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Trump's most recent ignorant blather is almost too idiotic to be worth discussing. Once again he has managed to outdo even the wildest satirst's dreams. News at eleven.

But I've found the reaction to be quite interesting.

The part of Trump's rambling that irked me the most was the "why couldn't the civil war have been avoided" comment—because it shows an almost mind-boggling ingorance of history. Leading up to the Civil War, there were endless compromises, and attempts at reconcilliation, and proxy conflicts. If the Civil War wasn't averted, it sure wasn't for a lack of trying.

But the knee-jerk reaction here in Coastal Liberal Land has been a bit different than mine. The two major strains:

1) Lots of snarky one-liner takes on Twitter and whatnot, with people angrily pointing out YEAH THERE WAS THAT WHOLE SLAVERY THING TRUMP IT COULDN'T HAVE JUST BEEN WORKED OUT. In a way, they're right. The states' rights interpretation of the Civil War is slowly dying the death it deserves.

At the same time, I think it's important to remember that the Union wasn't these heroic crusaders who'd finally decided the evils of slavery should be expunged once and for all. Lincoln was loath to bring the slavery question into the conflict; he was justly nervous that turning it into a "war against slavery" would alienate working-class whites in urban Union areas; his solution for dealing with the border states was just to militarily occupy them; the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in states he had no control and did nothing for slaves in states he could control; he had that famous bit about "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it". Implying that the reason the Civil War wasn't "worked out" was because the North universally saw a mighty injustice to be slain just isn't accurate.

(Here I once again include my appeal to actually fucking teach reconstruction in schools. That's the "working it out" Trump longed for, really. The south "lost" the war but managed to get a sympathetic president & fought against all the reforms and enfranchisement meant to lift up blacks blacks, leading to another century of Jim Crow de-facto caste system that suited those old rich southern landowners just fine. The problem wasn't that we didn't "work it out"; it was that we "worked it out" at the expense of the most vulnerable among us.)

2) A lot of folks seemed most furious at the mention of Andrew Jackson—which surprised me, probably more than it should have.


Look, I grew up in a pretty conservative pretty-white area just north of Tennessee, within driving distance of the Hermitage. I have a pretty warm gut-reaction to Jackson.

And I'll say upfront: the dude was a genocidal maniac when it came to Native Americans, was an utterly unapologetic slaveholder, and pretty much The Dude responsible for the Trail of Tears. A lot of his legacy is pretty contemptible and I don't blame anyone for loathing the guy.

But there's stuff to like about Jackson. Here's the stuff I remember hearing growing up:

* The presidents who preceded him were all hoity-toity-snobby-New-England prim-and-proper types. Jackson, by contrast, managed to throw such a raging party for all his bros at the inauguration that they totally trashed the White House. C'mon, you gotta smile a bit at that.

* He did handle the Nullification Crisis expertly and in a way that feels, well, cool and macho and badass. South Carolina says they're not going to observe the federal tariff; Andrew Jackson shut that shit down by reminding South Carolina hi I have the entire army, don't fuck with me bitches. I guess it feels a little uncomfortable that he was so forceful and hawkish, but he was on the side of Keeping the Union Together, which history tends to view favorably.

* There was some banking system stuff that I don't remember particularly well, to be honest, but I'm pretty sure it was a populist popular thing and pissed of some fat cats in the nroth. Look, I grew up in the south, and I spent enough time in New England to realize that Wall Street is just as terrible as you think it is, of course I'm gonna have my heart warmed a bit by anyone skeptical of finance.

I deliberately didn't look up the facts of any of these claims, because I wanted to show what, just-going-off-memory, folks remember about Jackson.

I get that if you were raised with an education that emphasized Jackson's horrible qualities, then the idea of admiring him seems contemptible, outrageous, which is what all the liberalfolk around me were expressing. But I didn't grow up in a total backwater, I grew up in a town with a real actual state university, and mostly I heard about the fun bits, with the Tear of Trails discussed but somehow separated from Jackson himself.

Like I said, it's a gut-feel. Intellectually I don't really like Jackson. But gut-feel has more to do with how you were raised than what your intelligent, adult self knows.


While thinking about this, I wondered—when does a president pass into legend, into myth?

Because if you say the Vikings or the Spartans were super-cool, if you say Odin's a badass, or whatever, no one thinks that's weird or wrong or bad. Sparta trashed Athens too long ago for anyone to really remember or care overmuch.

The metaphor isn't perfect, though; our myths and legends are mostly picked from civilizations so dead that we're able to pick & choose the good parts and ignore the parts we don't like, like Latin.

