President Donald Trump, in dependable jingoistic fashion, has declared Jan. 20, the date of his inauguration, an official day to venerate patriotism. America has always been a famously patriotic country. Thus, to proclaim what is already obvious is to have darker motives. “A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart,” reads the proclamation. In fact, Trump misrepresents American history. American history is morally unresolvable. In the course of conquering the frontier, both in the South and in the West, Americans enslaved blacks and virtually extinguished Native American life. But in settling a continent rich in natural resources beyond imagining, overlaid with the greatest internal river system on Earth, America found itself with the economic and geopolitical capacity to save civilization in two world wars and the Cold War that followed. One circumstance led to the other. In a better world, it would have been different, but it wasn’t. We should be both ashamed and proud. And because our history is complex, the teaching of it requires texture and nuance, not ideology or opportunistic politics.
The 19th-century French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan wrote: “To forget … and get one’s history wrong, are essential factors in the making of a nation; and thus the advance of historical studies is often a danger to nationality.” For generations, historians have been stripping away the myth of Manifest Destiny to reveal all the cruelties of a brawling frontier society. Trump has reversed this process with his deliberate disrespect for books and experts, his deliberate misinformation, and his ahistorical sensibility in general. In this way, he does violence to our sacred past, both the good and the bad of it. The fact is, mass democracy, because it tempts populism, has not only been dynamic but dangerous. Yet there is no unity of goodness. American history is unique from European history in that it can more consistently weave strands of redemption into the worst tragedies. That is something we should never forget — and which should make us proud.
Read the full article at Foreign Policy.