Amid COVID-19, Trump Attempts To Rewrite History
Dr. Louie Dean Valencia-García is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and Assistant Professor of Digital History at Texas State University.
In 2017, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to US President Donald Trump, coined the phrase ‘alternative facts’ to describe why the Trump administration had differing figures about the size of the audience at the newly elected president’s inauguration that seemed to defy photographic evidence—receiving much criticism and ridicule in the popular press. Facts are facts, how could it be clearer?
As Trump’s presidency has taught us, facts can be falsified, omitted and invented for political gain. Whereas politicos have long tried to ‘shape the narrative,’ Trump’s Orwellian denial of facts, inventing ‘truths’ wholesale, has far passed the realm of credibility—making at least 18,000 false or misleading claims since he’s assumed office. When Trump calls the news ‘fake’ he is attempting to delegitimize evidence in the hopes of creating what I call ‘alt-histories’ in my new edited volume, Far-Right Revisionism and the End of History: Alt/Histories (Routledge).
Alt-histories are not simple differences in interpretation, but instead invented realities made out of decontextualization, falsehoods, truthiness, and outright denial of actual historical facts and debates. In this global COVID-19 pandemic we are all enduring, Trump’s alternate reality will leave behind a staggering body count.
A tenuous grip on reality or an attempt to remake it?
Historians of the future will look back at our current moment and will encounter the challenge of discerning what were indeed facts, and what were ‘alternative narratives’ used to create alt-histories, intended to mold reality around those ‘alt-facts.’ Last year, when describing a phone call between himself and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump claimed his call was ‘perfect’—without any attempt at influencing the American election or strong-arming a less-powerful country—, despite all evidence to the contrary. Trump was not simply lying; he bent reality to his will.
Through his surrogate, Fox News, many Americans entered into Trump’s invented reality—a parallel dimension where Trump became the most persecuted man ever. Senate Republicans also entered Trump’s alternate reality at Trump’s impeachment trial—denying the admission of evidence. Trump was the victim of a ‘witch hunt.’ In fact, Trump’s evocation of ‘witch hunts’ decontextualized actual historical cases of women being falsely accused of being witches—often tortured and killed.
Indeed, even before Trump became president he peddled accusations suggesting US President Barack Obama was not actually born in the United States but rather in Kenya. Trump pushed this alt-history into the public sphere so much so that he developed a following of so-called ‘birthers’ who attempted to replace historical fact with Trump’s fiction. They demanded a ‘long-form birth certificate’ as evidence. Even when that evidence was provided, it was rejected by the conspiracy theorists. These efforts both attempted to police who could be considered an American, an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of a black man as president, and foreshadowed what was to come. For the far-right, the past is not something from which to learn, but rather, history should be salvaged to make deadly shrapnel-filled mines in the name of recreating a myth of the past.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
Of course, the best-known examples of alt-histories are tied up in the history of fascism and nationalism. Most famously, Holocaust deniers are purveyors of this sort of rhetoric. Believing that the Holocaust was invented or somehow did not reach the numbers that it did is not actual historical revisionism; historical revisionism is what trained historians do through transparent evidence-based research and argument—usually involving lots of footnotes.
Holocaust deniers patch together falsehoods and decontextualized evidence to create an alternate timeline that legitimates their anti-Semitism and racist, nationalistic ideologies. These types of deniers often proclaim a false narrative that ‘Hitler was a socialist’—an alt-history propagated by right-wing author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza. Indeed, socialist and communist ideologies were considered degenerate to fascists like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Francisco Franco. Leftists and liberals were often sent to labor camps, concentration camps or prison.
As I recount in Far-Right Revisionism and the End of History, alt-right provocateur Richard Spencer, has attempted to propose what he calls ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’ or ‘peaceful ethnic redistribution’ as a program to create a ‘white ethno-state.’ In his despicable proposition, Spencer often cites the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as an example of successful peaceful ethnic cleansing. Historian Mark Mazower, rightfully sets the record straight in Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century –
“Exterminating minorities… was not generally acceptable to international opinion…The victor powers at Versailles tried a different approach—keeping minorities where they were, and giving them protection in international law to make sure they were properly treated so that in time they would acquire a sense of national belonging.”