And I thought, maybe it's more like picking saints. Catholics get saints, and patron saints—my total knowledge of Catholicism comes from "I had a lot of Catholic friends in middle/high school," but I remember a friend picking the "patron saint of animals" or whatever saint for some confirmation thing and so on. Given the Catholic church's long bloody history, probably there's saints who have done Bad Shit, but I assume they're still saints? is it bad and weird to still refer back to those saints?

I don't actually know; I'd be curious to know more about how that works.

But back to the president thing, say you want someone to admire in US history, you'll probably pick a president. And if you want a rowdy president of the common man, a president who spurns pretention and believes in acting decisively and hard to preserve the Union—well, then you have Jackson.


There's an interesting duality when you visit famous southern sites nowadays. It struck me when I visited Charleston a few years back. I did a tour of one of the old plantations there, thoroughly expecting it to be kinda cringey and awkward. Remember the whole grew-up-just-north-of-Tennessee thing; I've heard "plantation owners did nothing wrong" bullshit plenty of times.

This plantation did a pretty decent job at subverting that, though. In the little introductory lecture, they made a huge deal about the labor of slaves, pointed out that they were the only reason the plantation-owners could live their lavish lifestyle, spoke about the injustices and cruelties of that system. A descendant of one of the slaves on the plantation regularly came three times a week to give talks about what it was like for his ancestors, and we were all heavily encouraged to attend one of those talks.

Some stereotypical Old White Guy spoke up some point—I think it was after the tour guide mentioned that a lot of slaves stayed to work on the plantation even after the Civil War—some dude spoke up and said, "Well, maybe they just stayed because these plantation owners were really nice and treated them really well and it was way better than working anywhere else?"

The tour guide frowned, and replied that that probably wasn't the reason, and spoke briefly about how fucked the situation was for blacks after the Civil War—pointed out that it was still hard for blacks to vote or own land, the economy was all kinds of fucked, etc, and even though they were "free" most freedmen just didn't have a lot of choice, practically speaking. She encouraged this guy, again, to attend the talk by the descendant-of-a-slave that afternoon.

I don't know if there's a perfect way to lead tours around old plantations while being honest about the history there, but I felt this one wasn't half-bad—at the very least, it's a stark contrast to the Gone With the Wind narrative that I know I was fed growing up.

There was a similar flip in mood at the Hermitage, apparently. My mom visited the place as a kid, and since she was rather bookish, she'd read a couple biographies of Andrew Jackson before she went. She asked the tour guide about the whole "Jackson having illegitimate children with his slaves" thing, and apparently the tour guide got super-pissy and said it was all lies and slander and they don't talk about that here.

Which was funny; when I visited the Hermitage they were pretty upfront about that, and also pointed out Jackson mostly had pretty-reprehensible views on slavery, and mentioned the whole Trail-of-Tears-was-bad thing. I mean, they did this while we were in rooms decorated with shit he'd looted from Native Americans, and obviously spent a great deal of time talking up how cool Andrew Jackson was, so talk about mixed messages. But how we talk about history changes slowly. Maybe I should just be grateful we're able to change it at all.

* * *

I've mentioned before that my favorite presidents are Problematic Faves. I usually explain that I don't think they're the best presidents, because the best presidents probably, idk, do stuff with monetary policy I don't understand or something, and nor do I think they're particularly good humans; they're just fascinating in some way.

I was obsessed with Woodrow Wilson in high school. For a few reasons: first, studying Wilson means studying the whole progressive era, and there's a lot of important and admirable history there. Pro-labor rights groups, antimonopolist, anarchist & socialist groups actually had teeth, and traction; what few workers' protections we have in this country date back to then. His writings have the air of a quiet, bookish intellectual; as far as I know he's our only PhD president, our only president who worked mostly as an academic before cutting into politics. Obviously as a nerd that appeals to me. And there's something greek tragic about how badly he wanted the League of Nations thing to work out, how hard he fought for its functioning, only for the world to get consumed by war a few scant decades later.

But he was horrifically racist, even by the standards of his time. He brought Jim Crow to the federal government, segregating the civil service and pursuing the horrible eugenicist sterilization policies of that era. He showed fucking Birth of a Nation in the White House. Like so many progressive presidents, he did a poor job of living up to his campaign promises; he talked the "busting up monopoly" talk far more than he walked the walk.

So I don't revere Wilson in the way Trump seems to revere Jackson. I like him more in the way you do when you obsess over a character and write a ton of fanfic about them, agonizing over minute exchanges and getting infurated at subtly-shitty things they do that no one else notices and so on and so forth.

