The Rise of Anti-history

The Trumpist wing of the GOP uses history as a bludgeon, without regard to context, logic, or proportionality.

Artwork of a red-tinted portrait of Abraham Lincoln, but his face is blurred
Adam Maida ; The Atlantic

In June, Marjorie Taylor Greene visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The visit was, by her own account, revelatory. Earlier in the spring, the Georgia member of the U.S. House compared Food City, a grocery chain that identified vaccinated employees on their name tags, to the Nazis, who forced Jews to wear Stars of David. A few days later, she compared Democrats to Nazis.

Now she was contrite. “When you make a mistake, you should own it. I have made a mistake, and it’s really bothered me for a couple of weeks now, so I definitely want to own it,” she said. “The Holocaust—there’s nothing comparable to it.”

The lesson wore off in less than a month. When President Joe Biden announced plans to send public-health workers door-to-door to encourage people to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, Greene tweeted: “People have a choice, they don’t need your medical brown shirts showing up at their door ordering vaccinations.”

Another museum visit would probably be futile. For Greene and others in the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party, anti-history has become a shibboleth. They drop historical references and facts into political debates, but without regard to context, logic, or proportionality. Their villains include Adolf Hitler, but also Mao Zedong and Joseph McCarthy; the Holocaust was bad, but also, Jewish people control the weather. The pose is more than the simple historical illiteracy that’s endemic among American politicians. In this GOP faction, members are willfully ignorant of history, which they view in purely instrumental terms, as a bludgeon to wield even as they do not bother to understand it.

As usual, Donald Trump himself has led the way. In 2018, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly had to give the then-president a capsule lesson about interwar history and which countries were on what side of the two world wars, according to a new book from the Wall Street Journal reporter Michael C. Bender. “Well, Hitler did a lot of good things,” Trump reportedly replied, citing the improving German economy in the 1930s. (Trump denies this.) “You cannot ever say anything supportive of Adolf Hitler,” Kelly replied. “You just can’t.” He was right, though he somehow didn’t see this as a reason to quit on the spot.

Trump’s ignorance of history is well established. In the first fortnight of his presidency, he cited Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” evincing no awareness of who Douglass was. A few weeks later, Trump mentioned Abraham Lincoln at a dinner. “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,” he said. “Does anyone know? Lot of people don’t know that.” Who? Then in May 2017, Trump mused nonsensically that if Andrew Jackson had lived later, the Civil War might have been avoided.

Predictably, many of the most egregious examples of the anti-historical approach involve Hitler. Another notable case occurred in Washington State, where a Republican state legislator wore a Star of David to an event in order to protest vaccine mandates. (“It’s an echo from history. In the current context, we’re all Jews,” he wrote on Facebook, before later apologizing.) American conservatives have often argued that the Nazis were actually leftists, noting that the party’s full name included the words National Socialist, but the anti-historians have moved from this smirking sophistry to a reflexive recourse to the Holocaust, no matter how ill-fitting or ill-advised, in nearly any debate.

The contradictory views of Hitler from the anti-historians might seem like ideological confusion. But they actually demonstrate how the anti-historians’ use of the past is purely opportunistic. These politicians aren’t interpreting history to bolster their views, but cherry-picking isolated, misunderstood examples to fit whatever argument they happen to be making.

Anti-history is not restricted to peculiar views of Hitler. Earlier this week, the former Trump spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News viewers, “We know most of our forefathers, all of our main Founding Fathers, were against slavery, recognized the evils of it.” (Several Founders expressed ambivalence about slavery while enslaving people, but that’s not what McEnany said.) Representative Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina is fond of citing American history and is often wrong, creating his own anti-history canon.

Many legitimate disputes exist about the facts of history and its interpretation: Consider some—though perhaps not most—of the debate over The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Political figures might also make dubious or mistaken statements about history without participating in anti-history.

Conspiracist thinking, another hallmark of Trumpism, is anti-history’s natural partner. Each snatches isolated facts or claims out of their proper context, fabricates new contexts for them without regard to reality, and fashions them into partisan weapons. That Greene (found espousing bizarre anti-Semitic theories when she isn’t comparing anything she dislikes to the Holocaust) and Trump are leading proponents of both anti-history and conspiracy thinking is not a coincidence.

In 1955, the founding father of a new strain of conservatism, William F. Buckley, promised that his magazine, National Review, would “stand athwart history, yelling ‘Stop.’” The rising Trumpist strain in the conservative movement stands athwart slop, yelling, “History!”