The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Thematic: The Use and Abuse of History

A Usable Past for a Post-American Nation

Arguing about the narrative that houses the facts.

Johann N. Neem

Mount Rushmore with crowd, Storms Media Group/Alamy Stock Photo; THR illustration.

It was the evening before the Fourth of July in the last year of his tumultuous presidency, and I sat in front of my television transfixed and horrified as Donald Trump delivered a speech at Mount Rushmore, ostensibly a celebration of American independence but in fact a call for resistance. Against the dramatic backdrop of the four granite presidential faces and American flags, Trump promised that “the American people…will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them” by protestors and left-leaning scholars. He condemned so-called cancel culture for demanding absolute devotion to leftist dogma. Two months later, he would reprise that theme at the White House Conference on American History. “Whether it is the mob on the street, or the cancel culture in the boardroom,” Trump proclaimed, “the goal is the same…to bully Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage, and their very way of life.”11x“Remarks by President Trump at South Dakota’s 2020 Mount Rushmore Fireworks Celebration,” The White House, July 4, 2020,; “Remarks by President Trump at the White House Conference on American History,” The White House, September 17, 2020,

On both occasions, the defiant words were disturbingly compelling. There was something primal about them: the tribal leader defending his tribe’s ground. That is why I felt so uncomfortable, even threatened. As a brown-skinned immigrant, I wondered whether I fit into Trump’s—or the crowd’s—America. Who was the “our” in “our country”? And besides, I thought, he had to be exaggerating. Who would want to take America’s values, history, and culture from us? Yet only three days after the Mount Rushmore speech, the New York Times published an op-ed calling for the removal of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington.22xLucian K. Truscott IV, “I’m a Direct Descendant of Thomas Jefferson. Take Down His Memorial,” New York Times, July 6, 2020. Maybe Trump’s words could not be so easily dismissed. Maybe something deeper was happening.

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