But I'm a lit/media/storytelling nerd. Most people do not hop onto Tumblr or DW to endlessly dissect all the ways their favorite character is horrible, or write narratives that cast them in an uncomfortable light. People can say "I like that dude" or "I didn't like that dude" and not ever bother thinking about it much more than that; a lot of people just aren't particularly introspective in that way.

So is yelling at someone for having a Problematic Fave without fully realizing how Problematic the Problematic bits just kind of futile and unproductive? Is it just a function of my snobbishly lording my more diverse & nuanced history education over them? I don't know.

* * *

I went to a talk recently by a dude who published a book about owls. HIs talk drifted into environmentalist issues, as such talks do, but his framing was interesting. He specifically pitched the preservation of public lands as a bipartisan issue, and emphasized to his (mostly-liberal) audience that invoking the name of Trump, being all "omg Trump is terrible and he wants to destroy national parks fuck that guy," was unlikely to further the cause. Firstly, because it's not just Trump that's hostile to public lands. It's Representative Rob Bishop in Utah who's really been leading the most recent push for "give lands back to the states (so we can extract their resources)" and other congressmen in his bloc. And secondly, because a lot our allies in the "save public lands" cause are hunters, and a lot of them voed from Trump, have strong feelings about Trump, and will not take particularly kindly to snide jokes about Trump at Audubon meetings.

And he's right. Conservations and hunters have this fascinating historical symbiotic relationship—even though they often fall on opposite sides of the political spectrum, both have a vested interest in sustainable bird populations & healthy ecosystems. It was a coalition of hunters who killed Bush's attempt to rewrite the Clean Water Act in the mid-aughts, for instance. A lot of movements only succeed because folks with very different sides, very different saints, are able to recognize that an issue matters dearly both to them, and put aside those sides & saints to unite to fight as one.

* * *

So I think about this, and I vainly end up wishing there were some way to turn the veneration of presidents into something more like the veneration of saints. Surely it'd be inspiring and engaging if we could worship the Abstract Ideal of each president and focus on their good qualities; I pick Woodrow Wilson because I like bookish nerds with doomed causes, and someone else picks Andrew Jackson because they like dudes who act forcefully to Save America, and both these ideals are compatible with some functional and reasonable Modern America, depending on how you cast it, so we can all go about our lives.

Except as soon as I think that, I wince, because it creates this version of history where good things happened because of Great Men but bad things are vague and nebulous and caused by no one in particular and become unfortunate accidents—and no one serves as a greater counterexample of that than Andrew Jackson, really.

Unlike, say, Thomas Jefferson, whose slave-holding is more easily dismissed as a product of his time and who had notable achievements outside of that space, Jackson was the architect of the Trail of Tears. He overruled the goddamn Supreme Court to personally expel Native Americans from their lands; this was not an evil caused by some slow slide into depravity but by Andrew Jackson personally.

* * *

I can easily imagine a world where hunters start railing against Trump to protect public lands, even while still holding a basically-high opinion of the man. Sainthood. It's harder to imagine convincing those folks to stop electing him, which is the problem—if someone knows they'll keep getting elected, even if they keep voting for policy you hate, then nothing's stopping them from voting for policy you hate.

Slaying policy misunderstandings is hard. But slaying saints & legends & narratives is harder.

* * *

And probably you can't slay those legends; you just have to twist them around and invert them until folks don't even realize it's changed beneath them.

When I took a civil war history class in college (a class I resented taking at first, because it was a requirement, but it ended up being one of the most important classes of my college career, so Thank You General Education Requirement Gods), we talked about that a lot—the latter half of the class was a "history of history" class, really. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, we needed a way to make these two sides that had been bitterly fighting each other somehow reconcile and join hands again. Soldiers will often say that you have to hate someone in order to kill them.

So the narrative of the Civil War around that time took on the tone of a Superbowl match—we had this huge conflict, but that just makes us all more American, because we fought for our beliefs, and nevermind that one side clearly lost, respect everyone just for the virtue of fighting.

Interestingly, sermons around this time changed too—that whole line from Jesus about "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" became really popular around that time, and pastors played up this version of Masculine Powerful Jesus who Stood Strong for his beliefs.

And then, just as quick, the south inverted the narrative into "states' rights" and "defending the homeland", which paved the way for that whole Reconstruction nonsense I mentioned up above, a narrative that's only just now starting to die...

* * *

I've written about stuff like this before, more elegantly and concisely, but, y'know, topical trendy thinkpieces gogogo.
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