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Talking Points Memo

The Right’s Long War On Howard Zinn Reaches The White House

Conservatives have been upset about kids reading 'A People’s History of the United States' for years, worrying that it stirs up trouble. Now Trump has taken up the cause.

View of students and faculty carrying signs during a strike by faculty and staff of Boston University, on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 1979. Historian Howard Zinn, then a professor at BU, is visible in the foreground. (Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images)

View of students and faculty carrying signs during a strike by faculty and staff of Boston University, on Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 1979. Historian Howard Zinn, then a professor at BU, is visible in the foreground. (Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images)

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

“If you want to read a real history book,” Matt Damon’s character tells his therapist, played by Robin Williams, in the 1997 film “Good Will Hunting,” “read Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States.’ That book will knock you on your ass.”

It is very unlikely that President Donald Trump knew who Howard Zinn was before he saw the name on his teleprompter. And it is even less likely that he’s read “A People’s History of the United States.” But that didn’t stop him from saying — at the White House Conference on American History on Thursday — that today’s “left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”

During this new upsurge of mass protest against Trump and police abuse, it makes sense for the president and his followers to try to downplay and discredit previous generations of dissenters.

During his tirade, Trump announced his intention to create a national commission to promote “patriotic education.” The goal is to encourage, perhaps even require, teachers to inculcate students with a version of history that views the U.S. as an exceptionally just and benevolent democracy. (Surely he didn’t mean teaching impressionable youngsters that “The Pledge of Allegiance” was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist, or that “America the Beautiful” was penned the next year by poet Katherine Lee Bates, another socialist as well as a lesbian and ardent anti-imperialist.)

“We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country,” Trump said. “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” If “ideological poison” such as Zinn is not removed from schools, Trump warned, “it will destroy our country.”

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The conference, which was held at the National Archives and which had the markings of a bright idea by Trump’s propaganda czar Stephen Miller, included panelists who want American history teachers to avoid reference to the nation’s flaws. This was, in fact, how American history was typically taught in the 1950s and early 1960s, when textbooks presented a triumphalist, consensus-oriented, almost conflict-free view of the country’s past. These were the years when Trump was growing up and which he constantly idealizes as a golden age, when America was “great” — before the raucous 1960s arrived, disrupting it with protest movements against racism, militarism, and sexism.

But Trump and his allies are fighting an uphill battle. A Pew Research Center poll in late August found that 71% of Americans — including 87% of Biden supporters and 51% of Trump supporters — agree that “It makes the U.S. stronger when we acknowledge the country’s historical flaws.”

During this new upsurge of mass protest against Trump and police abuse, it makes sense for the president and his followers to try to downplay and discredit previous generations of dissenters. Trump made the connection clear.

“A radical movement is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance. We can’t let that happen,” Trump warned at the conference. “Left-wing mobs have torn down statues of our founders, desecrated our memorials, and carried out a campaign of violence and anarchy. Far-left demonstrators have chanted the words ‘America was never great.’ The left has launched a vicious and violent assault on law enforcement—the universal symbol of the rule of law in America. These radicals have been aided and abetted by liberal politicians, establishment media, and even large corporations.”

Trump also lambasted the 1619 Project, a series of essays about America’s history of racism, published earlier this year in the New York Times—another one of Trump’s favorite targets.

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He is the author of  The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books) and an editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style (published in January by The New Press). He is coauthor of the forthcoming Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America.

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