As Americans, our collective desire to maintain a veneer of nationalistic piety tends to supersede our desire to tell the truth—and if the past is prologue, President Donald Trump will face no historical reckoning for his sprawling malfeasance. Over time and despite his gropes, tweets, and slurs, his lies, tantrums, and betrayals, his government shutdowns and immigrant cages, Trump will likely be remembered not as he was but as the dutiful head of state the nation needs him to be.
We’ve laundered the reputations of worse men. After slavery’s fall, Americans feverishly recast the image of those responsible for chattel subjugation. During secession, Jefferson Davis, who would become president of the Confederacy, initially condemned restrictions on slavery as a catastrophe “worth thousands of millions of dollars.” After defeat, he downplayed the “existence of African servitude” as “only an incident,” joining other Southern politicians like Alexander Stephens in retroactively describing slavery as merely a vehicle to address broader issues of states’ rights.
President Woodrow Wilson further obfuscated the past. At the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg, he did not mention slaveholders, focusing instead on “the splendid valor” and “manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another.” Two years later, he endorsed The Birth of a Nation, the film that lionized the former Confederates as insurgent Klansmen during Reconstruction. He reportedly said the movie was like “writing history with lightning.”
Hollywood doubled down on this lie, transforming barons of bondage into tragic lovers living on picturesque plantations in films like Gone With the Wind. The same trimming and editing applied to our original sin have sanitized our national transgressions ever since. Whether naming an airport after a president who had slurred African UN delegates as “monkeys” or defending an international warmonger on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Americans reconstruct what they don’t want to recall.
This is why Toni Morrison observed that written history is filled with “erasures and absences and silences.” It’s why her novel Beloved’s characters live in what she described as “a society and a system in which the conquerors write the narrative of their lives.” Ta-Nehisi Coates aptly compared this American amnesia to “the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.”
Yet Americans love their brightly rendered history as much as their HDTVs, and most have no desire to gaze at the dark, grainy truth. After all, false memory is what allows football fans in DC to cheer for the Redskins or Atlanta Braves fans to flail their arms like tomahawks. False memory is how we celebrate the genocidal Christopher Columbus as a daring explorer. False memory is why we set off fireworks over the nation’s largest Confederate memorial on July 4. Upon the slightest confrontation with the historical record, so much that Americans hold dear falls apart.
The pain is often too much to bear for those who inherit the profits of the country’s plunder. In a 2012 PBS documentary on slavery after the Civil War, the descendant of a Jim Crow plantation owner named John S. Williams was overcome with grief when she discovered the truth about her great-grandfather, whom the family remembered as a pillar of the community. Family lore recounted that he worked a few hardened criminals on his farm and that an awful accident occurred one day when they tried to escape. This, too, was an American fairy tale. Williams, like many other plantation owners, profited from racialized peonage: a system in which debt is paid with forced labor. In 1921, when federal investigators found Williams enslaving black laborers, he killed 11 of them to bury the evidence. Hunting them down one by one, he bludgeoned some and drowned others. He even forced one to dig his own grave.
“The story came to light for me. It was, of course, totally different from the story that I had heard,” the great-granddaughter said as tears pooled in her eyes. “I get so emotional when I think about not just the fact that these men were murdered but the cruelty with which it was carried out.”
The painful truth that Williams’s great-granddaughter reckoned with is what the American historical apparatus works to suppress. In the name of national innocence, in the name of American hegemony, we continuously, forcefully, willfully forget. The reflex is so strong that when The New York Times Magazine recently dedicated an issue to the legacy of slavery, readers convulsed. Newt Gingrich called it “a lie” and “propaganda” that the Times wants to “brainwash you with.” A writer for the conservative website The Federalist labeled it a project “to delegitimize America, and further divide and demoralize its citizenry.” And this impulse is bipartisan. When confronted on school integration, Joe Biden forcefully declared that he “did not oppose busing in America,” despite irrefutable reporting by the Times that he was “a leading opponent of busing in the Senate during the 1970s and 1980s.” Seen in this light, Trump’s lies aren’t a deviation from traditional American revisionism. They merely await the next cadre of patriotic academics, novelists, politicians, and filmmakers eager to cast him as yet another reclaimed American champion.
To expect the country to recall Trump’s legacy as vile is to expect citizens to look away from the never-ending Disney movie that is American history—something we have yet to show a willingness to do. Because if we still remember Confederate generals as dashing heroes, if we still enshrine segregationist senators as congressional philosophers, if we still celebrate incarceration enthusiasts as elder statesmen, then it is comfortably within the realm of possibility that Trump will eventually be remembered as a charismatic, pudgy grandpa who loved to wear red hats and wish people “Merry Christmas”—like a conservative Santa Claus who saved lumps of coal for migrant children.