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Why Trump's '1776 Commission' is such an unfortunate mess

I don't care about the utterly ridiculous 1776 Commission "report." I do care if schools actually bring this nonsense to students.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks during the White House Conference on American History at the National Archives in Washington
President Donald Trump speaks during the White House Conference on American History at the National Archives in Washington, Sept. 17, 2020.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

As an incumbent seeking a second term, Donald Trump repeatedly struggled to say during the 2020 campaign what he intended to do with another four years in power. He and his party didn't bother to write a platform, for example, and his campaign website didn't bother to create an issues page.

But there was one thing Trump would occasionally bring up as a priority. As he put it in his Republican National Convention speech in August, "We will fully restore patriotic education to our schools." Around the same time, Trump's campaign team released "Fighting for You!" agenda, filled with vague bullet points on what the Republican would do with a second term, and it included, "Teach American Exceptionalism."

Soon after, Trump delivered remarks accusing the nation's public schools of teaching students "hateful lies about this country" and announcing an executive order for a 1776 Commission that would create a "patriotic" curriculum that would rid classrooms of "toxic propaganda" and "twisted lies" about the United States.

There was no great mystery behind the push. For one thing, Trump couldn't focus on current events -- he was campaigning in the midst of a pandemic and a recession -- and "patriotic education" served as a convenient distraction. For another, the Republican hoped to exploit social unrest over the summer, insisting that "the left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools."

But at the heart of the matter was the 1619 Project, a New York Times-backed initiative that focused on the "consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country."

The 1619 Project infuriated much of the right, and Trump, who'd never expressed much of an interest in these topics before, saw his campaign-season project as a way of pushing in the opposite direction.

Yesterday, Trump's pointless 1776 Commission released this thrown-together document. As the New York Times reported, it wasn't long before legitimate scholars denounced the Republican report as ridiculous.

The report drew intense criticism from historians, some of whom noted that the commission, while stocked with conservative educators, did not include a single professional historian of the United States. James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, said the report was not a work of history, but "cynical politics."

"This report skillfully weaves together myths, distortions, deliberate silences, and both blatant and subtle misreading of evidence to create a narrative and an argument that few respectable professional historians, even across a wide interpretive spectrum, would consider plausible, never mind convincing," Grossman said. "They're using something they call history to stoke culture wars."

It's very tempting to go through the entire 45-page report, highlighting every obvious error of fact and judgment, but to do so would be to take the document more seriously than its authors ever did. It's too pitiful to warrant such scrutiny.

In effect, we're talking about 45 pages of nonsense, quickly compiled without input from actual historians, about how much the commission's members don't like the left or progressive movements from history.

"The biggest tell in the 1776 report is that it lists 'Progressivism' along with 'Slavery' and 'Fascism' in its list of 'challenges to America's principles,'" Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University, wrote on Twitter.

What concerns me, however, is what will become of this laughable exercise. After all, the report isn't a press release; it's intended to be used by educators to teach the nation's children how awful liberals are.

I don't much care if a bunch of conservatives spent a few months throwing together a document with a ludicrous take on American history; I do care if schools actually bring this nonsense to students and ask them to believe it.