The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump says he’s a big fan of history. But he doesn’t seem to trust historians.

President Trump has made several history-related gaffes since taking office. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

President Trump loves history.

He loves mentioning it, imagining his place in it, declaring someone (or something) to be “the best” or “the worst” in it.

It's important, Trump has said, to learn from the past.

And why not? After all, as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

But Trump's first few months as president have been peppered with signs that he and his inner circle may not have an in-depth understanding of historical events.

“Trump, as our first president with no prior political or military experience, had more to learn than anyone before him,” The Washington Post's James Hohmann wrote last month. “Not only does he lack a lot of historical knowledge, he is also missing institutional memory.”

In his Daily 202 newsletter, Hohmann offered a robust roundup of examples of Trump's history-related gaffes since taking office.

He mentioned Abraham Lincoln during a fundraising dinner for the National Republican Congressional Committee last month. “Most people don't even know he was a Republican,” Trump said. “Does anyone know? Lot of people don't know that!” (Most likely, every person in the ballroom knew and has attended at least one Lincoln Day dinner.)
On Lincoln’s birthday in February, Trump tweeted out an obviously fake quote from the 16th president: “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, it's the life in your years.” He later deleted it.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” he said at a Black History Month event. (Douglass died in 1895.)
“Have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?” he asked at a Women’s History Month reception in March.
In January, Trump said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — who is best known for almost getting beaten to death as he marched on Bloody Sunday in Selma — is “all talk, talk, talk — no action or results.” There are things Lewis could be fairly criticized for, but no one who knows anything about the civil rights movement would agree that being “all talk” is one of them.

And so on.

Trump is learning — and sometimes mislearning — the lessons of the presidency

On Monday, questions about Trump's grasp of history resurfaced when he made head-scratching (and historically inaccurate) claims about Andrew Jackson's feelings toward the Civil War in an interview with the Washington Examiner's Salena Zito.

In that exchange, Trump seemed to suggest that the Civil War might have been prevented if Jackson had been involved.

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War,” Trump told Zito. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, 'There's no reason for this.' 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 a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

As many pointed out, Jackson couldn't have prevented the Civil War — or been angry about it — because he wasn't alive then. Jackson died in 1845, more than a decade before the Civil War began in 1861.

That didn't stop Trump from taking to Twitter to double down on his statement.

And Jackson biographer Jon Meacham said on “Morning Joe” that Trump had once bragged to him that he “could have done a deal” to avoid the Civil War.

It wasn't the first time Trump has pushed back on historical record.

Memo to Donald Trump: Thomas Jefferson invented hating the media

In 2015, the New York Times reported on a curious plaque that had been erected between the 14th and 15th holes of Trump's newly renovated golf course in Virginia, with the following message inscribed:

Many great American soldiers, both of the North and South, died at this spot. The casualties were so great that the water would turn red and thus became known as ‘The River of Blood.” It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River! -Donald John Trump

After historians pointed out that there had been no such Civil War battles at that location, Trump pushed back.

“How would they know that?” Trump asked a Times reporter then. “Were they there?”

He finally told the same reporter: “Write your story the way you want to write it. ... You don’t have to talk to anybody. It doesn’t make any difference. But many people were shot. It makes sense.”

The Times noted: “In a phone interview, Mr. Trump called himself a 'a big history fan' but deflected, played down and then simply disputed the local historians’ assertions of historical fact.”

“There have been all sorts of famous gaffes by presidents,” said James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association. “In most cases, if the mistake was brought to their attention, there was some kind of an official statement saying yeah, this was wrong or whatever.”

Trump has proved unique in that his almost dismissive attitude toward historical data and evidence goes against most people “who have reached the high ranks of decision-makers,” he said. Those in the military rely heavily on history, as do economists. Lawyers gather evidence and scientists conduct experiments to collect data.

Historians are no different, Grossman said, analyzing physical evidence, records, archives, memoirs, archaeological objects and letters.

“We check things; that's what we do,” Grossman said. “Any time you see any kind of evidence, one of the things that you're doing is you're evaluating the quality of the evidence.”

Thomas Jefferson and the fascinating history of Founding Fathers defending Muslim rights

Even an undergrad history student would have questioned the plaque at Trump's golf course, he added — but at least that didn't have public policy implications.

“The Jackson stuff on Monday is different,” Grossman said. “In that case, where he was wrong deeply, deeply matters for public policy and public culture. It's important that we know that the Civil War was fought over slavery. It's important to know that it wouldn't have been good to make a deal unless that deal had freed the slaves, which obviously wasn't going to happen.”

For Trump, when his views don't align with historians' conclusions, it sometimes makes sense to side with his personal gut, even if that means going against the record.

And he has certainly expressed skepticism when it comes to experts before.

Experts “can't see the forest for the trees,” Trump told The Post's Marc Fisher last summer, in a conversation that mostly focused on his reading habits, or lack thereof. Trump, on the other hand, said he relied on instinct. “A lot of people said, ‘Man, he was more accurate than guys who have studied it all the time,’ ” he told Fisher.

The then-presidential candidate also stated that he doesn't read much — nor does he feel the need to, because he makes decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

(Fisher noted that as Trump was preparing to be named the Republican nominee for president, he had not read any biographies of presidents. But, Fisher wrote: “He said he would like to someday.”)

One telling example of Trump's cavalier botching of history came when the History Channel invited him to appear — as an expert — in a 2012 episode of “The Men Who Built America,” a series on the Industrial Revolution.

Though he was on the screen only briefly, Trump delivered his contribution to the segment with confidence.

“Andrew Carnegie was somebody that I think in terms of because I do buildings,” Trump said on the show. “And he really came up with the mass production of steel. He was the first and the biggest by far, by a factor of 30 times. And what he built was unbelievable and just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”

Hunting down runaway slaves: The cruel ads of Andrew Jackson and ‘the master class’

Even in those few lines, there were factual issues. It was Sir Henry Bessemer who invented the first process to mass-produced steel — known as the “Bessemer process” — in England in the 1800s. Carnegie adapted the process for his business needs and, in the process, became the richest man in America.

“He did not invent a steelmaking process,” the American Historical Association's Grossman said of Carnegie. “Often, invents something, but the first person who actually figures out how to use it in business is actually the one who makes tons of money.”

It's unclear whether Trump ever corrected or clarified his input on the History Channel show, or whether he would ever have any incentive to do such a thing.

If those who ignore the past are indeed doomed to repeat it, Trump only has to study his own personal history to realize where his murky handling of historical facts has gotten him so far: to the White House.

Read more:

Is President Obama’s ‘glass houses’ scripture reference in the Bible? Not exactly.

Struggling to attract visitors, Virginia's historic houses may face day of reckoning

The fake news that haunted George Washington

A ship full of refugees fleeing the Nazis once begged the U.S. for entry. They were turned back.

Trump just reached his 100th day in office. Here’s why the 'ridiculous standard' doesn’t matter.