The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump sounds ignorant of history. But racist ideas often masquerade as ignorance.

The White House's fumbling about slavery and the Civil War fits a long pattern in American politics.

A sign with a Confederate flag touts President Trump’s 2016 campaign in North Carolina in May 2017. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

The racial story is often told from assuming lips.

All year, that story has been told from the prevailing assumption that President Trump, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other allies of the Trump administration who have rhetorically rewrote the Civil War are “startlingly ignorant” about American history — not to mention the American present.

The latest backlash and accusations of ignorance came in response to Kelly saying on Fox News last month that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” There were “men and women of good faith on both sides,” including the “honorable” Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Kelly said. The next day, Sanders gave her defense of Kelly during a news briefing. “There’s pretty strong consensus” that “a failure of compromise” sparked the Civil War. Defenders of Confederates and their statues rallied all year long from Charlottesville to Knoxville, from the White House to the defeated gubernatorial campaign of Ed Gillespie.

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly called Robert E. Lee “an honorable man” and said that “the lack of an ability to compromise” led to the Civil War (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

“Not a good day for Sarah Huckabee Sanders or the places that taught her history (looking at you Central High and Ouachita Baptist),” an Arkansas editor mourned in her home state. “Kelly’s understanding of American history and the Civil War is piss-poor and willfully ignorant,” a Salon writer raged.

Historians have been no less troubled about “this profound ignorance,” as Yale historian David Blight termed it. Likewise politicians. Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Kelly “needs a history lesson.”

But what if they are not the ignorant ones? What if we are the ignorant ones, for assuming they are ignorant? What if the real “national crisis” is not Trump’s ignorance, but rather our own ignorance of how racist ideas propagate themselves in American society?

The whole point of Confederate monuments is to celebrate white supremacy

I say we, because I instinctively think Trump and his officials are ignorant about race. But then I remember America’s enduring racial history — the Civil War and all those other bloody conflicts for unrestricted slaveholders’ rights and discriminators’ rights that have been covered up with post-racial pictures of honorable all-Americans striving for “states’ rights” and “law and order.”

The Sullivan Ballou letter would have sounded a little different. Cue the sad violins. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Ignorance is the byproduct of the racist coverup, not the source. The Trumps of the political past and present conceal slavery and discrimination with their messaging out of political self-interest, not ignorance. They know that uncomfortable racial history. They repeat it as otherwise well-meaning Americans cringe and avoid it.

It is comforting to assume that Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina was ignorant when in 1837 he characterized slavery as a “good — a positive good.” It is comforting to assume that Sen. (and future Confederate president) Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was ignorant when he said in 1860 that the “inequality of the white and black races” was “stamped from the beginning.” It is comforting to assume that Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi was ignorant when he claimed in 1938 that an anti-lynching bill would increase black-on-white rape “a thousandfold.” It is comforting to assume that Trump is ignorant when he fumes about voter fraud, when he ignores climate change and condones police violence, when he asks about the Civil War: “Why could that one not have been worked out?”

We do not know what Sanders and Kelly and Trump really understand about U.S. history, any more than we know what the figures from the past whose line they’re pushing today knew. We only know what they say. We assume since what they say is ignorant that they themselves are ignorant; that their comments spring from a well of ignorance.

And the backlash against that presumed ignorance energizes education as the solvent. Knowledgeable historians and commentators jumped to tell the Trump administration about all those whipping compromises on — and of — black bodies, from three-fifths of “all other persons” in the 1787 Constitution to zero-fifths of a citizen in the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott ruling. We reminded Trump what President-elect Abraham Lincoln told a North Carolina congressman on Dec. 15, 1860: “You think slavery is right and ought to be extended; we think it is wrong and ought to be restricted.” We asked Kelly: How were Confederates of “good faith” when they caused the bloodiest war in U.S. history to ensure that their slaveholding rights would never be restricted? We informed Sanders that the Confederacy was only willing to compromise on a new constitution founded “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition,” as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens outlined March 21, 1861, as he still proclaims from his defended statue in the U.S. Capitol.

Keep Confederate statues in Congress: They let us know some states are proud of racism

We keep sharing facts for a Trump administration that is broadcasting alternative facts and does not seem to care about the truth. We keep writing up history for a Trump administration that is writing an alternative history and does not seem to care about the real past. We keep wondering why Trump officials are so ignorant when we should be asking: Why is the White House writing into existence an alternative history with alternative facts about the Civil War?

What is the Trump administration’s political motive for reproducing false ideas that make Americans ignorant about their history? Why did Texas conservatives adopt a social studies curriculum that ranks “sectionalism, states’ rights and slavery” as the causes of the Civil War, thereby marginalizing slavery? Who is this history directed toward? What purpose does it serve?

Are Trump officials seeking to disrupt our conceptions of historical right and wrong to make the current, Trump-supporting defenders of the Confederacy feel they are right and not wrong? Are they seeking to inflame condescension in Trump’s smarter-than-thou opponents, while they present Trump the billionaire as one with the ignorant people? And why are Trump critics expecting Trump to describe a substantial part of his coalition — and their Confederate heroes — as bad people?

[Why do people believe myths about the Confederacy? Because our textbooks and monuments are wrong.]

Revising racial history for the political present is an American pastime. Slaveholders and their historians claimed the “Negro-Races” had always “been Servants and Slaves, always distinct from, and subject to, the Caucasian,” as pioneering Egyptologist George R. Gliddon wrote to Calhoun. “The friendliness that existed between the master and slave … has survived war,” proclaimed Atlanta Constitution editor Henry W. Grady in his 1890 propagandizing of the “separate but equal” New South. In 1956, 101 members of Congress signed the Southern Manifesto that charged the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling for “destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races that have been created through 90 years of patient effort.” The historical line still goes that the civil rights movement destroyed the amicable relations, like the Civil War then, like the #BlackLivesMatter movement today.

No one outside of the White House knows what animates Trump’s fascination with rewriting Civil War history. But we will never know if we don’t ask the question; if we assume Trump officials are rewriting from the pen of ignorance.

With murders we seek out the motives. Why don’t we seek out the motive whenever Trump murders the truth?

What racist Americans say from their bully pulpits should not interest antiracists as much as why they say what they say. Who are they trying to attract or manipulate? What discriminatory policies are they trying to conceal?

American ignorance does not reign in the White House. The White House reigns over American ignorance.

Read more:

I’m black. Robert E. Lee is my relative. His statues can’t come down soon enough.

The Confederate flag isn’t just offensive. It’s treasonous.

John Kelly is wrong: Slavery, not lack of compromise, caused the Civil War