According to Donald Trump, “if Andrew Jackson had been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” In fact, Trump said in a SiriusXM interview with writer Salena Zito, “he was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ ”
Jackson was president from 1829 to 1837 and he died in 1845. The Civil War began in 1861. Jackson was never “really angry” about the Civil War any more than Woodrow Wilson, who died in 1924, was really angry about Pearl Harbor or Dwight Eisenhower, who died in 1969, was really angry about 9/11.
Nor was Jackson really angry about slavery. He did work out a compromise when pro-slavery Southerners wanted to ban Northern abolitionists from sending anti-slavery tracts through the mail. Jackson, who at one time owned 161 slaves himself, favored suppression of such “incendiary publications,” but he could not persuade Congress to go along. He settled for letting postmasters in the South ban distribution of abolitionist publications at their discretion. Jackson, says Trump, was “a very tough person, but he had a big heart.”
One of the more striking characteristics of our 45th president is the near complete blank spot in his brain where history is concerned. “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” said Trump as he ushered in Black History Month. Frederick Douglass did indeed do an amazing job. But he died in 1895. Trump plainly never noticed who he was, what he did, or when he lived.
“This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier,” Trump told Reuters about his first 100 days in office. He locates some of the difficulty in the “archaic” checks and balances that are at the heart of our federal system. “We have so many bad concepts in our rules and its forcing bad decisions.” It is time for a change. “Maybe at some point we’re going to have to take those rules on, because for the good of the nation things are going to have to be different.”
Constitutional conservatives (among whom I count myself) can be pleased by the elevation of one of their own to the Supreme Court — but Neil Gorsuch was nominated to that position by a man who lacks a basic understanding, let alone an appreciation of the genius, of the “archaic” system that the framers constructed. As a presidential candidate, Trump attacked one federal judge for being a “Mexican” and defended another federal judge (who happens to be his sister) after she came under criticism “for signing a certain bill.” Basic American principles and procedures are plainly beyond Trump’s grasp. Judges don’t sign bills.
The good news is that our institutions appear to be robust and likely to survive our president’s historical illiteracy. But will our alliances? Conversing with Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, Trump was treated to the Chinese president’s version of the past. “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump recounted to the Wall Street Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power” over North Korea, Trump further explained, “but it’s not what you would think.” Among the lessons Trump learned from Xi is that the Korean peninsula “actually used to be a part of China.”
Perhaps Trump deserves a cheer for not covering up the things he does not know. But his ingenuousness, if that is what it is, has not sufficed to allay the alarm among those who have not yet learned to discount the nonsense that all too often flows from the American president’s lips. “Trump’s inartful retelling of Sino-Korean history sparked widespread outrage among Koreans,” reported The Washington Post.
A question worth pondering is whether Trump’s historical ignorance has some connection to his tenuous relationship to the truth. Trump lies with astonishing frequency in large part because he is a person of low morals. But he may well be helped along by the fact that many of his false pronouncements may not be falsehoods in his own mind.
No, they were not. Any way you dice or slice them, they were among the least successful.
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” George Orwell famously wrote. In that brilliant aphorism one can find reason for partial optimism. Trump cannot control what he does not even faintly comprehend. His trespasses on historical knowledge will probably not account for the worst damage likely to flow from having an ignoramus at America’s helm.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law, was a senior adviser to the 2012 Romney for President campaign. Follow him on Twitter @gabeschoenfeld