Alternative history: the dangerous byproduct of fake facts

From Ben Carson claiming slaves came over as ‘immigrants’ to Betsy DeVos ignoring Jim Crow – history is a new frontline in the battle for truth

By Jill Abramson / The Guardian / Wednesday 8 March 2017 11.39 EST


Fake news has morphed into something far more egregious, fake history. Donald Trump routinely lies about himself, his accomplishments, his businesses and his opponents. This is how he wins the political upper hand and dominates the news cycle. The lying is no longer surprising.

It’s his willful ignorance of history, mirrored by members of his cabinet, that is astounding and, in some ways, even more demoralizing.

Lobbing a Saturday morning tweet at former President Obama to accuse him of wiretapping his phones at Trump Tower was outrageous, given there is not a scintilla of evidence that this happened. Revealingly, it also showed that Donald Trump has no sense of the history of the office he holds or its traditions.

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President Trump’s ignorance about the fundamentals of US history is compounded by the team surrounding him. In his maiden address to his employees at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson equated the experiences of slaves and immigrants.

After calling America “a land of dreams and opportunity”, here were the astonishing words that followed: “There were immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder, for less. But they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”

Outrage was immediate. The secretary, who has the most prestigious academic credentials of anyone in the Trump Cabinet, clung to this idiocy in subsequent interviews. On Twitter, he went even further out on a limb, insisting, “You can be an involuntary immigrant.” Later, as the limb was sawed off, Carson finally retreated, this time on Facebook.

“I’m proud of the courage and perseverance of black Americans and their incomprehensible struggle from slavery to freedom,” his post stated. “I’m proud that our ancestors overcame the evil and repression that we know as slavery. The slave narrative and immigrant narrative are entirely different experiences. Slaves were ripped from their families and their homes and forced against their will after being sold into slavery by slave traders.” Despite his prior reference to “involuntary immigrants”, he added, “the immigrants made the choice to come to America.”

The new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, barely eked out her confirmation vote after showing jaw-dropping ignorance of federal education policy. But she managed to top that performance in a display of total ignorance about the history of segregation in higher education.

First, President Trump invited the presidents of historically black colleges and universities to the White House for what they thought was a substantive talk. Instead, they were used for a brief photo op with the president. DeVos then hailed the historically black schools as “real pioneers” of school choice, the issue that is her sole passion. These schools were founded after the civil war because black Americans could not attend segregated schools. Choice had nothing to do with their beginnings.