History According to Trump: The President and the 1917 Pandemic That Wasn’t
The U.S. leader, famously illiterate about history, eagerly promotes his place in it.
April 30, 2020
As the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted his Presidency, Donald Trump has often complained about the terrible hand that history has dealt him. This “deadly scourge” that crept up on him and disrupted a golden age of prosperity for America is “something the world has not seen for a long, long time,” as Trump put it on Monday, in one of his by now familiar riffs.
“You could probably go back to 1917, where it was a terrible period of time,” he added. “You all know what happened in 1917.” On Tuesday, he returned once again to the theme of his once-in-a-century bad luck. “Even if you go back into 1917,” Trump said at a White House event for small-business leaders, “that was the worst of all time, but it was also not as bad as here. It was very bad, it was very rough. It was a bad one, but it wasn’t quite like what we’re going through right now.”
Except, of course, that the very bad, very rough, worst-of-all-time influenza outbreak was not a pandemic in 1917. The flu that killed more than six hundred and fifty thousand Americans was detected in the U.S. in the spring of 1918 and had killed an estimated fifty million people worldwide by 1920. Trump’s mistake is one of those small, seemingly inconsequential errors that anyone, and especially our fact-challenged President, might make. But Trump, it turns out, has referred to a 1917 flu dozens of times since mid-March, almost always when complaining about his own misfortune in leading the country through such a historically rare event. “Nobody has trained for this, nobody has seen this, I would say, since 1917, which was the greatest of them all, the greatest of this type of battle. Probably the greatest of them all, right? 1917,” Trump said, on April 4th. This week’s comments were no slip of the tongue.
When I checked Factbase, a Web site that catalogues Trump’s public statements, I found that he had made at least twenty-seven references to a 1917 flu pandemic since March 11th, and that did not count the offhand reference he made late Thursday afternoon while once again talking with reporters. A search of the White House Web site found that Trump mentioned 1917 on twenty-three days since mid-March. In a handful of instances—six, by my count—Trump referred to both 1917 and 1918, suggesting that someone had perhaps tried to give him the correct date, but he could never quite get it to stick. The story of a 1917 flu pandemic may well go down as a Trump classic, a pointless and unnecessary screwup that is also very telling about the President.
There’s another reason Trump’s repeated references to a nonexistent epidemic of 1917 seem so discordant: Trump’s own grandfather died of the flu, in 1918, likely from the first wave of the outbreak. Returning home from a walk in New York City one day that May, Friedrich Trump told his son that he felt ill, according to the historian Gwenda Blair. Soon after, he was dead. His grandson grew up to be the President of the United States during a time of global pandemic. He does not publicly mention how his grandfather died. “Another politician might well seize on his grandfather’s death during the 1918-19 pandemic as a point of empathy with those who have lost family and friends to covid-19, but empathy is not in Trump’s playbook,” Blair, who interviewed Trump’s father about Friedrich Trump’s death but could not get the future President to speak about it for her 2000 history of the family, told me. “In the pandemic, as in everything else, his M.O. is about victory, vanquishing and demolishing perceived enemies and threats, from immigrants to the media to the coronavirus, not about identifying with loss and grief.”
Donald Trump, of course, is famously historically illiterate, a Republican President who has marvelled publicly that Abraham Lincoln, the Party’s patron saint, was a member of the G.O.P. At a Black History Month event, he spoke of Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist leader, as if he were still alive and “being recognized more and more.” In “A Very Stable Genius,” the recent book about Trump by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig of the Washington Post, there is an anecdote about the President visiting the U.S.S. Arizona memorial, in Hawaii, with John Kelly, his then chief of staff. Trump appeared to know almost nothing about the sneak attack that prompted the U.S. entrance into the Second World War. “Hey, John, what’s this all about?” the book quoted Trump as saying. “What’s this a tour of?”
The President’s ignorance about history, however, is often at odds with his desire to portray himself as a world-historical figure of vast importance. Just months into his Administration, he called his Presidency the most successful and accomplished of any since America’s founding. “There’s never been a President who’s passed more legislation,” Trump said five months after taking office, exempting only F.D.R. amid the Depression, “who’s done more things than what we’ve done.” At the time, Trump had passed and signed thirty-nine laws, all of them relatively minor.
The coronavirus pandemic has only accentuated Trump’s tendency to portray himself as a figure of sweeping historical significance, no matter how distorted that history is. “We built the greatest economy in the history of the world,” Trump said the other day, “and nobody even disputes that,” though it is not only disputed but quite obviously untrue. Trump is well aware that his entire Presidency now rides on the outcome of the pandemic and how he is perceived to have handled it. Already, Trump and his advisers are beginning to rewrite the history of the virus in a way that ignores the delay and denialism that led the U.S. to suffer the worst outbreak in the world so far.
On Wednesday morning, there was a “Fox & Friends” appearance for the ages by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who has played a key behind-the-scenes role in the White House’s coronavirus response. “We’re on the other side of the medical aspect of this,” Kushner said, an astounding statement considering that, within the previous twenty-four hours, the United States had just hit more than a million confirmed infections and, in a space of weeks, surpassed the American death toll for the entire Vietnam War. “The federal government rose to the challenge, and this is a great success story,” Kushner added. Trump also took that view in an appearance later on Wednesday, saying, “We did the right thing. We did an incredible job.” This weekend, according to Politico, the Trump campaign intends to begin a seven-figure national television-ad blitz “touting Trump’s performance managing the coronavirus crisis.” The ads “will depict Trump as showing leadership in the face of opposition from Democrats and the media,” Politico reported.
Revising history to suit their political interests is something that all politicians do. Trump and company, however, are brazenly attempting to do so even as the body count continues to rise and the economy is still sinking. Thirty days ago, at the start of April, there were around a million cases reported worldwide and about fifty thousand deaths globally. Today, there are more than a million cases and more than sixty thousand deaths in the United States alone. More people have died of the coronavirus in our nation’s capital than in the entire country of Greece. As for the economy, new unemployment figures released on Thursday revealed that more than thirty million Americans have filed for jobless benefits since the crisis began, and economists predict a thirty-per-cent drop in G.D.P. in the second quarter of this year—the sort of plunge not seen since the Great Depression. How is this a “great success”?
When considering Trump’s real-time historical revisionism, I keep coming back to the 1917 question. What does this mistake of little apparent significance, repeated over and over again, tell us about Trump and his well-documented willingness to make war on historical facts, big or small? To start, it confirms an essential truth about the President: he will never admit that he is wrong, even when he is blatantly incorrect and it would cost him nothing to fix the error. This is, after all, a leader who has made more than eighteen thousand false or misleading claims since taking office, according to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column, many of them whoppers of far more damaging impact than his repeated misstatement about the flu pandemic that likely killed his grandfather.
There are other, potentially more worrisome, explanations, however, beyond mere pride and stubbornness in the persistence of this particular Trumpism. It suggests a President who is either unable to process information once he has something incorrect in his head, is surrounded by people who refuse to correct him from making an embarrassing mistake over and over again, or who refuses to acknowledge a mistake and would rather rewrite history to conform to the mistake than simply correct himself and move on.
After finding that Trump had made dozens of references to an event that did not occur in 1917, I asked John Barry, a historian whose definitive account of the contagion, “The Great Influenza,” spurred President George W. Bush to push his government on pandemic planning, what he made of Trump’s mistake. “It encapsulates so much about him,” Barry said, “the ignorance, the insecurity that makes him willing to embrace and fully commit to a mistake rather than admit even the smallest error, the arrogance that he can get away with it.”
On Tuesday, a reporter for Yahoo News asked a question whose premise was that the United States had tested fewer citizens on a per-capita basis than South Korea, a suggestion later corrected by Trump’s coronavirus coördinator, Dr. Deborah Birx. Trump demanded an immediate apology. “Are you going to apologize, Yahoo?” Trump asked. “That’s why you’re Yahoo and nobody knows who the hell you are.” Later he added, “Nobody knows who you are, including me. You ought to get your facts right.”
The reporter did apologize and correct the record. When Trump later that afternoon repeated his long riff about a horrific 1917 epidemic, he did not. He is a President convinced that facts do not apply to him, a man who has never been known to publicly say sorry for anything. Trump has not apologized for being wrong about the virus disappearing, or for saying that he had it fully under control. He does not believe that he bears any responsibility “at all” for the slow start of testing, which enabled the virus to spread for weeks throughout this country. He has not even apologized for suggesting to Americans last week that if they injected disinfectant it might make the virus go away. Is it any wonder that his reëlection campaign will now market the most profound failure in his Presidency as a brilliant success?