Foon Rhee

Does Trump know less about U.S. history than eighth-graders?

A portrait of President Andrew Jackson hangs on the wall of the Oval Office as President Donald Trump speaks on March 31.
A portrait of President Andrew Jackson hangs on the wall of the Oval Office as President Donald Trump speaks on March 31. The Associated Press

Scrolling through my emails first thing Monday, I learned that the thesis I wrote for my history degree – about Soul City, a new community started by civil rights leader Floyd McKissick – had been digitized and is available to academics anywhere.

So here I was, feeling good about the importance of American history, and my small contribution to it.

Then I saw the head-shaking story about President Donald Trump wondering why there was a Civil War, why it could “not have been worked out” – I guess like some real estate deal.

Trump really admires President Andrew Jackson, so in the interview Trump suggested that if Jackson had been president a “little later,” he would have prevented the bloodiest war in America’s history. Trump can try to rewrite history, but the fact is the Civil War didn’t start until 16 years after Jackson died.

Trump also somehow ignored a big reason for the Civil War – slavery. He seems to have a weird blind spot about that.

Last week, he declared that human trafficking now is “probably worse than any time in the history of this world.” Victims of the African slave trade would beg to differ. And during an African American History Month event in February, he spoke as if 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass were still alive and well and doing “an amazing job.”

You can laugh and poke fun on social media, but there’s a serious side when the nation’s leader is so lost about our own history.

For one thing, what kind of example is he setting for school kids, who are already coming up short on social studies and civics?

Maybe it would help if the president took a refresher course. He could use the history-social science framework for California public school students, who learn in fifth grade about our nation’s beginnings, in eighth grade about America’s development through the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, and in 11th grade about our modern history.

Or maybe, since Trump is big on marketing and symbolism, he could spend more time at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. I hear it’s big and beautiful, as he might say, and it’s barely a half-mile from the White House.

Botching U.S. history is bad enough. His lack of knowledge of world history can create an international incident.

Actually, it already has. Last month, he said he learned from his new buddy Xi Jinping, China’s president, that “Korea actually used to be a part of China.” That outraged South Korea, whose foreign ministry called the comment “historically untrue.” Not the best move to upset a key U.S. ally in the middle of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, the saying goes. If that’s true, then we may be in even bigger trouble with Trump than we thought.

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