Donald Trump, then-host of NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” and now-President of the United States, began using his infamous Twitter account in May of 2009 — his first tweet containing the word “Lincoln” arrived more than three years later.
According to the Trump Twitter Archive, Donald Trump has, in total, used the word “Lincoln” in 38 different tweets: four of them were about Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film, two of them referenced the Lincoln Memorial, and one was an expression of appreciation when a follower said in 2014 that Abraham Lincoln would have endorsed Donald Trump for a then-unspecified candidacy for public office.
Unless tweeting brief, well-known quotations from America’s 16th president counts as insightful, historically informed reflection, then America’s 45th president has essentially been silent when it comes to Abraham Lincoln’s historical significance. The word “Fallon” — as in the late-night television show host — appears on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed more frequently than “Lincoln” — as in the man whose face is carved into Mount Rushmore.
This is not an isolated case study, nor is this a petty grievance.
Donald Trump has never tweeted the word “slavery” in the context of American history.
He has tweeted as much about the play “Hamilton” as he has tweeted about the actual person.
“Iwo Jima”? Not once.
“Rosa Parks”? Not at all.
Among plenty of other ironies associated with the political rise of Donald Trump, one is particularly worth noting: even as historians have offered nearly countless competing interpretations of Donald Trump’s historical precedent (or lack thereof), the man himself seems to know awfully little about history.
In 2015, Politico magazine conducted a symposium of sorts on whether there were any historical parallels for Donald Trump’s candidacy, collecting reflections by over a dozen historians on whom Trump resembled the most. Sean Wilentz, for example, a professor at Princeton University, wrote that he thought that Donald Trump was most like Richard Nixon. Timothy Naftali, a New York University professor, argued that Trump was most like Ross Perot.
While there are certainly some settings in which comparing Donald Trump to political and cultural leaders of the past can yield some insightful results, it is difficult to see how any of these interpretations help us understand the president’s relationship to American history as he sees it.
So, what is the history of the United States, according to Donald Trump? Perhaps we can see some clues in a recent radio interview in which the president asked, “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Or perhaps we catch glimpses in his recent statement that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” as if the iconic abolitionist were just another writer from a dubious media outlet with White House press credentials.
This concern about Donald Trump’s view of history is not just another non-story, like the questions about whether the First Lady likes to hold her own husband’s hand or whether the president feels personally insecure about his own hands. No, this concern actually matters. Recently, Jon Meacham wrote for Time that “what’s revealing about a President’s sense of history is less about the history itself than about what that President’s perspective on the history tells us about him.”
President Trump’s perspective on American history is limited. And that should tell us a great deal.
Aside from his apparent fascination with the rhetoric of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, Donald Trump talks and acts as if American history did not really begin in earnest until the Gilded Age in the late 1800s.
He does not seem too interested in the leaders of the American republic, with their ideas about a free and independent press, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the establishment of an independent judiciary.
As has been previously mentioned, he does not seem to have an adequate understanding of the American Civil War and its circumstances.
However, the president does seem attracted to the sort of opulence that characterized the Gilded Age. “Gilded”? Has anyone seen Trump Tower in New York City? His Mar-a-Lago estate may have been built during the Roaring Twenties, but it would still be sufficient for a Carnegie or a Frick or a Gould.
His attitudes about immigration do appear awfully similar to those which resulted in the 1882 passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented the immigration of any laborers from China. The idea of banning immigration from specific, distinct countries is by no means new — Donald Trump’s most recent executive order banning immigration from six majority Muslim nations looks like a new riff on an old theme.
In the midst of our inclination to make sense of Donald Trump’s place in American history, though, we should not forget to think about how Donald Trump himself makes sense of American history.
After all, Donald Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is a phrase that’s absolutely loaded with ideas about American history, and he’s included those exact words over 350 tweets to his millions of followers.
But if Donald Trump does not have a nuanced, well-rounded, conscious, fair, and balanced understanding of the history of the nation which he has been elected to serve as its president, then what could he possibly mean?
An earlier version of this post appeared on Medium.