The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘People don’t realize’: Trump and the historical facts he wants you to know

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

From foreign trade to the Empire State Building, there are many things that President Trump says people don’t know. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

As President Trump announced that South and North Korean leaders have his blessing to discuss a permanent end to the military conflict between their two countries, he dropped in a quick history lesson.

“People don’t realize the Korean War has not ended,” Trump said on Tuesday, his face contorting into a look that seemed to communicate surprise and bafflement. “It’s going on right now.”

For Trump, people don’t realize a lot of things.

There was the time in March 2017 when Trump informed top Republican Party donors that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican, right?” Trump said. “Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

When he visited France last summer, Trump explained that “France is America’s first and oldest ally” and that “a lot of people don’t know that.” Several days after the trip, Trump said in an interview that French President Emmanuel Macron “loves holding my hand” and that “people don’t realize he loves holding my hand.”

Trump’s public remarks are filled with dozens of similar comments. They often begin with some variation of the phrase, “Most people don’t know . . .,” and end with a nugget of information that many of those surrounding him — fellow world leaders, diplomats, journalists, politicians or aides — do indeed already know.

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

According to Trump, most people don’t know that there’s more than one Air Force One; that the heroin epidemic has ravaged New Hampshire; that the Empire State Building was constructed in less than a year; that universities “get massive tax breaks for their massive endowments;” that Clemson University is “a great academic school, one of the top 25;” or that nonprofit organizations and churches are barred from endorsing political candidates.

Trump’s lessons are often accompanied by raised eyebrows, widened eyes and a “gee whiz” look that suggests perhaps the nation is witnessing the president’s education in real time.

Is Trump playing the role of educator in chief, or simply sharing historical facts he’s newly learned? The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

It is true that many Americans do not know basic facts about their country, said Charlie Copeland, the president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative group that challenges the quality of education that many university students receive. The institute used to do an annual survey to measure civic literacy — but the results were repeatedly so abysmal that it was stopped in 2011, he said.

“I think that American history has become almost an untaught subject today,” Copeland said.

Many of Trump’s “people don’t know” remarks have involved foreign policy. In a meeting with the Italian prime minister in April 2017, Trump noted that “Italy is one of America’s largest trading partners” and that “a lot of people don’t know that.”

Trump doesn’t read much. Being president probably won’t change that.

While meeting with the president of Afghanistan last fall, Trump acknowledged that the situation on the ground is complicated and “people don’t realize you had 20 terrorist groups in Afghanistan.”

And during a news conference in Vietnam in November, Trump said that “people don’t realize Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned.”

Sometimes Trump will go a step further and suggest that Washington needs to simplify the way that it talks about complicated issues so that Americans will better understand.

He has suggested calling community colleges “vocational schools,” because “we don’t know what a community college means.” He claims to have urged congressional leaders to use the phrase “tax cuts” instead of “tax reform,” because “nobody knows what that means.”

And during a visit to West Virginia this month, he didn’t even bother to explain his concerns about China stealing U.S. intellectual property.

“We have our intellectual property, and a lot of people don’t understand what that means,” Trump said. “And it doesn’t matter if you understand it or not. You understand the concept of being taken advantage of, and we can’t be taken advantage of any longer.”