As with many other acts of his administration, former US President Donald Trump broke the mold by responding to the call of the radical right to whitewash American history and establish the 1776 Commission. His stated goal was to ” to enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive for a more perfect Union ”. The reference to 1776 here indicates a disturbing recasting of history. As with many of Trump’s performances, his commission was entirely token and spectacle, with little substance and less scholarship.
Based on its report and its members, however, we can read the Commission of 1776 as a declaration of war on critical historical education and even academic freedom in general. If Trump had remained president, it might have been a rare commission report generating real policy in the direction of his executive order banning federal agencies from providing diversity awareness training. Fortunately, Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, dissolved the commission within hours of taking office.
As I demonstrate in my book, A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine, most commissions are a vehicle for governments to voice their concern while throwing a sensitive political issue into the long grass. The 9/11 Commission, which investigated the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 in the United States, and the Chilcot Inquiry, which examined British participation in the US-led war against Iraq, are two recent examples. The latter published his report 14 years after the invasion, which he somewhat condemned.
The President’s Advisory Board 1776, on the other hand, took a backhoe to the political pasture of teaching history. He sought to keep the culture wars agitated.
Throughout the document, nods to various conservative movements – including the gun lobby (“the right to keep and bear arms is demanded by the fundamental natural right to life”) and the movement anti-abortion policies are prevalent throughout the document. Many have noted The New York Times Project 1619 – a “fix to the blindly celebratory stories that once dominated our understanding of the past” – as a target of this commission that obscures the deep roots of slavery and racism from which the United States was born.
The distinction of the 1776 Commission is the decidedly partisan nature of its members. Most leaders at least make a demonstration of appointing commissioners known for their independence of mind and expertise, as attempted by US President Woodrow Wilson when he sent the King-Crane Commission to ask the Arabs which type government they wanted to follow the Ottoman. The disappearance of the Empire in 1919.
Not so the former president. Trump has found people who believe nature and revelation justifies and legitimizes the United States, as the report repeatedly points out. The 1776 Commission included: a principal researcher and a member of the board of trustees of the curatorial Heritage Foundation; a conservative and Islamophobic political analyst; a Brexiter; a university president pushing a “patriotic education” program on his campus in the Ozarks; the chancellor of a quorum who requires all of its administrators, teachers, and administrators to sign a biblical worldview statement; and one author writes to defend “America’s Fundamentals [who] shows how they have been attacked by modern progressive liberalism ”.
The 1776 report was published with a red, white and blue cover adorned with a swirling calligraphy font of the founding father reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence. His references to this document, to the American founders, to President Abraham Lincoln and even to civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr are all in the service of the praise of American exceptionalism – except when it comes to slavery. The report seeks to unburden its ignorant readers of “the illusion that slavery was somehow an uniquely American evil” and to encourage “the repudiation of slavery in the Western world”.
He also warns those overly optimistic Americans to put aside their “unrealistic hopes and controls against pressing partisan demands or utopian agendas that are too hard or too distant.” Could this refer to black Americans and Latinxes who expect to see some of their stories in their classrooms? Lest citizens wish to have their differences and be treated on an equal footing, the report reminds them that “a republican people must share a large share of common points in mores, customs and language”.
Many of the 40-page report scream a barely submerged subtext against multiculturalism, against what the right calls the “political correctness” of the “waking left” and what others may call respect for diversity and critical thinking.
However, Trump’s 1776 Commission is like so many others in many ways. It was an effort to brand as official and authoritative the views of some, in this case the far-right nationalist views of the Trumpists. And like so many other commissions throughout history, it gives rise to a brief period of spiteful commentary without producing any change on the ground.
Fortunately, in this case, with Trump’s exit from the White House, we won’t know if he might have been an exception. It is frightening to think of how much steam she could have given to these forces, charging into various fields of education, seeking to erase critical voices.
It will take more from Biden than removing a report from a government website to ensure essential scholarships support the education of American students. Its repeal of the so-called “Muslim ban,” which barred travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, and the reinstatement of the Deferred Action Program for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) for undocumented residents are important first steps.
What the country needs is the promotion of critical education, the ban on digital censorship, and the protection of the right of students and educators to discuss injustices, even when they see them among favorite American allies like Israel, which has long enjoyed “Biden’s unwavering support.”
Biden’s suppression of the 1776 report was as symbolic as its commissioning by Trump. Let us hope that the involvement of this administration in critical debate and historical education is more than symbolic.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.