Spencer’s claim not only runs counter to historical fact, but replicates a fascistic tendency to turn to an imagined past in order to propose an alternate future.
Nationalism and Illness
As Susan Sontag argues in Illness as Metaphor, “[I]llness is not a metaphor, and that the most truthful way of regarding illness—and the healthiest way of being ill—is one most purified of, most resistant to, metaphorical thinking.” Later Sontag wrote another book about AIDS being used as a metaphor—emphasizing the dangers of associating identity with disease.
Indeed, describing disease metaphorically often perpetuates prejudice and leaves room for those metaphors and slippery slopes to solidify into alt-histories. In recent weeks, Trump has weaponized the novel coronavirus, calling it ‘the Chinese virus,’ falling into an old nationalist trope that attempts to leverage illness and prejudice to attack minority groups. In Nazi Germany, Jewish people were likened to a cancer in the German nation that needed to be removed. Today, encouraged by Trumpian rhetoric, Asians and Asian-Americans are being attacked by xenophobes, as if they themselves were the virus.
Viruses do not have nationalities, however, the nationalistic tendency to scapegoat and blame a group of people for an illness has long been common in history—seen in the labeling of the ‘Russian Flu,’ the ‘Hong Kong Flu’ and the ‘Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-related coronavirus’ (MERS) are just some examples. Most infamously, another nationalistic example is the so-called ‘Spanish Flu of 1918.’ As Mitchell Hammond describes in Epidemics and the Modern World, the cause of the pandemic was influenza A, a type of H1N1, potentially originating in horses or birds.
Hammond cites multiple possible origins: the Fort Riley military base in Kansas; the town of Étaples, France; and the Shanxi province of China. However, he writes, ‘None of the waves originated in Spain; the moniker “Spanish flu” reflected the willingness of this nation’s newspapers to report the disease’s impact because it was not a combatant in World War I.’ In popular memory in the US, this solidified into a false assumption that Spain was somehow responsible for the illness—a complete rewriting of history based on a nationalistic desire to use illness as a scapegoat.
Simultaneous to this use of disease as a metaphor, Trump is live-tweeting an alt-history amidst a global pandemic. He gives himself a ‘ten out of ten’ for his administration’s performance and handling of the crisis—denying the fact that just in February he made light of the virus, calling it a ‘hoax.’ When reporters hold him accountable for his words, like PBS Newshour reporter Yamiche Alcindor frequently does, he viciously attacks them. He calls the legitimate journalists reporting facts ‘fake news.’
Amid Trump’s #PressBriefing meltdown, CBS Reporter Paula Reid asked Trump:
“Tens of thousands of Americans are dead… How is this rant supposed to make people feel confident in an unprecedented crisis?”
Trump responds with more egomaniacal ramblings. pic.twitter.com/nLtOJ0pTMf
— Rantt Media (@RanttMedia) April 13, 2020
This isn’t because what they say is untrue, but rather, because he is speaking to the future—attempting to create a new timeline which lauds his imagined greatness—not facts as they were. He is speaking to both voters in November 2020 who will remember him for promising things, despite the failure to deliver on those promises, altering the recent past as he goes.
A Disaster for the Future
Of course, Donald Trump is not the inventor of these far-right conspiracies that attempt to replace scientific fact with alt-histories. These types of propositions have long been part and parcel of attempts by right-wing ideologues to use history to legitimize racism and nationalism. Whether textbook battles claiming the American Civil War was about ‘states rights’ instead of slavery, or the use of historical figures for political purposes, such as is common in French nationalist Marine Le Pen’s use of the symbol of Joan of Arc, historians and the general public must fight the circulation of alt-histories which are attempting to replace history itself. More broadly, this sort of mentality has greater potential for danger as this mindset has led right-wingers to deny scientific fact and evidence in regard to climate change. Facts matter profoundly for our past and for our future.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.