WASHINGTON — In President Trump’s version of American history, 19th Century abolitionist Frederick Douglass has done “an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more.” The cause of the Civil War remains a puzzle and Andrew Jackson — who died 16 years before the bloodshed began — could have prevented the war’s outbreak were he alive.
From the first moments of the Trump administration, historians said in interviews, they were baffled along with other Americans by factual inaccuracies flowing from the White House. But in the months that followed, and especially this week, scholars said their initial surprise has turned to deep dismay over Trump’s seemingly ill-informed views of US history, especially as it relates to racial minorities.
“There seems to be this kind of disdain for the reality of African-American history,” said Carol Anderson, a professor at Emory University who specializes in black studies.
“When you don’t care enough about something to learn about it, yet you open up your mouth to speak about it — that’s contempt,” Anderson said.
Did she expect the billionaire New York real estate mogul, with no previous elective experience, to be a history buff? No.
But slave ownership in the South, the American Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln’s role in preserving the Union are all elementary chapters of history that profoundly shaped everything from civil rights and modern race relations to the balance of power between federal government and the states. Other administrations have at times painted an overly rosy picture of America’s racial history, but historians said in interviews with the Globe that the current president and his team have gone further in diminishing the role of slavery and discrimination.
There was Trump’s suggestion, during Black History Month, that Frederick Douglass was still alive, though the escaped slave and abolitionist had died more than 120 years earlier. Later, Vice President Mike Pence gave a Black History Month-themed Twitter shoutout to Lincoln — which many African-Americans saw as insensitive. Housing Secretary Ben Carson has referred to Africans brought to America on slave ships and forced into servitude as “immigrants” who “had a dream.” And Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called the nation’s historically black colleges and universities “pioneers” of “school choice,” which shocked observers considering those schools were created in response to racist segregation laws in the South.
In his latest remarks on SiriusXM radio, the president seemed to downplay the moral affront of slavery — and the intractable disputes it caused between North and South — as the cause of the Civil War.
“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War?’’ he said in the interview. “Why could that one not have been worked out?’’
He called Andrew Jackson — a slave owner, like other early presidents — a man with a “big heart.” As historians were quick to point out, Jackson, a populist whose anti-establishment positions appeal to Trump, was also responsible for the “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans which resulted in thousands of deaths.
After a firestorm of criticism, Trump and his surrogates said the president meant that Jackson had predicted the Civil War and was angered by it — not that he was alive to prevent it. Repeatedly, his supporters have dismissed criticism from professors and scholars, often characterizing the group as the ivory tower of liberal academia.
Administration officials did not return requests to comment for this story. Sean Spicer, the press secretary, took no questions from reporters Tuesday.
“This Civil War issue, I think, has been way overblown,” said CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord, a Trump supporter.
“The president of the United States is so blatantly ignorant of American history. He just can’t talk about it with any base of knowledge,” said David Blight, a history professor at Yale University.
Blight warned of serious policy implications if the administration does not become more adept at understanding the nuances and history of race and racism.
“If you don’t really know anything about the history of race relations, the history of Supreme Court decisions, the history of Jim Crow, the history of lynchings, the history of slavery, how are you going to even know how to respond when young black people are disturbed and outraged today,” he said.
Past presidents, both Democratic and Republican, have courted the approval of historians, determined to cement a positive legacy for future generations. President Barack Obama, a former law educator, dined with scholars frequently, and was sometimes chided for lecturing the public with too many facts and sources. President George W. Bush crafted a simple, “everyman” image, but read almost 100 books in a year, according to his senior advisor Karl Rove.
Trump, though older than Obama, is a former reality television star who rose to fame through the tabloid press and consumes most news through cable television. He was educated at a military boarding school before attending Fordham University and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.
“It’s such a cliche that we historians have to sit here and say that history matters, that knowledge of the past matters,” Blight said. “There’s a reason that the best presidents have tended to be real students of history.”
To strike a “deal” and avoid the Civil War, as Trump said was his preference, would’ve necessarily allowed the continuation of slavery in the South, historians said.
The Civil War, as William Seward, Lincon’s secretary of state, said, was an “irrepressible conflict.” The nation could not endure, Lincoln said in a speech in 1858, “half-slave and half-free.”Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH