In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner‘s Salena Zito, Donald Trump – the current President of the United States – asked, “What caused the Civil War?” This led many in the news media to highlight the sitting president’s apparent lack of knowledge about the historical context surrounding this country’s most deadly war. While it might be the most convenient answer that Trump just “doesn’t know” anything about this country’s history, I have reason to believe this whole farce of a president and the antics he continues to perpetuate run much deeper than simply not knowing any better.
During the conversation, Trump also alluded to seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson, somehow being able to prevent the war from happening at all. He said,
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw 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 the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”
It must be noted that Jackson, a slave owner, documented racist, and pioneer of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 which killed at least 4,000 Indigenous Americans along the Trail of Tears, died in 1845. The Civil War began in 1861.
NPR’s Morning Edition Host Steven Inskeep wrote a book about Andrew Jackson in 2015. He shared some thoughts on Trump’s, part of which he actually agrees with.
“Andrew Jackson, who was president from 1829-1837, helped to avert a plausible civil war, generations before the actual one. In the 1830’s, South Carolina insisted on its right to nullify, or ignore, federal law. The South Carolinians objected to taxes — federal tariffs on the imported goods they were buying from Europe.”
Conversely, he explained that there was a deeper motive behind the Civil War that Trump probably does not want to talk about: slavery.
“Jackson never questioned the underlying, fundamental difference between North and South, which was on slavery. He didn’t actually disagree with his fellow Southern leaders about that issue.”
He went on.
“Southerners saw this as a threat to their property, and tried to secede from the Union. From the very beginning the South tried to obscure what the conflict was truly about, citing state rights, Southern theories of liberty, or the economic oppression of the North; but the Confederate vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, made it plain in a speech: the United States was in ‘error’ to believe in ‘the equality of the races,’ and the Confederacy aimed to build on a different foundation.
People did try, desperately, to ‘work out’ that problem before the shooting started in 1861, but it was in the end an irreconcilable difference.”
Fundamentally, since the “peculiar institution” of slavery existed, white people have contorted themselves into pretzels attempting to justify and legitimize its centrality in the United States’ economic and social development throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Because the “inalienable rights” promised to US citizens in the Declaration of Independence never applied to enslaved Black people (and it could be argued that it doesn’t apply to Black people today), it has been a primary goal of white people to dislodge slavery from as many US institutions and historical processes as physically possible.
Philosopher Charles Mills would call this “white ignorance” – the process by which white people actively misremember history and essentially recreate the world we live in an effort to avoid guilt or accountability for the privileges they enjoy simply for being white. Privileges that are markedly enhanced if they can tack male and wealthy onto their already powerful racial identity.
This kind of ignorance is not about just not knowing. It is about choosing to know only what maintains the existing status quo, preserves dominant racial orders, and promotes the notion that race simply is not at the center of everything. And doing all this while clearly knowing otherwise.
Let me be clear: every time Trump opens his mouth, everyone expects garbage to fall out. It is the edification of white mediocrity (a cousin of white ignorance) that substantiates folks pretending as if something different will happen.
White ignorance rests beneath the surface of the “give him a chance” crowd and the “he needs to start acting presidential” chorus. It rested under all those lily white hopes that voting for Trump would miraculously change the country for the better. It rests under revisionist historical accounts of the Civil War and pretty much every other historical “alternative facts” based narrative white people peddle to shield themselves from facing their complicity in the systemic oppression of people who do not look like them.
In fact, it should be said, white people do not know many things about racism, segregation, mass incarceration, inequity in public education, environmental racism, and a host of issues facing marginalized people in this country simply because they do not give a shit. Maybe we should use that terminology for Trump too.
So, no. I will not laugh at Trump’s lack of knowledge of the Civil War fought to maintain slavery, his unawareness of figures like Frederick Douglass or his ineptitude in handling the US Presidency. I will not enjoy any political cartoons about Trump’s allergies to history books.
What I will do is continue to disrupt narratives from mainstream media that posit these behaviors as passive accidents or as fateful byproducts of a privileged life. I am not giving Trump or any other white person a pass on understanding the role of race in the United States. I certainly won’t do it while the Google exists.
And, neither should any of you.
Photo via Flickr