Everything Wrong with Trump’s Columbus Day Proclamation

Trump continued his attack on the field of history today with his Proclamation on Columbus Day 2020, which comes on the heels of his recent announcement of the 1776 project, designed to teach a patriotic version of American history. Just about everything in the proclamation is wrong and, frankly, silly. Here are some of the more glaring problems:

  1. Right off the bat, Trump proclaims that Columbus’ “intrepid voyage to the New World ushered in a new era of exploration and discovery.” While true, it is an intentional half-truth. The age of discovery was also an age of conquest and genocide. Of course, this is not mentioned anywhere in the piece. The closest he comes to acknowledging this is when he links Columbus to other “heroes who blazed trails, settled a continent, [and] tamed the wilderness….” All of these phrases are code words for conquering Indigenous lands and destroying indigenous societies, but Trump, of course, does not address this… which leads to problem #2.
  2. There is zero recognition of the existence of an indigenous population consisting of hundreds of societies and many millions of people. None of the following terms appear in the proclamation: Indian, Native American, American Indian, Amerindian, Indigenous. As stated above, he mentioned that explorers “tamed the wilderness,” which, at best, puts the Indigenous population in the category of ‘part of the wilderness,’ harkening back to the racist rhetoric of settler colonialism. The degree to which they went out of their way to not mention Native Americans is made clear early on when he says that Colombus’ “travels led to European contact with the Americas.” This is a very odd way of phrasing it, mentioning a geographic location, as opposed to a group of people.
  3. Furthermore, he states that “Americans of every background” view Columbus as a “legendary figure.” It is highly unlikely that he was including modern-day Native Americans in that assessment, which further erases Native Americans from our past and present.
  4. Trump also continued his silly attack on “revisionist history,” which he began during his announcement of the 1776 project. Revisionism is a term conservatives give to historians that choose to describe American history in ways that differ from the version they were taught in elementary school. In reality, all history is revisionist. Every year, scholars produce new works of history that challenge earlier conceptions about the past, offering new perspectives and engaging in the active debate with other historians. Conservatives often argue that there is one true version of history, and it happens to align with there belief that the United States is the greatest country that ever existed and is supported by divine providence.
  5. Trump also claimed that radicals are trying to erase Columbus from our history. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are no historians arguing that students should not be taught about Columbus. Rather, many historians are arguing for teaching differently about Columbus, but refusing to ignore the things he did once he arrived in the Americas and the long term implications of his arrival. No one doubts that Columbus’ arrival was an important event that helped to shape the centuries that followed. Similarly, no serious historians deny the fact that Columbus attacked, kidnapped, enslaved, and murdered indigenous peoples. Those who came after him, engaged in a process of conquest, slaughter, land theft, and enslavement on a massive scale. Many historians, even those who continue to have a positive view of Columbus, acknowledge that he began a process that could easily be considered genocide, by the modern United Nations’ definition.
  6. Trump does make a point to mention the importance of Columbus Day to Italian Americans, which is certainly interesting. He mentions that Columbus Day was made an official holiday in the 1930s, long after America’s founding. This was done at the time to be a sort of “Italian Heritage holiday” and had, as a consequence, increased American admiration for Columbus. Of course, he does not notice that this, in and of itself, is a kind of revisionism. It is also worth noting that Columbus’s Italian Heritage is somewhat dubious. The country of Italy didn’t exist until 1861. Prior to that, the area was made up of smaller kingdoms and city-states. Genoa, where Columbus was born, was an area with mixed Italian and French culture as the region changed hands several times. Additionally, he was not working for any of these Italian countries. His famous expeditions were under the employ of the Spanish. Columbus was selected as the figurehead of this new Italian American holiday because people of Italian descent played little role in the American nation’s founding.

In the end, this is just another salvo in Trump’s efforts to push a conservative agenda in history classrooms all around the country. Columbus is a hero to conservatives because he set off a series of events that led to the rise of Europe, and later the United States, as the dominant region of the world. In the 500 years since Columbus, the West has engaged in a process of enslavement, colonization, land theft, genocide, and the general looting of the rest of the planet that, in many ways, continues to this day. When we fight over the morality of Columbus’ actions and impact we are not just fighting over what he did 500 years ago, we are fighting over the legitimacy of Western domination that has been going on ever since. Defending Columbus is, in effect, defending American imperialism that goes on all over the world today. It is not hard to draw a direct line from the pattern set by Columbus (and those who followed) to, for example, the U.S.’ support for the recent coup in Bolivia, which overthrew the Evo Morales, the first democratically elected Indigenous leader of that nation. As historian Carl Becker once said, “history is how the present chooses to remember the past.” Those who support our imperial project in 2020 are likely to work very hard to defend its origins in the events of 1492.



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