Joseph J. Ellis: Credit Trump with showing us America's reality on race

Tapper: Racism is backward and un-American
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  • Joseph J. Ellis: Trump's Charlottesville remarks have inadvertently added two big things to our national conversation about race
  • The "again" in "Make America Great Again" is further back than we realized -- and we're all thinking more about American history

Joseph J. Ellis is the author of many works of American history, including the Pulitzer Prize winner "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation" and "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson," which won the National Book Award. He is the author of the forthcoming book "American Dialogue: The Founders and Us." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)Donald Trump's controversial remarks in the wake of the Charlottesville riots have inadvertently made two significant contributions to our national conversation about race.

Joseph Ellis
First, Trump has for the first time clarified what "Again" means in his campaign slogan "Make American Great Again." It means before Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement, somewhere around 1950. There had been dog whistles during the campaign to that effect, but he has now sounded his bugle, welcoming white supremacists and Jew-haters back into the political mainstream.
This make perfect sense once you think about it. For these "deplorables," as Hillary Clinton correctly called them, were always among the most visible participants at his campaign rallies. And they remain a vocal part of the nucleus of his political base. The most shocking fact about Trump's recent remarks is that we were shocked.
    After all, Trump achieved credibility as a presidential candidate with the birther lie about Barack Obama, a blatantly racist claim he successfully lifted from the fringes of Breitbart to the mainstream of Fox News. And it worked for him.
    White supremacists and Nazi sympathizers helped make both his nomination and election possible. Without them, and an even larger group of fellow travelers who share their racial prejudices less conspicuously, the Trump presidency might not exist.
    Taken together they represent a more sizable constituency than previous pollsters were able to find. Credit Trump with informing us that we are a more racist society than we realized.
    That realization segues into Trump's second contribution, which is to make us think about American history. In a country where historical illiteracy is the new normal, this is quite an achievement. Even more so since epidemic levels of political correctness at our leading colleges and universities have made discussions of slavery and race too troubling for fragile sensibilities. Trump has inadvertently forced us to face facts that we never knew or preferred to avoid, thereby lifting the lid on the Pandora's Box of American history.
    Here are some salient questions that will float into view and force difficult debates about the answers: What did the phrase "We the people" mean in 1787 and what does it mean now? What did the states of the Confederacy claim they were fighting for in the Civil War? And what did their flag symbolize? What does it mean now? What did Jefferson mean when he wrote "all men are created equal?" If you went to the Mall in the nation's capital and listened for the conversation occurring among the memorials to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, what would you hear?
    The answers to those questions will vary from place to place, even person to person. In one sense, the fact that we are engaging those questions is more important than the answers we reach. Indeed, argument itself is the answer.
    That said, one conclusion strikes me as inescapable. Namely, the belief that we are a biracial society in which blacks and white are equal members is a recent idea, first embraced in the middle of the twentieth century. You can search the historical landscape before that time for prominent white political leaders who believed in that goal, and you will not find them.
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    Our current president wants America to return to its roots, thereby making us great again by recovering our historical identity as a white man's country. While Trump has almost no understanding of American history, he knows in his gut that a substantial number of the American electorate has never accepted the full implications of the civil rights movement. They are more comfortable with the way we were. In the long run, they are on the wrong side of history, but we're not there yet.