President Trump’s remarks about the Civil War astonished U.S. historians for his ignorance of the centrifugal forces tugging on the young nation and political scientists for his disrespect of the first Republican POTUS in the process of lionizing the first Democratic POTUS.
Some people do not make sense in partisan terms because they are independents. Trump makes no sense in partisan terms because he has no ideology. Of course, his knowledge of history is so sketchy that he may not have known the partisan implications of his remarks.
The Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson was a clearer forebear of the Democrats of Andrew Jackson than the Whig Party that took power with the Indian fighter William Henry Harrison was of the Republicans of Abraham Lincoln. Andrew Jackson’s party may have had deeper political roots, but few historians would judge Jackson to be Lincoln’s better.
If he has a diplomatic bone in his body, I would caution President Trump to never, ever speak to a Cherokee about Andrew Jackson’s “big heart.” Jackson’s alleged “big heart” was, along with his superior negotiating skills, the reason Trump opined that if Jackson had been POTUS rather than Lincoln, there would have been no Civil War because Jackson “could work it out.”
Trump, who paid Tony Schwartz to write The Art of the Deal, and who claims the book is second only to The Bible among great books, is about to put his ideas about how to solve apparently intractable problems to the test.
In his first overseas trip as POTUS, he intends to visit Riyadh, Jerusalem, and the Vatican. His stated purpose is to work out the historical differences among the three major monotheistic patriarchal desert cults and unite them all to fight ISIS—an outcome that fits the prophesies ISIS peddles like a glove, incidentally.
I have racked my brain for some theory of how Donald Trump or anyone else could learn history without reading books. There’s no question that he does not read books now. He has said as much, and the last book he claims to have read front to back was All Quiet on the Western Front.
It’s hard to picture the undergraduate Donald Trump reading books if he found it difficult or distasteful. Sums paid for written summaries of assigned books and to ghost writers will buy an undergraduate degree. If he had done the assigned reading, it’s hard for me to picture that he would walk away from the exquisite pleasure of reading, but my difficulty understanding that is perhaps a cultural bias.
But I don’t think it’s a cultural bias to say you can’t have a grasp of history that is both broad and deep without reading books. History is not a master narrative that can be summarized with bullet points. It is full of what post-modernists call “contested discourses” and you must read them to sort them out.
You must also remain open to being shown that you have made a mistake, because the outcome of any number of contested discourses can be shaken by new primary sources or a brilliant analysis of old ones
If you’ve ever soaked up a time travel story, you know that changing any event changes everything “downstream” in time. If you cannot get your head around this without becoming untethered from the existence of historical truths, you probably need to major in something other than history—and I would not recommend philosophy.
Trump’s ignorance of history dooms his idea of a grand bargain at the outset, but so does a very basic principle of political science—another academic discipline that appears to have whiffed the POTUS. Like you never make a demand on a political actor who lacks the power to meet your demand, it is seldom fruitful to cut a deal in furtherance of a goal with someone who lacks the power to pursue the goal effectively.
Here’s where history comes in. History would tell Trump that there is no head Jew, head Christian, or head Muslim who has the power to bring a deal to fruition even if convinced by the silver-tongued devil in the White House. Let’s look at the parties he intends to persuade in order of seniority.
Jewish people, whether they follow Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform traditions, tend to support the existence of the nation-state called Israel. Combine genocide with the right of return and the support for Israel is understandable. I would certainly feel that way if Cherokees had a homeland outside the U.S.
So, all Trump has to do is convince Benjamin Netanyahu, right? Wrong. Israel is governed as a parliamentary democracy, which means Netanyahu is always one snap election away from leading the opposition shadow government or even a lessor position. Israel is a Jewish state but the Knesset answers to no Big Rabbi.
There was a time when the occupant of the Throne of Peter was the one and only Vicar of Christ on earth, the one voice speaking for Christianity. If Trump thinks he can cut a deal with Pope Francis that will bind Christians, his first problem dates from 1054, the Great Schism. That cosmic misunderstanding kept Christian hierarchy, but left the Western Churches answering to the Pope in Rome and the Eastern Churches answering to the Patriarch in Constantinople.
The next big bleed of the Pope’s authority cannot be dated to a year but is commonly placed in the 16th Century. The Protestant Reformation had many heads, although Martin Luther gets most of the historical blame or credit, depending on your point of view. If you must pick a date, it would have to be 1517, when Luther published his 95 Theses.
The salacious sexual adventures of Henry VIII are generally considered part of the Protestant Reformation, but Henry’s defiance of the Church had less to do with theology than with his determination to do as he wished with his wives and his greed to control the wealth the Church had amassed in his Kingdom.
Inevitably, the theological differences between Rome and the Pope’s many critics turned violent. Europe was embroiled in decades of religious warfare leading to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, generally considered the birth of the modern nation-state and the understanding of “sovereignty” that is dying in our times from the twin threats of democracy from below and globalization from above.
Westphalia pulled the plug on the Pope’s secular authority. It will not be hard to get Pope Francis to say we all need to get along. His Holiness has no authority to make it happen.
Finally, Trump intends to visit Riyadh, which represents the seat of secular power wielded by Sunni Islam. Iran and Iraq, to name two countries who have dogs in this fight, follow Shi’a Islam. The distinction between Sunni and Shi’a is rooted in a disagreement over who was the proper successor to the Prophet Mohammad.
Sunnis believe the Caliph—the head of Islam—should be decided by consensus among Muslims. Shi’a demand that the Caliph carry the blood of the Prophet. It’s gotten more complicated over 1,400 years, but that was the root of it.
The seat of the Caliphate was last in Constantinople. Well, it was in Istanbul for one year. The Ottoman Empire was hacked apart when Turkey took the wrong side in WWI. The Turkish national hero who prevented Turkey itself ceasing to exist, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, renamed Constantinople in 1923 and abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924.
After 1924, various pretenders made fools of themselves grasping for the Caliphate but none won a serious following. Now we have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the terrorist organization ISIS claiming the Caliphate without any support from rank and file Islam. ISIS claims to be Sunni, the identity of about 80 percent of Muslims.
Sunnis, however, tend to listen to Muslim scholars. Historically, the center of Islamic scholarship was Al Azhar University in Cairo. There are many more centers of scholarship now. Shi’a attend to imams with a strong authoritarian bent and greatly varying levels of education.
Very few Muslims have anything good to say about Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, because Muslims he considers to be theologically incorrect rank higher on al-Baghdadi’s hit list than infidels. The rulers of Saudi Arabia have been told their heads will roll (literally) when ISIS conquers the Muslim world. Al-Bagdadi’s reputation as a brutal ruler and a theological loose cannon means that Trump will have no problem getting him denounced.
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has no Boss Muslim with enough authority to “work it out.” It could be that Trump is banking on enough public ignorance that press statements denouncing ISIS in Riyadh, Jerusalem, and Rome will appear to signify some kind of progress. In fact, Trump has as much chance of “working out” the differences among the major religious traditions as Andrew Jackson would have had avoiding the Civil War, and his blindness to the lay of the land he’s entering is scarier than it is funny.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a retired Texas trial court judge and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.