History Will Look Kindly on Trump, No Matter What
To think otherwise requires a gross misunderstanding of how — and by whom — history is recorded
Ever since November 8, 2016, when Donald Trump won the election to become president of the United States, a cottage industry arose speculating about what history books would say about his tenure. Immediately after the election, TIME asked a group of historians that question — and in the years since, as Trump has presided over one calamity after another, espousing racist ideologies, and driving the country headfirst into 200,000 preventable deaths (and counting), that analysis has continued. January 2019, the BBC: “How will history judge President Trump?” March 2020, CNN: “History’s verdict on Trump will be devastating.” It’s become a rallying cry for people looking for some solace in the four years of terror we have endured.
The irony here is that thinking that history will treat Donald Trump poorly requires a gross misunderstanding of how history is recorded. Because history always treats White men better than they deserve. So, contrary to what many of us may want, I have no doubt that history will remember Donald Trump fondly.
I should know. I was raised in a Mississippi full of monuments for the most horrid White men to ever live.
I attended an elementary school named after Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy who warred against its fellow Americans for the preservation of slavery. I walked to class under the shadow of a Confederate state flag waving right below the American flag. I used to play at the Ross Barnett Reservoir, named after the unflinchingly racist governor who jailed my dad and so many others during the Freedom Rides. I watched the Ole Miss Rebels play football on Saturday afternoons; I learned about kind slaveowners at school. I witnessed history celebrate the most atrocious of White men as it silenced, erased, and demeaned Black titans.
But this isn’t a story of the past. This is a story of now.
As soon as Donald Trump became president, pundits and historians began participating in the George W. Bush Redemption Tour, longing for the days of a more civilized president. This remembrance came in spite of the fact that just 11 years previous, he led a Hurricane Katrina response that destroyed Black lives across the south. A few years before that, he had pushed the button on the war on terror, which killed innumerable innocent people. He presided over a recession that ruined my generation. Yet, Bush suddenly became some lovable goof who enjoys Michelle Obama’s peppermints and doodles mediocre paintings of the same Americans he didn’t give a shit about when he was president.
Trump’s presidency has been littered with White men (and Van Jones) celebrating the low bar he tumbles over with the finesse of a rhinoceros performing a cartwheel. There’s no reason to think historians will treat him any differently.
Ronald Reagan became one of the most celebrated presidents in modern history. He’s held up as the golden symbol of Republican strength, and members of both parties have lionized him for his endearing nature. Even Barack Obama has longingly name-checked him. But Ronald Reagan — he of the untreated AIDS epidemic and the intentional flooding of drugs into Black communities — is one of the most evil men to ever have lived. And yet, he’s somehow the standard-bearer of American politics.
History shows us White terrorists on the covers of Rolling Stone, immortalized with TV shows and documentaries seeing the fullness of their humanity; mass shooters and murderers get biopics and full-length profiles about being misunderstood and pushed to violence by a society that somehow wronged them. Yet, history will show us that Mike Brown was no angel.
The White men who manufacture stories of history are always softer with the men they see as reflections of themselves. As a result, they have the desire to see a benefit of the doubt that shouldn’t exist. Trump’s presidency has been littered with White men (and Van Jones) celebrating the low bar he tumbles over with the finesse of a rhinoceros performing a cartwheel. There’s no reason to think historians will treat him any differently.
To see Trump for who he really is — and record him as such — is to unveil the depravity at the root of White supremacy and, thus, White America. To record the ugliness at the core of Donald Trump’s election and the fact that, even if he loses, millions of Americans will have voted for him a second time, is to record the ugliness at the heart of America. And the wickedness of the White supremacy that keeps that heart pumping.
So as much as you might want a moral victory to emerge out of these four irredeemably deadly years, understand that history will never condemn Donald Trump. Because history doesn’t condemn White men. History lies. It coddles. It rewrites. It covers them from the judgmental gaze of people who know better.
Just look at the way accurate history is being treated. The story of America’s founding, as told by the New York Times’ 1619 Project, has seen a volcano of rage and backlash from the men — both White and Black — who want to control history. The fight is as much about what the history says as it is about who is telling such history. Which is why historians from marginalized communities are so often pushed to the margins of our collective record keeping. They have had no choice but to see the truth, and have no compunction to hide it. These are the voices that will speak the truth about Donald Trump. To hear it, though, you have to listen.