After a quick clip of Trump saying, “I love fighting for the flag,” Colbert builds to a crescendo over “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“What’s important is this flag and its message of freedom,” Colbert says, “a message as important to Donald Trump as it was to the 13 original colonies.”
The music stops. A cut to Trump.
“I don’t know what the 13 stripes represent,” Trump says.
At the time, that contrast was fairly shallow, demonstrating Trump’s willingness to use the flag as a symbol while not demonstrating an awareness of even the most rudimentary symbolism it conveys.
Now, though, that interaction seems far more revealing for precisely the same reason: Trump’s willingness to try to deploy history as a political tool while demonstrating how little of history he’s familiar with.
The immediate trigger for raising this point is an interview Trump conducted with the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. During the discussion, the Journal’s Michael Bender raises the subject of Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of black slaves in Confederate states after the Civil War.
It will be recognized on Friday — the date Trump’s campaign originally selected for his first reelection rally after states begin lifting measures meant to contain the coronavirus pandemic. The rally will also be in Tulsa, site of deadly massacre of black residents and the destruction of black-owned businesses a century ago. This combination of place and time, coming on the heels of recent Black Lives Matter protests, prompted the Trump campaign to move the rally to Saturday.
But there was a silver lining, in Trump’s eyes.
“I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous,” Trump told Bender. “It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it.”
He hadn’t, at least, nor had others he asked. Trump told Bender that “a black Secret Service agent” told him what the day meant. His campaign manager, Brad Parscale, similarly didn’t know why the date was meaningful, according to a report in the New York Times.
“Parscale conceded he had not been aware of the holiday, multiple people familiar with the conversation said,” according to the Times’s article. “But he responded that the campaign had held events on Jewish holidays, and last year held a ‘Merry Christmas’ rally in Battle Creek, Mich., none of which were criticized as disrespectful to the people who celebrated those holidays. He said he thought it would not be a problem.”
The idea that Trump wasn’t alone in his ignorance is obviously untrue in general, given the holiday’s history, but specifically untrue given that the Trump administration has repeatedly issued formal proclamations recognizing the holiday.
“I just want to mention that, earlier today, the president and the first lady released a statement commemorating Juneteenth, a historic day recognizing the end of slavery,” then-press secretary Sean Spicer said during a news briefing in June 2017. “They share their warmest greetings with all those separating — celebrating this historic moment.”
Those prior statements were actually noted by a staffer in the room with Trump and Bender.
“Oh really? We put out a statement? The Trump White House put out a statement?” Trump said, according to the Journal. “Okay. Okay. Good.”
This pattern is by now familiar. Trump suggests that a lack of familiarity with a concept is the default position of most Americans.
“Nearly 2½ centuries ago, the movement for independence began in the pulpits of American churches,” Trump told a group of evangelical activists in January. “People don’t know that. They don’t want to know that anymore in many cases."
“Becoming the nominee of the party of Abraham Lincoln — a lot of people don’t realize that Abraham Lincoln, the great Abraham Lincoln, was a Republican — has been the greatest honor of my life,” Trump said in September 2016.
“Most people don’t even know he was a Republican, right? Does anyone know?” he said at another event the following March. “A lot of people don’t know that.”
In February 2017, during an event focused on Black History Month, Trump made one of his more infamous historical comments.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who has done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” he said. According to Factba.se’s index of Trump’s public comments, a database that extends before his time in politics, this was Trump’s first mention of the abolitionist leader who died in 1895.
What’s perhaps most striking about Trump’s Juneteenth comment, though, is the immediate political context in which it comes. Last week, Trump tried to pivot the national conversation away from the protests focused on police treatment of black people and onto friendlier terrain: whether military bases commemorating Confederate leaders should be renamed.
He summarized his case.
THOSE THAT DENY THEIR HISTORY ARE DOOMED TO REPEAT IT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 11, 2020
That Fort Bragg is named both for someone who fought against the United States and did so remarkably badly is less important than the idea that:
- Trump thinks his supporters would oppose its renaming (which a new poll suggests is correct).
- It allows him to claim the mantle of history, however abstractly.
His campaign’s lack of familiarity with history or, at least, its disinterest in understanding historical context was also manifested this week in Facebook ads that use a red triangle. The campaign apparently believed that the triangle signified antifa, a loose-knit identity used by some participants in the recent protests. The symbol was also used in Nazi Germany to mark communists and other political opponents. The campaign’s failure to understand potential other meanings — along with its attempts to spin its decision as well founded — is as revealing as Parscale’s shrugging at Juneteenth and Trump’s claim that he put Juneteenth on the map.
We cannot fail to point out the obvious — how Trump’s insistence on the importance of tributes to the Confederacy compares with his understanding of a day marking the freedom of slaves held in Confederate states. His defense of the military bases and Confederate statues mirrors what he was trying to do with Colbert — embrace a theoretical American history as sacrosanct while demonstrating no awareness of the nuance of what he was embracing.
In the case of Juneteenth, he goes further, suggesting his lack of awareness was the default position for the country broadly — that, in essence, no one could have known what the 13 stripes meant until that Colbert segment aired.
He makes this casual claim about Juneteenth even as people in the room know it’s wrong, and he shrugs.
History is a political tool for Trump, and he sees little value in diving very far beneath its surface.