Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Corporate gatekeepers and big tech monopolists are making it more difficult than ever for independent media to survive. Please chip in today.

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)

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.

Peter Dreier

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.”

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.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He joined the Occidental faculty in January 1993 after serving for nine years as Director of Housing at the Boston Redevelopment Authority and senior policy advisor to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. He is the author of "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (2012) and an editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of "We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style" and co-author of the forthcoming "Baseball Rebels: The Players, People and Social Movements That Shook Up the Game and Changed America" (2022).

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

World Leaders Must Commit to End Covid-19 Patents: Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus

Decrying the "brutally unequal global rollout of Covid-19 vaccines," Yunus wrote that "there is still time for world leaders to say never again."

Andrea Germanos ·


Addressing Crisis 'Existentially Imperiling' Its People, Vanuatu Declares Climate Emergency

"We are in danger now, not just in the future," said Prime Minister Bob Loughman.

Andrea Germanos ·


'Grotesque': Disgust as Trump Reads Names of Uvalde Victims at NRA Convention

Former President Donald Trump and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas were among those pushing a "good guys with guns" theory that "utterly failed" the latest victims of a mass shooting.

Andrea Germanos ·


Wall Street-Funded Democrat PAC to Spend $1 Million in Bid to Unseat Tlaib: Report

"Imagine spending $1 million to oust Rashida Tlaib instead of organizing in Detroit to make sure Michigan goes blue," quipped one progressive group.

Brett Wilkins ·


Parents Demand Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty 'For the Sake of the Children'

"We cannot remain silent as the fossil fuel industry and world leaders rob our children of a livable future," parents from 32 nations wrote in an open letter.

Brett Wilkins ·

Common Dreams Logo