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Trump’s 1776 Commission: Cultural renewal by political repression

This is not a struggle between right and left, but between the timeless essence of America and its myriad foes

EducationUSA Politics

President Donald Trump speaks during a Constitution Day speech in which he said he would sign an executive order promoting “patriotic education,” September 17, 2020. Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House.

In one of the most tumultuous months of one of the most telling presidencies in the history of late America, it’s hard to stay surprised. Clearly, the January 6 raid on the US Capitol was far from the most ruthless or effective “coup d’état” endorsed by a sitting president, and the aftermath is still more dismal. In a moment of storybook simplicity, the right took a drowning man’s bait and more or less corroborated years of liberal indignation at the Trump administration’s perceived abnormality. Truthfully, there was very little unprecedented about Trump’s path to power, nor his executive record; but the bizarre climax to his years of meek conspiracism proved to liberals the world over that his presidency had likewise defiled a sacred institution. Today, every cartoon lunatic associated with the siege serves as a metonym for Trump’s improper office. It’s a brilliant, and cheaply expedient, concentration and dispersal of responsibility; and on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, obviously doubles as a kind of cleansing rite, by which the legitimacy of the sovereign is restored.

Much has been written on this farce, and its possible ramifications for already criminalized social movements. Only two weeks later, it’s difficult to imagine the Trump presidency ending any other way. But the death flails of officialdom continue, and just yesterday the outgoing administration made good on the work of the President’s Advisory 1776 Commission, convened in September to outline a new program of “patriotic education,” in the form of a free-wheeling, little-researched, forty-page screed. Marred by sweepingly ahistorical claims and barely reconstructed McCarthyist pique, the report also includes appendices on the centrality of religious faith to American governance, the dangers of identity politics, and the “misuse of history” by social justice activists. It’s a lot, in sum; and also, very little.

Bilious and breakneck, this report is the crowning literary achievement of an illiterate office—an historical treatise written by an 18-person committee, not one of whom is trained in US history. This motley crew includes committee chair Larry Arnn, a founder of the Claremont Institute and a member of the Heritage Foundation; Carol M. Swain, a conservative television personality and political scientist, whose most recent book frets the “theft” of children by secularism; and Victor Davis Hanson, a military historian and author of The Case for Trump, who writes about such topics as the merits of a classical education, and the propensity of young Black men for crime.

Surely Trump intended to unveil this document against the backdrop of his coronation, as a statement of priorities. For this reason, in spite of its late arrival, it outlines a program of cultural warfare with a special brazenness. In six parts and four appendices, the document proposes a pedagogical program of national renewal, based in the shared identity of all Americans as formalized on July 4, 1776:

Today, however, Americans are deeply divided about the meaning of their country, its history, and how it should be governed. This division is severe enough to call to mind the disagreements between the colonists and King George, and those between the Confederate and Union forces in the Civil War. They amount to a dispute over not only the history of our country but also its present purpose and future direction.

From the very outset, then, this document perceives the present culture war to be a civil war as well. Naturally, in the rhetoric of this committee, this is not a struggle between right and left, but between the timeless essence of America and its myriad foes—communists and fascists, progressives and racists; antinomies that this report treats interchangeably insofar as they name “narrow interest groups,” out to destroy the individual: “The arguments, tactics, and names of these movements have changed, and the magnitude of the challenge has varied, yet they are all united by adherence to the same falsehood—that people do not have equal worth and equal rights.”

America, one understands, is to have formalized equality on the day of its founding, such that the particular struggles of the unequal in the present are in fact an assertion of superiority. Essentially, the argument here is a legalistic defense of the “reverse racism” canard, at which Trump et al excel. In the terms of this report, political activists living in the wake of the civil rights movement, for example, are enemies of an equality called “America.” This claim seems especially brazen in light of its publication date, on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose picture features prominently on the report’s second page and whose words feature improperly throughout.

At its mythological basis, the 1776 Report is immediately concerned with overarching questions of political incorporation:

There was no United States of America before July 4th, 1776. There was not yet, formally speaking, an American people. There were, instead, living in the thirteen British colonies in North America some two- and-a-half million subjects of a distant king. Those subjects became a people by declaring themselves such and then by winning the independence they had asserted as their right.

This language, of a movement from subjecthood to peoplehood, should be read carefully against the report’s points of comparison—the birth of the French Republic in 1789, or the People’s Republic of China in 1949. These nations, the report states, predate the birthdays of their respective republics, whereas the United States, we are to believe, is an integrity of choice.

Even so, the commission confidently cites John Jay’s conviction that the thirteen colonies of the 1770s should be united under a single government, where Providence has gifted the United States to “a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” Ancestry guides principle in this description, and it is clear from Jay’s argumentation that an independent nation is becoming of a fairly solidary people. In context of the various colonial agendas converging on the territory of North America, the future beneficiaries of this document may not have been absolutely clear; but any schoolchild knows whom it was meant to exclude. After Frederick Douglass’ July 4 oratory, one ought to revaluate this anniversary and its “popular characteristics” with the situation of the enslaved, and colonized, foremost in mind.

Historian Gerald Horne argues that the founding fathers of the United States of America, “lionized by left, right, and center,” in fact created the “first apartheid state.” With a global context in mind, Horne argues that 1776 marks a counterrevolution with respect to the scale of slavery and its immanent resistances, noting the flight of settlers from the Caribbean following slave revolts, the arming of Africans in North America, and the possibility of African-Indigenous insurrection. Where the 1776 Commission Report proudly affirms the non-homogeneity of the founders—who were “neither wholly English nor wholly Protestant nor wholly Christian,” one reads—Horne supplies an explanation:

The model in the “Mother Country” was based upon a certain privilege for the English, as against the Irish and Scots. In contrast, the colonies—desperate for men and women defined as “white” to counter the fearsome presence of Africans in the prelude to 1776—could empower the Irish and Scots and provide them with more opportunity. All this was occurring as economic conflicts brewed in the trans-Atlantic relationship. Ultimately, the mainland model based on “racial” privilege overwhelmed the London model based on “ethnic” privilege.

Truly, the nascent People who become the initial subjects of the United States were not “wholly English” or Protestant, insofar as the ethnic identities marked for exclusion in Europe were gradually integrated into a flexible, if often fickle, whiteness. This rubric of domination would unite European settlers, Horne explains, “laying the basis for a kind of democratic advance, as represented in the freedom of religion in the emergent US Constitution.”

Where the possible hypocrisy of the founding fathers is concerned, the 1776 Commission more or less throws up its hands: “Many Americans labor under the illusion that slavery was somehow a uniquely American evil … It was the Western world’s repudiation of slavery, only just beginning to build at the time of the American Revolution, which marked a dramatic sea change in moral sensibilities. The American founders were living on the cusp of this change, in a manner that straddled two worlds.”

Horne’s account tidily dispenses with this teleological claim. If anything, this world historical “cusp of change” cleaves the union—as a spatialized division of labour, and again as an impediment to economic development. As Claude M. Lightfoot writes in his assessment of the American Revolution, the progressive elements of the world’s first bourgeois democracy stood in direct contradiction to its genocidal basis and the enormity of the slave trade. But the end of slavery was the result of a clash between two economic systems and their demands on the use and ownership of land, as well as the collective strength of abolitionists. After years of lucrative compromise, “it became apparent that the rising capitalist system could not thrive side by side with a slave society.”

According to the 1776 Commission, however, the legitimacy of American government derives from immutable precepts, based on human nature; thus “the foundation of our Republic planted the seeds of the death of slavery in America.” To this equality, the report opposes the spectre of “progressivism”:

In the decades that followed the Civil War, in response to the industrial revolution and the expansion of urban society, many American elites adopted a series of ideas to address these changes called Progressivism. Although not all of one piece, and not without its practical merits, the political thought of Progressivism held that the times had moved far beyond the founding era, and that contemporary society was too complex any longer to be governed by principles formulated in the 18th century.

The paradigm of this progressive standpoint, according to the 1776 Commission, turns out to be none other than South Carolina Senator and Vice President John C. Calhoun, who sought to defend slavery by claiming that rights “inhere not in every individual by ‘the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God’ but in groups or races according to historical evolution.” This is a baffling turn in a frequently head-spinning report, where Calhoun and contemporary liberals have only difference in common: “Progressives believed there were only group rights that are constantly redefined and change with the times”; thus progressivism culminates in an administrative state or proliferant technocracy, in order to “direct society through rules and regulations that mold to the currents of the time … This shadow government never faces elections and today operates largely without checks and balances.”

