Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

President Trump’s Unpatriotic ‘Patriotic Education’

Trump’s latest culture war vaporware undermines the very ideals he claims to want to defend.
September 23, 2020
President Trump’s Unpatriotic ‘Patriotic Education’

Anti-American propaganda in schools, such as the blatantly inaccurate but widely lauded 1619 Project, is a real problem. So it is certainly welcome to hear someone prominent complain that it “rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.”

The problem is that this was said by President Trump in a Constitution Day speech announcing a new initiative to promote “patriotic education,” whatever that means.

Trump is a discrediting spokesman for any idea, and on the rare occasions I hear him say something I agree with, I don’t want to cheer. I want to cringe. That’s especially true for his push for “patriotic education,” which he intends to pay for by engaging in a Third World shakedown so he can get cash from foreign countries to use as an unconstitutional private slush fund for the chief executive.

How patriotic.

President Trump announced that by executive order, he will create a “1776 Commission,” operating under the National Endowment for the Humanities, to “promote patriotic education.” This reminds me of the idea he floated early in the year for an executive order mandating “classical” architecture in all federal buildings.

It’s becoming a pattern for Trump: He looks at the vast machinery of Big Government and its power to intrude itself into the life of our nation, and instead of asking how it can be reined in, he asks how it can be harnessed to his purposes.

The proposed executive order on architecture was an attempt to overturn the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an aide to president Kennedy, in 1962. “The development of an official style must be avoided,” Moynihan wrote. “Design must flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa.”

This was a time when the federal government was rapidly expanding its involvement in art, ideas, and education. In the following decades, it would form the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio, and the Department of Education. All of this raised the very legitimate fear that government funding would create an intellectual and artistic establishment—official schools of art and ideas imposed on the country from Washington, D.C. Moynihan was an old-fashioned liberal who wanted to have Big Government but also have intellectual freedom, so this is precisely what he was trying to head off by declaring that ideas should flow from the private sector to the government and not the other way around.

This didn’t entirely work out. When the government starts throwing money at art, ideas, and education, it has to appoint someone to decide where to put that money, and this usually ends up entrenching the existing establishment. But Trump isn’t really trying to fix that problem. He’s not trying to dismantle the government “establishment,” but to take it over.

Thus, his main means for enforcement of “patriotic education” is the abuse of federal funding, which he has threatened to withdraw from schools that teach a curriculum of which he disapproves. Because it would be a shame if anyone did something to threaten our freedom.

How Trump says he’s going to pay for his proposed “patriotic education” is even worse. At a campaign rally in North Carolina, he proclaimed that the money would be diverted from a government-brokered deal for the purchase of the Chinese social media platform TikTok. Here is how he described his ultimatum to technology company executives: “Do me a favor, could you put up $5 billion into a fund for education, so we can educate people as to real history of our country—the real history, not the fake history?”

The rationale for the TikTok deal was that, given the Chinese government’s lurch back toward strident totalitarianism, TikTok’s algorithm poses a threat to the data privacy of American users. So the federal government has been using national security concerns to force a sale of TikTok’s operations to a consortium of the American firms Oracle and Walmart (which may still not address the problem). Trump has apparently been angling for the U.S. government to get a cut of the deal, despite being told that this is illegal. Instead he is trying to get these tech companies to create a multi-billion-dollar fund for education, which he has now proclaimed will be used for his own pet project.

This is a corrupt, authoritarian shakedown by the president, an abuse of his power to extort money from private corporations to be used for his own propaganda campaign. It is exactly the sort of thing we can expect from the president who sought a similarly corrupt quid pro quo in Ukraine.

For all Trump’s chest thumping about patriotism and American exceptionalism, this episode shows that he neither knows nor cares about what actually makes America’s system of government distinctive.

Then again, there’s a good chance this was just bluster to impress the rubes at his political rally and none of it will ever happen.

Trump has a history of hawking culture war vaporware. The draft executive order on “classical” architecture was announced in February and has not been heard of since. His “National Garden of American Heroes,” announced in July, still has no specific site or source of funding. So it should be no surprise that TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, says it has never heard of the “patriotic education” initiative and instead plans to “work with partners and global shareholders to launch online classroom projects.”

But this still sets a bad example, making a mockery of the limits on presidential power and establishing a precedent for authoritarian, top-down control of American education. As with Trump’s other trial runs as our national arbiter of taste and ideas, it is also a foolish temporary victory. The power to decide what education is “patriotic” could soon pass to Joe Biden—and while I’m not sure he will be eager to make use of it, I’m pretty sure President Harris will love all of the new executive authority Donald Trump is scheming to create for her.

As for myself, I would prefer that instead of trying to teach “patriotic history” or any other ideological flavor of history, we simply teach accurate, factual American history—in the confidence that if the story of America’s past is told truthfully, our country will come out looking pretty good.

America’s present, on the other hand, is frankly a little embarrassing.

Robert Tracinski

Robert Tracinski is editor of Symposium, a journal of liberalism, and writes additional commentary at The Tracinski Letter.