History 101 in the Trump Era

History 101 in the Trump era
By: Mark Poloncarz
May 2, 2017

The last few days will not go down in history as the best days of the Donald Trump presidency, or for that matter any presidency. In the span of less than forty-eight hours President Trump: (1) invited a brutal dictator to the White House; (2) tweeted an incredibly inaccurate statement about Andrew Jackson and the causes of the Civil War; and (3) cut short an interview when pressed to explain his own words, admitting “I don’t stand by anything.” These three actions tell us everything we need to know about the man in the Oval Office, and it is not good.

First, the United States of America has a long, proud history of being the example to the rest of the world of what a representative democracy can and should be. While our own history is not perfect, the United States is known worldwide as the champion of human rights. No other country can claim the mantle of protector of human rights around the world like our nation, and, regardless of president or political party, for the past fifty years we have publicly called out brutal dictators across the world.

That ended two nights ago when, during a phone call, President Trump casually invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House. Duterte is not your usual president. According to published reports, Duterte has a brutal record on human rights. In approximately a year since he became president, more than 7,000 people have been killed during his crackdown on suspected drug dealers and even addicts.

Additionally, Duterte claimed to have killed three people himself when he was mayor of a Philippine city, drawing the wrath of human rights organizations across the world. He threatened to burn down the United Nations building in New York, and most notably in the United States, publicly lashed out against President Obama in an obscenity laced tirade, resulting in the cancelling of a one-on-one meeting between the two presidents.

He is the last person who should be invited to the White House. Yet, President Trump did so.

Giving the president the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he did not know about Duterte’s penchant for ordering the killing of his own citizens or his self-professed extra-curricular activities while mayor (though he should have). Or perhaps he was tired when making the late night phone call. If so, what is more troubling is instead of admitting it was wrong to do so when faced with criticism of the invite, the president doubled down and defended his invite. There can be no defending of this action. If you are going to invite Rodrigo Duterte to the White House you might as well start inviting Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Bashar al-Assad of Syria for state visits.

The president should have admitted he was wrong and retracted the invite. However, as we know, Donald Trump the president, or previously the businessman, is incapable of admitting anything he says or does is wrong. This is a very bad trait for any leader, nevertheless the president of the United States.

Nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. We have to admit our mistakes, learn from them and move forward, hopefully to never repeat them again. However, this president first has to admit he made a mistake before he can ever learn from his mistakes. Unfortunately the Duterte episode shows, once again, admitting a mistake or weakness is not something Donald Trump is capable of doing.

Normally the Duterte incident would be the worst event for any president during a twenty-four period, but in this presidency it was not because President Trump dropped jaws nationwide a day later when he discussed the reasons for the Civil War and opined it would not have happened if Andrew Jackson was president. He said:

I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. And he was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?

In one paragraph the president seemed to forget everything he was taught in school about the causes of the Civil War, or for that matter, Andrew Jackson’s own history as a slave owner and having died sixteen years before the Civil War began. The quote was so outlandish one might think the president might have just appeared on an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” Yet, he did not, leading one to question whether President Trump was awake during any history class or paid attention to anything else other than his businesses because if there is one event in U.S. History perpetually discussed it is the Civil War and its causes. (See Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War” as example number 1).

Then later in the day, after general astonishment with his statement, President Trump did what he always does, he doubled down tweeting “President Andrew Jackson, who died 16 years before the Civil War started, saw it coming and was angry. Would never have let it happen!”

There really is no response to the president’s Civil War statements and tweet other than he does not know his history. Ask any 10th grade high school student and he or she will probably come up with a more historically accurate and cogent answer as to the causes of the Civil War.

When the original Constitution differentiated between the rights of “free persons” and “three fifths of all other persons,” or slaves, our nation was on a collision course to either exist as one free nation or split into two states: one free and the other slave owning. Andrew Jackson could not have prevented the Civil War. No one, no matter how angry they were, could have prevented the Civil War. It is as simple as that.

President Trump seems to not know this most basic of historical facts about the United States. The Civil War is the seminal event in our nation’s history since its creation. Our president should know more about the cause of it and how, in some ways, we still deal with the bigotry and racism that created it. He should read a respected treatise on it, or at least watch Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War.”

Finally, as was released yesterday, President Trump abruptly ended an interview with John Dickerson of CBS News when he was pressed on his claim President Obama wire-tapped his phones. In trying not to respond, President Trump said this, “I don’t stand by anything.” He then deflected a bit, saying he has “own opinions. You can have your own opinions,” and then ended the interview.

It seems in a moment under pressure the president flinched and finally admitted what most Americans are figuring out – he does not stand by or for anything – and he will casually toss aside campaign pledges or statements now that he is president. He has been unable to pass one major piece of legislation, the Republican controlled Congress is starting to go it alone, in some ways ignoring him, as it negotiates a new federal spending bill with democrats, and even some of his most strident supporters are starting to question if his signature campaign promises – to build a wall on the southern border and repeal Obamacare – will ever occur.

In saying he does not “stand by anything” it may be as close as the president gets to admitting he was wrong. It appears we have witnessed a rare moment of truth by President Trump in an otherwise long period of alternative facts and head scratching statements. He may never ever admit he was wrong, but he just may have admitted what many assumed: he does not really stand for anything other than himself and ‘Donald Trump’ the brand.

These three episodes should be viewed as a window in how the remainder of his presidency will play out.

In inviting Philippines President Duterte to the White House and then doubling down in the face of criticism, President Trump tossed aside our nation’s long standing history of being the protector of human rights, showing we should expect anything from him, including taking stances which will only degrade our nation’s reputation in the world.

In showing an amazing lack of knowledge on the reasons for the Civil War, and then defending his first ill-informed statement, it showed the president will state whatever alternative facts come to his mind. I expect our president to at least know basic U.S. history, not come up with an alternative version of our nation’s history.

Finally, in stating “I don’t stand by anything,” President Trump finally admitted in a moment under stress what we should assume going forward: he does not really have any true political convictions and will casually toss aside what he said before if it no longer fits the current narrative. This will cause serious consternation with our allies as no one can ever be truly sure where the president, and by way of association the United States stands on any issue.

When the history of the Donald Trump presidency is written these three episodes in a two day period might be as good as any other to explain his presidency and the underlying person. While we do not know how his presidency will end up, we at least have a very good understanding on what to expect going forward, and it a presidency unlike any other we have witnessed.

Copyright Mark C. Poloncarz, May 2, 2017