By Abram Van Engen
On September 17, President Donald Trump announced he was establishing “the 1776 Commission,” a plan to “promote patriotic education” and a “pro-American curriculum.” Trump defined his commission against critical race theory and The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which examines the legacy of slavery in the United States. He claimed that such projects “teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” To teach critical race theory to children, in his view, was tantamount to “child abuse.” Instead, he declared, the 1776 Commission would develop a curriculum “that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.”
The truth, according to Donald Trump, is that the United States is “the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” That claim is more surprising than it might seem. Five years ago, he flatly denied that America was exceptional and described the idea as insulting. He told no histories of America (apart from the vague sense that it was once great), never talked about the Pilgrims, never compared America to a “city on a hill,” and did not hearken back to 1776 or the idea of America’s “immortal principles.” Instead, Trump based his first campaign on the idea that America was falling behind the rest of the world. “America First” portrayed the nation as a place of carnage needing a savior to set it straight.
Now, as Trump tries to “Keep America Great,” he has turned his cry of “America First!” back toward the language he once opposed. In particular, Trump has pitched his weight behind exceptionalist histories of the nation that bring him almost full circle to the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan.
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