black history, and to assign more books by Black authors.
Amina Salahou, a rising senior at Nottingham High in Syracuse, N.Y., is part of a campaign to "decolonize education." As the daughter of African immigrants, she complained her history courses have been too myopic.
"We definitely just learned about White America," Salahou said. On the contrary, Salahou and other students want to see courses that highlight the achievement and contributions of Black Americans and feature the voices of marginalized people.
"Decolonization curriculum means advocating for greater or equal representation of different perspectives," Salahou said. "It means giving students a chance to see themselves in history."
It is not the first time that debates over what is taught in history class have drawn national politicians into the fight. The College Board, which administers exams for Advanced Placement courses, in 2014 decided to update the framework it provided to those teaching its Advanced Placement United States History course.
The changes led to an explosive debate between conservative and liberal factions of school boards. It also drew the attention of the Republican National Committee, which condemned it because it "emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects." Conservative Ben Carson, now the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told an audience in 2014 that by the time students finish the course, "they'd be ready to sign up for ISIS."
"A whole section of slavery and how evil we are. A whole section about Japanese internment camps. A whole section about how we wiped out American Indians with no mercy," Carson said.
Educators said they have begun teaching a more inclusive version of history not because it’s mandated but because it’s what students want. Jennifer Hitchcock, a high school teacher in Virginia, once assigned an account by a Filipino soldier battling US occupation during the Spanish-American War, describing what Filipinos endured as American forces attempted to pacify the island. Students were transfixed and wanted to know more.
“The whole adage of not repeating the mistakes of our forefathers is the one that I hear over and over from my students,” Hitchcock said. “They just don’t want to make the same mistakes.”
Lauren Booker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.