Trump’s not the only American with a loose grasp on history

I’ve been following the reaction to President Trump’s comments on the Civil War last week with curiosity. Curiosity … maybe trepidation — it’s so hard to find the right words to describe feelings these days.

Of course, Trump’s ideas on President Andrew Jackson’s ability to avoid a war he died long before are the latest in a long line of justifications for questioning Trump’s grasp of things like facts and reality. The more time he spends in the primary international spotlight, the more one has to wonder how Trump has made it this far, no matter how great his wealth.

It’s like we need to create a new Cabinet position, Secretary of Instruction or something, the name doesn’t matter. This new Cabinet member could grade anything the president plans to say or do in advance and offer instruction. I’m guessing most of Trump’s first drafts would garner that big red “F” we all dreaded.

I don’t think our president is the only one on the political scene with a questionable grasp of history, though.

We’ve got conservatives running around selectively misappropriating FDR’s words to support abdicating responsibility to poor people in ways I don’t think FDR would have approved. Then there’s the Senate, whose members have been listening to a speech by George Washington at the beginning of each new session for years on end.

Washington’s words are a disturbingly accurate description of the current state of affairs with our two political parties, yet somehow our leadership failed to see Election 2016 coming. I mean Washington even talked about party corruption leading to an open door for foreign involvement in our election and governance processes.

But it’s not just our elected officials. It’s all of us. We all struggle to internalize just how much humanity repeats problematic patterns from history rather than learning from them.

I know I’ve been feeling like our society’s stuck in the middle of any number of default essay questions from high school or college. Goodness knows if I were still studying for my English degree right now, I’d be drafting at least one paper comparing Trump to the likes of King Lear. I’m guessing Trump never read it, or even he would be a bit freaked out by the similarities.

And while much has been made of comparing Trump to France’s Louis XIV with their love of gilding, there’s also their mutual love of involvement in foreign affairs and of absolute, centralized power— the desire to be seen as the powerhouse on the world stage. Further, one can find hints of Trump in all three kings named Louis leading up to the French Revolution.

The Sun King (Louis XIV) Versailles. Stock image

Trump might have been right at home in the court of Louis XVI, renowned not only for its decadence, but also it’s debauchery.

We’re basically living a default essay on “The Causes of the French Revolution,” and I’d argue some of those circumstances precede Trump’s presidency. Trump’s two predecessors also had a penchant for waging war around the world, but no penchant for generating the revenues necessary to support such actions. In that regard Trump is merely the latest in a line of Louis.

Admittedly, though, Trump does appear ready to take imbalanced tax and foreign policies to the next level. And I’m not sure the nobles we’ve assembled in Congress will be willing to stop him.

Is anyone familiar with the term “laissez-faire” in relation to regulating markets? The idea of letting markets do what markets are going to do without interference from the government? If I remember correctly, that theory got taken out for its first test drive by an appointee of Louis XVI who deregulated the grain market in France.

That first test drive was a disaster. The lack of market controls combined with a couple bad harvests, and boom, hungry people were taking to the streets, including a working women’s march on the Palace of Versailles.

Engraving – Women’s March on Versailles, 5-6 october 1789.

Yet, here we are over 200 years later still arguing about a theory that was an epic fail the first time it was put to test. The French proved years ago that completely unregulated markets don’t care if people die or if governments fail on the way to maximizing profit.

Heck, we’ve proved that markets don’t necessarily care if people die on the way to maximizing profit, even when they are regulated. Oxycontin, anyone?

So what’s my point? Maybe, as our culture pushes to emphasize science, math and technology, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the liberal arts. Trump’s errors may be glaring, but the failure to learn from history belongs to all of us.

Maybe that’s going to be the takeaway from this presidency:  in order for our country to survive long enough to enjoy the benefits that scientific and technological innovations may bring, a firm grasp of the liberal arts is more necessary now than ever.


Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.