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Trump's '1776 Commission' tried to rewrite U.S. history. Biden had other ideas.

The now-dead report is easy to dismiss as propaganda. But it also helps explain why conservatives seem so anxious about how Americans define democracy.
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses watch as troops march in front of the Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021.
President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses watch as troops march in front of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.Angela Weiss / AFP - Getty Images

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made history Wednesday. They also took remarkably swift steps to reject a dangerous alternative history. The "1776 Report" — a hastily developed account of the nation's founding — was archived from the White House website just days after President Donald Trump released it as one of his final acts in office.

Trump's "1776 Report" was compiled by an 18-person commission of mostly male conservative educators (no historians), who assembled the document and released it on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In just 40 pages (20 of which are appendices), the report offered a framework for a "patriotic education" to counter "false and fashionable" histories that paint the country's founders as hypocrites who espoused egalitarian principles while protecting the institution of slavery.

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We may think of history as fixed and immovable, a factual documentation of our past. But history is only as accurate as the people who write it. And one of Trump's last actions in office was an attempt to rewrite American history, focusing on our founding ideologies and mythologizing a very specific version of our origin story. His push to make history great again falls apart quickly, but it says plenty about the state of modern conservative thought today.

We may think of history as fixed and immovable, a factual documentation of our past. But history is only as accurate as the people who write it.

It's clear that the document, conceived after a summer of protests in America, was meant to malign Black Lives Matter activism and The New York Times' effort to re-examine founding myths in its "1619 Project." It also aligns progressive politics with fascism, warns of communists masquerading as college professors and traces the origins of identity-based social movements to the pro-slavery arguments of white supremacists like John C. Calhoun. In some ways the logic is bewildering, but it's also familiar. It's the same rationale used to recast programs and initiatives designed to combat chronic racial and gender imbalances as discriminatory themselves.

Images from the Jan. 6 insurgency are now part of American history, as well. Black Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman's being chased by a violent, and mostly white, mob. A rioter named Kevin Seefried's waving a large Confederate flag as he walked through the Capitol. The iconography of these modern-day "patriots" — including pro-Nazi slogans, white supremacy symbols and neo-Confederacy veneration — clashed with the iconography of the Capitol and the National Mall's museums, monuments and memorials.

Many of the rioters screamed "1776," painting themselves, some literally, as revolutionaries. But did these men and women chanting "U.S.A." as they battered police officers and desecrated a global symbol of democracy really know what happened in the aftermath of the American Revolution? The "1776 Report" warns that "mob rule and tyrannical rule violate the rule of law because both are rule by the base passions rather than the better angels of our nature." Did the rioters know this? Does Trump?

The report is easy to dismiss as thinly veiled propaganda or the last gasp of a disgraced administration. But reading it may also help us to understand how conservatives act as "political archeologists," selectively mining the past for symbols and anecdotes that can help them legitimize their power. Or seize it. All politicians do this, but conservatives seem especially anxious about how Americans define democracy, wanting to exalt it and undermine it at the same. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., exemplified this tension after Trump's loss, lamenting the uptick in mail-in voting and complaining that if voter turnout stayed at this level, Republicans would never win another presidential election.

Similarly, the "1776 Report" seems motivated at its core by fear of losing: losing elections, losing power and, more generally, losing the hearts and minds of the majority. (The popular vote proves it's too late for that last one.)

The “1776 Report” seems motivated at its core by fear of losing: losing elections, losing power and, more generally, losing the hearts and minds of the majority.

The title itself is revealing. MAGA politics is primarily backward-looking and animated by a nostalgic whitewashing of the past. If nostalgia is sentiment, history is proof. Or so it seems. The turn toward 1776 is more than an insistence that the founding must be revered. Trump and his supporters want to stake a claim on our very founding; they want to control the historical and emotional narrative.

Curiously, the report includes no mention of Native Americans or prerevolutionary violent struggles for land and dominance. It's also not concerned with the conditions of slavery before or after national independence. It rejects The New York Times' assertion that the year 1619 carries symbolic weight as a founding of sorts; 1619 is the year the first ship carrying enslaved Africans docked off the coast of Virginia. The Times' series commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of that ship by focusing on how slavery indelibly shaped American history and culture. Trump disagreed, calling the project "toxic propaganda." His "1776 Commission" was a transparent attempt to reinvigorate a long-simmering culture war just a few months before the election.

Talking about slavery doesn't come easily to many white Americans, but that doesn't mean we should stop talking. It's the "tough stuff of American history" that some would rather shrug off as an unfortunate historical blip. The "1776 Report" is adamant that America is and always has been exceptional — our challenges, including slavery, are painted as more global than national in character. It would take 244 years after the first slave ship arrived for "all persons held as slaves" to be proclaimed free. Yet, in the "1776 Report" this tragic history is excused because, well, other countries had slavery, too.

The report admits that topics like slavery make people feel guilt, anger and shame, but it sees these feelings as unpatriotic. We should see them, instead, as understandable, not as an excuse to avoid or deny uncomfortable truths. To do otherwise is to cater to a "white fragility" that keeps us from collectively confronting racism and the complex legacies of slavery.

Public projects like the "1619 Project" or the New York Historical Society's "Slavery in New York" exhibition endeavor to do just that. These efforts break with tradition by foregrounding histories of racial violence and systemic racism as patently American. It isn't a new idea. For generations, Black history museums have centered the lives and experiences of Black people as quintessentially American stories. Hundreds of such institutions crisscross the country. Sometimes they're smaller, like the Black American West Museum in Colorado; other times they're grand, like the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Smithsonian museum, nicknamed the Blacksonian, treats slavery as "a shared story" and delves into 1776 as a way to question what freedom really meant to the nation's founders; it includes a statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of stacked bricks with the names of his slaves carved into each.

This is just the sort of provocation the "1776 Report" laments as "deliberately destructive." But it's unclear why interrogating founding principles or protesting their uneven application across the population is weakening our common, national bonds. One could just as easily say it's the dominant class' refusal to recognize that our lives matter, too, that is tearing at the fabric of civic life.

It is clear that the report views identity-based politics as a graver threat to American democracy than oppression. Indeed, the "identity politics" label is often applied to groups that have been historically discriminated against as a way to dismiss our concerns as pleas for special or preferential treatment. Even Black history museums are labeled as identity-driven, a way to distinguish them from other, perhaps whiter history museums — museums, in other words, that are treated as neutral.

The year started with so-called patriots flooding the National Mall, raging against a free and fair election. This was itself a reminder that racial violence will always be a part of America. Indeed, the U.S. Capitol, like the White House, was built with slave labor. But exactly two weeks later, Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn into office on those very steps. The juxtaposition is troubling, but it also feels true to what this country is. Biden and Harris seem to have prioritized taking down the "1776 Report" — as well they should have. Because how we tell stories about the past matters. After all, as America's first youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, recited during the inauguration, "while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us."