Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 28, 2020

Donald Trump, Project 1619, Howard Zinn, and critical race theory

Filed under: Project 1619,Trump — louisproyect @ 7:55 pm

On September 17th, Donald Trump weighed in on Project 1619, Howard Zinn, and critical race theory in a speech surely written for him since this moron never read the articles in Sunday NY Times Magazine section which launched Project 1619, “A People’s History of the United States”, or any critical race theory article. I even admit to being unfamiliar with critical race theory, so it is even more obvious that so is he. I doubt that the only written material he is familiar with appears on the back of a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

One wonders if he has been reading the critics of Project 1619, et al. After all, don’t his words sound like they could have written by Sean Wilentz?

Our Constitution was the product of centuries of tradition, wisdom, and experience. No political document has done more to advance the human condition or propel the engine of progress.

Yeah, you can quibble about Blacks being 3/5ths of a human being but nobody’s perfect.

Wilentz doesn’t believe that defending slavery was a factor in the American Revolution. The Constitution identified the goals of that revolution with Enlightenment values, not crass commercial goals such as forcing African slaves to pick cotton. In a September 16, 2015 NYT op-ed, he wrote:

The Constitutional Convention not only deliberately excluded the word “slavery,” but it also quashed the proslavery effort to make slavery a national institution, and so prevented enshrining the racism that justified slavery.

While I am sure that Wilentz would turn down an invitation to eat cheeseburgers with Trump at the White House, I am just as sure that he is closer to Trump on these matters than those rabble-rousers at the NY Times.

Trump is appalled that children are being given the wrong impression of our country by reading Howard Zinn: “Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts, like those of Howard Zinn, that try to make students ashamed of their own history.”

Once again, Wilentz would be closer to Trump than people like me who valued Zinn’s history. After Zinn died, Wilentz summed up his career:

He saw history primarily as a means to motivate people to political action that he found admirable. That’s what he said he did. It’s fine as a form of agitation — agitprop — but it’s not particularly good history.

Wilentz doesn’t seem to understand that his brand of history is also designed to motivate people to political action, namely lining up behind people like Bill Clinton or Joe Biden, two men who were as capable as Trump of demagogic attacks on Black people.

As for critical race theory, Trump regards it as poisoning the minds of children:

Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression, and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings, and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors, and families.

Guilty of this insidious is none other than the Smithsonian Institute. You’d think he was talking about the Smolny Institute, the way he goes on. It issued a document alleging that concepts such as hard work, rational thinking, the nuclear family, and belief in God were not values that unite all Americans, but were instead aspects of “whiteness.” All I can say is that if hard work, rational thinking, the nuclear family and belief in God were values identified with whiteness, then Trump is not white. Orange, maybe.

The more worthwhile avenue of investigation is critical race theory itself. Wikipedia identifies its main themes, including the following:

  • White privilege: Belief in the notion of a myriad of social advantages, benefits, and courtesies that come with being a member of the dominant race (i.e. white people). A clerk not following you around in a store or not having people cross the street at night to avoid you, are two examples of white privilege.
  • Microaggression: Belief in the notion that sudden, stunning, or dispiriting transactions have the power to mar the everyday of oppressed individuals. These include small acts of racism consciously or unconsciously perpetrated, whereby an analogy could be that of water dripping on a rock wearing away at it slowly.

So, is critical race theory supposed to be some arcane, pedantic theoretical offspring of postmodernism? I don’t know. To me it sounds like the stuff of daily reports in the media and hundreds, if not thousands, of YouTube videos of Black people getting screwed.

At the end of his speech, Trump introduced Professor Wilfred McClay, who will be part of a National Endowment for the Humanities-funded project to support “the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history”.

McClay tried to write a rebuttal to Howard Zinn in a book titled “Land of Hope” that conforms to Donald Trump’s motherhood, apple pie and American flag version of American history. It was reviewed in Dissent by Michael Kazin, who trashed Zinn and might be expected to lean in McClay’s direction, even stating: “Wilfred McClay, a rare conservative historian whose prior work is respected across the political trenches, thinks he can explain what made America wonderful without echoing the nonsense Newt and his ilk hawk to the faithful.” But, he’s even too much for Kazin:

No serious historian could get away with giving the same silent treatment to the long struggle for black freedom, the pivot on which the Civil War and other critical events in the nation’s past have turned. But McClay overlooks the vital role abolitionists played in building opposition in the North to the “Slave Power” of Dixie. And he barely acknowledges the fact that a number of prominent abolitionists were black people who had once been held in bondage themselves. He refers to Harriet Tubman twice briefly—once in the middle of a sentence—Frederick Douglass gets three quick name-checks (one of which is incorrect), and Sojourner Truth is absent altogether.

McClay’s treatment of the post-emancipation black movement is even more careless. W. E. B. Du Bois gets a single mention—not as one of the most influential activists and thinkers in twentieth-century America but as someone who briefly endorsed eugenics. Meanwhile, in the pages of Land of Hope, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, and A. Philip Randolph never existed. McClay does grace Martin Luther King Jr. with a whole paragraph about his life plus a long quote from his iconic speech at the massive civil rights march in the summer of 1963. But then you really cannot ignore someone with a national holiday to his name and a memorial a few blocks from the Mall.

Trump is determined to wipe out all traces of anti-racist scholarship in the Ivies, as well as any other college or high school willing to use Project 1619, Zinn or critical race theory to educate young people about this country’s horrific past. Unfortunately for him, the tides of history are moving against him. People are determined to find out the truth about American history even if he is using executive power to try to censor it. As someone who grew up in the fifties getting spoon-fed McClay’s version, nothing made me happier than to read Howard Zinn when facing the draft. In a period of deep social crisis, you need the truth not an alt-right Hallmark card.


  1. What does one expect from a moron like The Donald? Whatever its weaknesses, I’d certainly recommend Howard Zinn’s books to anyone interested in American history. The 1619 Project? Not so much.

    Comment by Kurt T Hill — September 28, 2020 @ 8:02 pm

  2. What we are witnessing in the United States today is something rather akin to the Civil War of 1860, with the one difference that the South controls the White House period of course this is only an analogy but it’s certainly worth considering.

    Abraham Lincoln’s political project was to maintain the national unity of the United States, for which he was willing to sacrifice the institution of slavery. As it turned out, flavor I had to be eliminated to maintain the national unity of this country..

    Karl Marx and those he worked with favored the victory of the North over the South in that famous Civil War. He did not make that support conditional on the North abolishing capitalism.

    Comment by walterlx — September 28, 2020 @ 8:57 pm

  3. As I’ve come to expect from you this post does a great job of dissecting Trump’s (more than likely Stephen Miller’s) attack on 1619 and for this reader Zinn.

    I have been re-reading his “The Twentieth Century” and “A Peoples History.” I discovered both works in my 60’s and found that it was truly an enlightening experience. His telling alone of the labor’s literal battles to garner enough money for workers to survive or to fight for the outrageous idea of a 40 hour work week is heart wrenching and tragic, especially in light of where worker’s are in today’s economy.

    I will make a point of doing whatever I can to insure that these books are part of the educational curriculum in any school in this nation.

    Thanks once again for your insights.

    Comment by mojoman49 — September 29, 2020 @ 1:55 pm

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