Posted on : MAY 2, 2017
WASHINGTON — If nothing else, President Trump has already secured a place in history. It is his grasp of history that seems less secure.
In his latest foray into what might be called the alternative past, Mr. Trump suggested that Andrew Jackson had been “really angry” about the Civil War, which did not break out until 16 years after his death. And for good measure, Mr. Trump questioned “why was there the Civil War” in the first place, suggesting that it should have simply been worked out.
The comments, made in an interview broadcast on Monday, may have been attributable to imprecision, but for historians they underscored what seems to be a tenuous understanding by Mr. Trump of the course of events that preceded his ascension to power. At various points, he has seemed to suggest that Frederick Douglass is still alive, appeared surprised that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, and mounted a plaque at a golf course marking a Civil War battle that never happened.
“Presidents should have some better sense of the nation’s history as they become part of it,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton.
White House officials said that Mr. Trump was being misinterpreted and that a few random comments had been twisted into meaning something they did not. The criticism of his remarks, they said, reflects a “gotcha” game by intellectual elitists who fail to understand him.
“There’s a certain amount of hunting for ‘what is it that Trump has done that’s dumb?’” said Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who taught history as a college professor in Georgia and has written multiple historical novels. “Trump’s not a student of history. Trump’s an extraordinarily successful, entrepreneurial personality who learns what he needs to know when he needs to know it. Trump is learning history as he governs.”
After Mr. Trump’s comments led to criticism, he tried to clarify Monday night on Twitter. “President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry,” he wrote. “Would never have let it happen!”
Many presidents find history absorbing, since they live it and make it. President George W. Bush read 14 books about Lincoln during his time in office, seeking inspiration and comfort. President Barack Obama made a point of regularly hosting historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert A. Caro, David Kennedy and Robert Dallek for dinners examining how the travails of his predecessors offered lessons for his presidency.
But even presidents with more evident interest have tripped up over history from time to time. Mr. Obama mangled World War II events when he said his great-uncle helped liberate Auschwitz, which would have been possible only if his great-uncle had been a Soviet soldier. Aides later clarified that Mr. Obama meant Buchenwald, which was liberated by American troops. Similarly, when Mr. Obama referred to “Polish death camps,” he generated a storm of protest in Warsaw, which always insists that they be referred to as German death camps on Polish territory.
Mr. Trump has made questionable comments a regular feature of his public discourse, going back years. During the campaign, he talked about thousands of Muslims in the United States cheering after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, despite a lack of evidence. At a golf course in Virginia, he posted a plaque honoring the “River of Blood” where so many soldiers died in the Civil War that “the water would turn red,” even though historians said no such battle took place there.
At an African-American History Month celebration in February, Mr. Trump seemed to suggest that the 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass was still around. “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” he said.
At a later fund-raiser for the National Republican Congressional Committee, he seemed surprised that Lincoln belonged to the Republican Party. “Great president,” he said. “Most people don’t even know he was a Republican, right? Does anyone know? Lot of people don’t know that.”
No doubt many Americans are not fully aware of the country’s history, but most do know Lincoln was a Republican, according to a Pew Research Center survey in 2012. Fifty-five percent of those polled correctly said Lincoln was a Republican. Still, perhaps Mr. Trump was thinking about the 28 percent who thought the Great Emancipator was a Democrat.
Even his staff has found trouble over historically loose comments. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, asserted at a briefing that Hitler did not use chemical weapons against his own people. Mr. Spicer quickly apologized.
“Trump seems almost uniquely ill equipped to process history, whether because of his lack of empathy, his allergy to complexity, or his tendency to keep distant from anything that might carry the whiff of defeat,” said Paul Starobin, author of the newly released “Madness Rules the Hour,” about the confrontation at Charleston, S.C., that led to the Civil War. “History is not tidy. Trump likes tidy. He likes slogans. History doesn’t offer any.”
The latest historical question mark came in an interview Mr. Trump gave to The Washington Examiner in which he discussed Andrew Jackson. Mr. Trump has embraced Jackson as a kindred populist spirit railing against the establishment ever since Mr. Gingrich and Stephen K. Bannon, now the president’s chief strategist, told him of the similarities last year. Mr. Trump has hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office and visited his estate in Tennessee.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” he told The Examiner. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War; he said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”
Mr. Trump added: “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?”
While he demonstrated knowledge of other details of Jackson’s life, the Civil War comments set off a wave of scorn online. “POTUS says that Andrew Jackson (who died in 1845) ‘was really angry’ about the Civil War,” Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate last year, wrote on Twitter, using the initials for president of the United States. “Paging the Department of Education …”
John Weaver, a longtime adviser to Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and other politicians, mocked Mr. Trump with a reference to a supposed terrorist attack in Kentucky that one of his aides once cited erroneously. “Too bad Pres. Jackson didn’t ride up to Bowling Green/sit down with Frederick Douglass at besieged Nordstroms & figure out Civil War thingy,” Mr. Weaver wrote.
Jackson, a slave owner who believed in the use of force if necessary to preserve the Union, did not live to see the Civil War, but Mr. Trump may have been thinking of the Nullification Crisis of 1832-33, when Jackson threatened to send troops after South Carolina declared tariffs imposed by the federal government null and void and threatened to secede. That was a precursor, in a sense, to the crisis that precipitated the Civil War in 1861.
“That’s similar in vein to what one would say about the Civil War,” said Michael Dubke, the White House communications director. “I’m sure something along those lines is what the president was referring to.”
Mr. Gingrich suggested that Mr. Trump was onto something in suggesting that Jackson would have been more suited to stopping the slide to war than James Buchanan, who was passive as Southern states seceded. “Compare Jackson with Buchanan, and you could make a pretty good argument that had Jackson been president in 1856, there wouldn’t have been a Civil War because he would have crushed it,” Mr. Gingrich said.
Jon Meacham, a Jackson biographer, agreed that Mr. Trump probably meant the Nullification Crisis, but he said the question on what caused the Civil War suggested that Mr. Trump might have been referring to a deal to avert conflict short of the abolition of slavery. “The expansion of slavery caused the Civil War,” he said. “And you can’t get around that. So what does Trump mean? Would he have let slavery exist but not expand? That’s the counterfactual question you have to ask.”