As with many other acts of his administration, former US President Donald Trump broke the mould by answering the radical right’s call for whitewashing American history and establishing the 1776 Commission. Its declared purpose was to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union”. The reference to 1776 here points to an ominous recasting of history. As with many of Trump’s performances, his commission was all symbolism and show, with little substance and less scholarship.
Based on its report and membership, though, we can read the 1776 Commission as a declaration of war on critical historical education and even academic freedom generally. Had Trump remained president, it might have been a rare commission report generating actual policy along the lines of his executive order banning federal agencies from running diversity sensitivity training. Thankfully, Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, dissolved the commission within hours of his inauguration.
As I demonstrate in my book, A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine, most commissions are a way governments express concern while kicking a touchy 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 US and the Chilcot Inquiry, which looked into the British participation in the US-led war on Iraq, are two recent examples. The latter issued its report 14 years after the invasion, which it somewhat condemned.
The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, by contrast, took a backhoe to the political pasture of history education. It sought to ensure the culture wars stayed stirred up.
Sprinkled throughout the document are nods to various conservative movements – including the gun lobby (“the right to keep and bear arms is required by the fundamental natural right to life”) and the anti-abortion movement. Many have noted The New York Times’s 1619 Project – a “corrective to the blindly celebratory histories that once dominated our understanding of the past” – as being a target of this commission that obscures the deep roots of slavery and racism out of which the US grew.
Distinguishing the 1776 Commission is the unabashedly partisan nature of its membership. Most leaders at least make a show of appointing commissioners known for their independence of mind and their expertise, as US President Woodrow Wilson attempted when he dispatched the King-Crane Commission to ask the Arabs what kind of government they wanted in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s demise in 1919.
Not so the ex-president. Trump found people who believe nature and revelation justify and legitimise the US, as the Report repeatedly emphasises. The 1776 Commission included: A senior fellow and a member of the board of directors of the conservative Heritage Foundation; a conservative political analyst and Islamophobe; a Brexiter; a college president pushing a “patriotic education” agenda on his campus in the Ozarks; the chancellor of a college that requires all of its trustees, faculty, and administrators to sign a Statement of Biblical Worldview; and an author writing to defend “America’s core principles [who] shows how they have come under assault by modern progressive-liberalism”.
The 1776 Report was issued with a red, white, and blue cover bedecked with a swirling, founding father calligraphy font recalling the Declaration of Independence. Its references to that document, to America’s founders, to President Abraham Lincoln and even civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr are all in the service of praising American exceptionalism – except when it comes to slavery. The report seeks to unburden its ignorant readers of the “the illusion that slavery was somehow a uniquely American evil” and to cheerlead “the Western world’s repudiation of slavery”.
It also cautions those too optimistic Americans to set aside their “unrealistic hopes and checks against pressing partisan claims or utopian agendas too hard or too far”. Could this refer to Black Americans and Latinx who expect to see some of their histories in their classrooms? Lest the citizens wish to be allowed their differences and be treated as equals, the report reminds them that “a republican people must share a large measure of commonality in manners, customs, language”.
Many of the report’s 40 pages scream out a barely submerged subtext against multiculturalism, against what the right calls the “political correctness” of “the woke left” and what others may call respect for diversity and critical thought.
There are many ways in which Trump’s 1776 Commission is like so many others, though. It was an effort to stamp as official and authoritative the view of some, in this case, the far-right nationalist views of Trumpists. And like so many other commissions across history, it is yielding a brief period of rancorous commentary while producing no change on the ground.
Luckily, in this case, with Trump’s exit from the White House, we will not find out if this one might have been an exception. It is frightening to think of how much steam it could have given those forces, charging through various fields of education, seeking to blot out critical voices.
It will take more from Biden than the removal of a report from a government website to ensure critical scholarship underpins the education of US students. His repeal of the so-called “Muslim Ban”, which prevented travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the US, and the restoration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme for undocumented residents are important first steps.
What the country needs is the promotion of critical education, the prohibition of digital censorship, and protections for the right of students and educators to discuss injustices, even when they see them among favoured US allies like Israel, which has long had Biden’s “stalwart support”.
Biden’s removal of the 1776 Report was as symbolic as Trump’s commissioning of it. Let us hope this administration’s commitment to critical debate and historical education is more than symbolic.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.