The Origins of Trump’s Slapdash, Last-Second ‘1776 Report’Roundup
tags: teaching history, Donald Trump, 1776 commission
Joshua Tait is a historian of American conservatism. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Twitter: @Joshua_A_Tait.
On Monday, a presidential commission that Donald Trump established last year to “promote patriotic education” issued its report.
On Wednesday, the commission was disbanded by Joe Biden and its report wiped from the White House website and re-hosted by the National Archives.
In the 48 hours between, the report was panned by historians and critics—very likely the only people who will take much notice of the blink-and-it’s-gone document.
Ostensibly a rejoinder to the New York Times’s 1619 Project, the 1776 Report asserts the timeless values of the American founding and the exceptional goodness of the American past. Building on Trump’s professed desire to “clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” the report’s authors say they believe that “a rediscovery of our shared identity rooted in our founding principles is the path to a renewed American unity and a confident American future.”
The world will little note, nor long remember, the 1776 Report. But before it passes entirely from memory, it is worth taking a moment to examine what it is and how it came to be, not because it is intellectually serious—in fact, it is a self-plagiarized mishmash of sanitized history, high school civics, right-wing gripes, and authoritarian gestures—but because of what it reveals about the rise of a certain strain of conservative ideology: fundamentalist “West Coast Straussianism.”
The driving force behind this authorized history is a group of conservative scholars colloquially called West Coast Straussians. Typically right-leaning, Straussians are the students—or, more likely, the students of students—of the German-American scholar Leo Strauss. During the 1970s and 1980s, Straussians divided more or less regionally over how best to understand the United States. Was it a decent regime, built on low but solid foundations, as the East Coasters had it? Or was it “broadly continuous with the classical and Biblical traditions” and in some respects “perfecting those traditions,” as the West Coasters, led by Strauss’s first student, Harry Jaffa, believed?
Jaffa not only celebrated the founding, but treated it as something sacrosanct. He believed the founding’s dedication to the Declaration of Independence, and its completion in the Civil War, made the United States a good regime dedicated to the universally valid principle of equality.
Jaffa was an intellectual streetfighter. He debated—and feuded with—many major conservative intellectuals, including Irving Kristol, Willmoore Kendall, Martin Diamond, Robert Bork, and Antonin Scalia, for not agreeing with his conclusions.
You’d think an emphasis on equality would lead to a gentler conservatism, and some right-wingers worried about this. But where East Coast Straussians, and neoconservatives like Kristol, suggested America was a decent, bourgeois nation, West Coast Straussians possessed more of a millenarian outlook based on an idealized American past.
When Jaffa died in 2015, his student Larry Arnn declared “if we are able to save our country, which we must,” Jaffa’s war against other conservatives would “be there at the foundation of saving it.”
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