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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.

When her absurd comments caused an uproar on social media akin to the storm that confronted Carson, DeVos, too retreated, releasing a statement saying that the history of black colleges and universities “was born, not out of mere choice, but out of necessity, in the face of racism, and in the aftermath of the Civil War”.

The reaction on the internet to these comments was immediate and intense, showing, thank goodness, that many Americans have absorbed the lessons of the country’s racial history.

Finally, in the biggest irony of the week, CNN broke a story that Trump Svengali Stephen Bannon had defended Senator Joseph McCarthy for crusading against communists. Andrew Kaczynski, a CNN reporter known for digging up previously undiscovered statements by political figures, found a 2013 speech in which Bannon hailed the discredited Wisconsin demagogue for rooting out the Reds in the US government.

“The place was infested with either traitors that were on the direct payroll of Soviet military intelligence or fellow-travelers who were kind of compliant in helping these guys get along,” Bannon said. “I mean, there’s absolutely no question of it.”

Well, history has rendered its verdict on the McCarthy period, with its shameful blacklists and forced congressional testimony. It is one of the darkest chapters of modern US politics. McCarthy and his deputy, Roy Cohn, a mentor to Donald Trump in New York, were both exposed and discredited for their false accusations and reign of terror, which needlessly ruined many people who had served their country.

The Bannon speech is especially bonkers given that President Trump, in falsely accusing President Obama of spying on him, decried this as “McCarthyism” on Twitter. In all of these instances, history is being twisted to serve expedient political purposes in service of a rightwing agenda that is anti-immigrant and racist.

The tactics are certainly ones that Joe McCarthy would have approved.

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