In a recent New York Times op-ed titled “The Return of History,” Aatish Taseer makes excellent points regarding the way ISIS distorts
Islamic history to serve an extreme contemporary agenda. He writes, “Islam, with its rich textual history and detailed recordings of the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad, offers the faithful an especially aggressive blueprint for turning the past
into a weapon against the present.”
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This is certainly true in the case of ISIS. It is also true in the case of Donald Trump. As Taseer notes, “the return of history is not specific to Islam.” In both cases this creates “something radical and new – and dangerous.”
Trump’s distortions are manifested in the slogan “make America great again.” The slogan brings with it a wallop of exceptionalism that demands an uncritical and skewed reading of US history, or simply the ignoring of the historical record. What the historian
Michael Kammen called “the mystic chords of memory” are well at play in the contemporary United States, where, to question the nation’s assumed prior greatness by looking
critically at its past is the fastest way to be excluded from mainstream conversations.
The Trump campaign slogan is indicative of rhetoric that distorts meaning for political gain or to build self-esteem. In fact, raising a nation’s self-esteem is the priority of all politicians – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Republican or Democratic. The
myth of past greatness serves that purpose. In the United States, it keeps people accepting criminally high college tuitions, getting less money and fewer benefits for more work and paying taxes that prop up a military-industrial complex that is bankrupting
the nation and committing acts of unforgivable violence – including violence against civilians – across the globe. In Islamic fundamentalist circles, it inspires the young to justify acts of violence in the name of recreating a past that never existed.
Taseer points out that, “there is all the difference in the world between loving the past and wishing to return to it. Love contains the spirit of regeneration; perverse nostalgia is almost always a violent enterprise.”
This is also true in Trump’s attempt to “make America great again.” Which America is he talking about? Given his racist rhetoric, it is likely to look a lot like the one that the Public Religion Research Institute found attractive among 43 percent of white Americans: the 1950s. But Muslims and African Americans, Latino immigrants, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people, women, or basically anybody not a white
Anglo-Saxon man might find the retreat to that “great” America of segregation quite scary.
Taseer succinctly defines the difference between “dead history” and “living history.” Although he chooses ISIS as his example, he could certainly use Trump’s statements to highlight the “terrific tension between the dead past and the ways in which it
is being remade to fit the needs of the living present.”
For example, the perceived “dead” American past is much more inspiring than the real “living” present, which includes World Health Organization findings that the United States has the highest rate of mental illness in the world. In addition, a 2014 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report
ranked the US 27th among wealthy countries in keeping babies alive, behind Poland, Hungary and Slovakia while, according to Pearson, the US ranks 14th
in education worldwide, one behind Russia. And although the US ranks first in health-care costs, it ranks last in health-care quality among
wealthy nations. Since rankings like this do little to inspire, it is understandable that Americans would like to recreate a “great” mythical past.
Much like Ronald Reagan before him and many in the US government today, Trump believes in the seductive supremacy of US arms. But there is clear “tension” between the reality of the US military’s accomplishments post-World War II and the “living present”:
a draw in Korea, a loss in Vietnam and quagmires in Afghanistan and Iraq. Successes against Grenada, Panama and Serbia (with NATO’s help) and pushing Saddam Hussein’s army out of Kuwait in 1991 shouldn’t bolster anybody’s confidence in the US military’s
ability to affect the sweeping change Trump envisions.
Consequently, Trump’s “making America great again” slogan epitomizes the connection between the “dead” and “living” history that Taseer eloquently describes in ISIS ideology. Those who support ISIS display a disturbing lack of historical perspective.
Those who support Trump do also.
Americans have struggled every step of the way for the rights promised in the Declaration of Independence and confirmed in the US Constitution. Popular movements against slavery and child labor, and for the promotion of women’s and Native Americans’ rights
were hard-fought battles. The right to unionize or receive social benefits was resisted by many in Washington and still is. If there is anything great about the United States, it is this struggle to reach lofty ideals.
The mere existence of Trump and other extreme Republican presidential candidates speaks volumes about how US education has failed and continues to woefully fail in training its citizens to detect lies that distort the past to fit a contemporary agenda.
Taseer is correct to point out how ISIS perverts history to justify extreme policies. But it is more important for Americans to recognize how Trump does the same.