In a world where someone like Donald Trump is president of the United States, anything is possible. Yet, he continues to surprise us.
“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not be worked out?” the president rambled during an interview on Sirius XM Radio with Salena Zito from the Washington Examiner. The nation collectively facepalmed.
During the interview, Trump extolled the virtues of his favorite predecessor and rewrote some United States' history at the same time.
"I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn't have had the Civil War," Trump said. "He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart and he was really angry when he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, 'There's no reason for this.'"
Trump has said a lot of stupid things, and this one reveals not only his telling admiration of racist, sexist, genocidal, and authoritarian white men, but also a scary lack of knowledge about the country he leads. Jackson died in 1845, 16 years before the Civil War began. If the controversial president had been alive at the outbreak of the Civil War, Trump is (most likely unintentionally) correct that he would have been angry; much of Jackson's wealth was made off the backs of slaves that worked his Tenessee plantation. When he died, Jackson owned an estimated 150 people.
"Trump's greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance—of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution," Yale University historian David Blight told Mother Jones. "Saying that if Jackson had been around we might not have had the Civil War is like saying that one strong, aggressive leader can shape, prevent, move history however he wishes."
The U.S. exists as it does today in large part because of the Civil War, and so a nuanced understanding of it is essential for those in power. Many have made careers out of exploring the causes of the bloodiest war in American history not only out of general interest, but in an attempt to guide America toward a more equal and unified future.
Although there has yet to be consensus on all the details, the role slavery played in the escalation is inescapable, and that legacy divides our country to this day.
Ignorance like Trump's is concerning not just because it shows a lack of basic U.S. history, but because that ignorance will inevitably inform his decisions as president of a country still psychologically linked to 1865.