Condensing crude conspiracy theories about the deep state and a bland critique of pragmatism as the philosophical house style of political liberalism, the commission’s portrayal of “progressivism” is only a domestic counterpart to its central target, the allegedly twin threats of fascism and communism: “Communism seems to preach a radical or extreme form of human equality,” the authors warn, but “in the communist mind, people are not born equal and free, they are defined entirely by their class.” Peppered with quotations from the Communist Manifesto, this is surely one of the more fretful engagements with Marxist source texts by the White House since the end of the Cold War, and in keeping with the tone of recent missives from the State Department. Ever-sensitive to stepping-stones, the report warns kids off democratic socialism, too; which, “while less violent than Communism, is inspired by the same flawed philosophy and leads down the same dangerous path of allowing the state to seize private property and redistribute wealth as the governing elite see fit.”

In summation of these knotty concerns, we arrive at the rub. The road to tyranny, one discovers, proceeds by the formal inequality demanded by “identity politics,” in which racism and anti-racism, communism and fascism, become indistinguishable:

The Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders. The ideas that drove this change had been growing in America for decades, and they distorted many areas of policy in the half century that followed. Among the distortions was the abandonment of nondiscrimination and equal opportunity in favor of “group rights” not unlike those advanced by Calhoun and his followers … Today, far from a regime of equal natural rights for equal citizens, enforced by the equal application of law, we have moved toward a system of explicit group privilege that, in the name of “social justice,” demands equal results and explicitly sorts citizens into “protected classes” based on race and other demographic categories.

As above, it’s difficult to understand how the 1776 Commission has successfully hallucinated John C. Calhoun, Social Justice Warrior—but Appendix III to this report, ‘Created Equal or Identity Politics?’, affirms this pact with even greater conviction. “Indeed, there are uncanny similarities between 21st century activists of identity politics and 19th century apologists for slavery,” one reads. The report characterizes Calhoun as “perhaps the leading forerunner of identity politics,” as a proponent of cultural difference and an apologist for the ‘minoritarian’ interests of the Southern slaveholder. Calhoun is in good company for once, however, where Antonio Gramsci and Herbert Marcuse apparently furnish the tendency its intellectual origins: “These ideas led to the development of Critical Race Theory, a variation of critical theory applied to the American context that stresses racial divisions and sees society in terms of minority racial groups oppressed by the white majority.”

As anyone passingly acquainted with critical race theory understands, the social ontology proposed by this document is precisely that of whiteness, which constitutively fails to perceive its own collective representation. And in every example of tyrannical or anti-American politics put forth by the 1776 Commission, one finds the accusation of particularism mediated by group interest, as opposed to the ideal set forth in the Declaration of Independence—of a universal equality mediated by an absolute individual. Of course, at the time of the declaration in 1776, hundreds of thousands of Black people in the United States were not regarded as individuals—a status denied them as a group.

The 1776 Commission was formed in September 2020 to specifically contradict The 1619 Project, a multi-platform initiative from the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” In every sense, the commission intends to advance the interests of a particular—albeit hegemonic—identity. In its final recommendations, the report sets forth a program of “national renewal,” which includes “restoring patriotic education that teaches the truth about America,” against its tyrannical detractors: “school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions, activist propaganda, or factional ideologies that demean America’s heritage, dishonor our heroes, or deny our principles.”

These principles, which form the basis of a group identity after all, are shored in the family, which miniature integrity conveys the individual to the state:

When children see their mother and father hard at work, they learn the dignity of labor and the reward of self-discipline. When adults speak out against dangerous doctrines that threaten our freedoms and values, children learn the time-tested concept of free expression and the courageous spirit of American independence. When parents serve a neighbor in need, they model charity and prove that every human being has inherent worth. And when families pray together, they acknowledge together the providence of the Almighty God who gave them their sacred liberty.

This evangelical vision—one of cultural renewal by political repression—hasn’t been put quite so plainly since the Reagan years, nor has it gone to such lengths to enumerate its enemies this century. But what is the meaning of this moribund commission and its program for social cohesion, now that Trump is on his way out? Will this remedial document have any political life whatsoever? Perhaps not as such; but we’ve seen the disturbances that Trump can muster at a word, and we can be sure that this briefing reveals the present understanding of a right intent on cold, cultural war, and further, escalating confrontation. What this looks like the day after tomorrow remains to be seen, but as concerns this particular report, one thing is clear: it isn’t only that the history presented here is badly understood. It is selected, as a weapon in a struggle older than America itself. Perhaps the authors have read their Gramsci after all.

Cam Scott is a writer and independent researcher from Winnipeg, Treaty 1 territory. He is the author of ROMANS/SNOWMARE, published by ARP Books in 2019.


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