USA TODAY’s augmented reality storytelling takes you inside the San Juan Bautista. The ship carried the first Africans to be enslaved in America.


Corrections and clarifications: The article has been updated to reflect that Wilmington, Del., officials had the Caesar Rodney statue removed. 

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Thursday accused Democrats and educators of attempting a “liberal indoctrination of America’s youth” through alternative views of the nation’s history, while the subjects of those attacks said he is fueling racial divisions in an election year.

“Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character,” Trump said during what aides billed as the first “White House Conference on American History.”

While Trump called for “patriotic education” and a “pro-American curriculum” in the nation’s schools, opponents cast the president as a struggling re-election candidate who is seeking votes by trying to divide people along racial and cultural lines.

Trump focused his attack on education projects devoted to the nation’s history of slavery and racial discrimination, analysts pointed out, targets that have been the focus of ire from many pundits on the right. 

“Donald Trump’s political career has been defined by stoking racism and hatred,” said Josh Schwerin of Priorities USA Action, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates. “This is all about trying to use racism to incite the fringes of his base who he thinks can help him win an election.”

Locked in a tight battle for re-election with Democratic challenger Joe Biden, Trump has frequently criticized the violence that has at times sprung from nationwide demonstrations against police brutality and racial discrimination.

In his education speech, Trump attributed street violence in part to schools, claiming that “the left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” He also said “the left has launched a vicious and violent assault on law enforcement – the universal symbol of the rule of law in America.”

President Donald Trump speaking Thursday at a White House conference on American History. (Photo: Alex Brandon, AP)

Speaking in the rotunda of the National Archives, near the original of the U.S. Constitution, Trump protested the pulling down of historic statues – many of which depict slaveholders  – and the “desecration” of national memorials.

At one point, Trump invoked the current campaign by talking about how officials in Wilmington, Del., removed a statue of Caesar Rodney, a slaveholder and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Trump attacked Biden, a Wilmington resident, for not speaking out against the dismantling of that statue.

Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said Trump is failing his own test of history in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, climate change, and “the most compelling call for racial justice in generations.”

“He stokes hatred and division rather than bringing this nation together to confront racism,” Bates said. “History will not be kind to this president for these failures and more.”

Trump noted that Thursday is the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Yet, he said, nowadays “a radical movement is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance” via distortions of its history.

Instead, he said, the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution – and the system of government it created – “set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal and prosperous nation in human history.”

Attendees at the first White House Conference on American History loudly applauded Trump’s speech, and the meeting appeared to be consist mainly of administration officials and supporters.

Princeton historian Kevin Kruse tweeted: “As near as I can tell, the White House Conference on American History panel was drawn up with no input from professional historical associations, filled mostly with non-historians & culture warriors, and kept so quiet it wasn’t even on the National Archives’ calendar of events.”

During his critique, Trump singled out The New York Times‘ “1619” journalism project and a teaching approach known as Critical Race Theory, both of which emphasize the treatment of people of color.

The “1619 Project” – named for the year in which enslaved people were first brought to North America – was designed “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” said The New York Times website.

More: Enslaved Africans landed in Virginia in 1619. USA TODAY is committed to telling the story, past and present

More: How an accidental encounter brought slavery to the United States

The term “critical race theory” has many definitions. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as “the view that the law and legal institutions are inherently racist and that race itself, instead of being biologically grounded and natural, is a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of color.”

Trump said he would respond by creating a “1776 Commission.” Named for the year in which the Declaration of Independence was signed, the commission will work to promote what Trump called “patriotic education.”

Critics mocked the idea of “patriotic education” as near totalitarian. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia, cited Russia president Vladimir Putin in tweeting: “Putin did the same years ago and now that’s what you get in Russia.”

Joanne B. Freeman, professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, said Trump wants a whitewash of the American past, but the nation’s true history involves “the bad as well as the good.”

“The study of history – the sincere, open, and serious study of history in all its complexity –  is dangerous and misleading only if you have something to hide,” Freeman said. “And it’s impossible to understand ourselves as a nation, and to reckon with the roots and implications of our current moment, if we deny the uncomfortable parts of America’s past.”

Read or Share this story: