“They Only Understand Force” Say People Who Don’t Understand History

Updating my little project that tracks the uses and misuses of history by politicians and their ilk, I found what is probably the most vile statement in my collection, and yes it is from Trump.

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Politifact has done us all a great service by talking to eight historians about this nonsense, which seems to have come from an email meme. Meaning that it won’t go away, ever. Meaning that our fair country will be chock full of people who, like Trump’s audience, are ready to cheer for summary executions coupled with desecration not just because it feels good, but because it supposedly works. Because their version of the past has shown that this level of brutality works, and has led them to the conclusion that the Muslims, they only understand force.

“They only understand force” needs an imagined past to demonstrate the claim because our recent past sure hasn’t done so. US Army commanders in Iraq did plenty of forcesplaining (”You have to understand the Arab mind. The only thing they understand is force — force, pride and saving face“) and how well did that work out? Better to validate this idea in a hazy past that few Americans know or understand, and that means the war against the Moro in the Philippines–an obscure conflict that happened within the context of another similarly obscure conflict–is perfect. In front of most audiences, you can get away with anything in this corner of American history. Like saying that the conflict stopped (it didn’t) after this thing happened (it didn’t).

Points to Trump for originality, however, because most of the time the “only understand force” folks don’t venture into the Pacific, but harken back to Thomas Jefferson and the Barbary Wars.

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The email goes on and on, but the point is simple–a show of strength put a stop to those Barbary shenanigans because it was something they could understand. This piece of the imagined past, less obscure since 9/11, is a well that for the Islamophobes will never run dry. Brian (“All terrorists are Muslims“) Kilmeade of Fox & Friends turned that chain email into a full-length book, all for making the same simple point:

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And then Caitlin M. Gale, who actually knows something about the conflict, live-tweeted her reactions to it, and it’s great. Go see #foxdoesbarbary or her Storify.

Explore the chart below for more examples of politicians using history to talk about Islam (hover over dots to see statements, click on dots to visit the ruling, see more like this here). And hope this doesn’t have to be updated too often.

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