Editor’s Note: David M. Perry is a journalist and historian. He’s the senior academic adviser to the history department at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

The day after President Donald Trump was inaugurated, demonstrators descended on Washington to stage what was the largest single-day protest in American history.

Almost exactly three years later, the National Archives Museum has come under fire for altering a photograph of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. In the picture that was prominently featured in an exhibition on women’s voting rights, protest signs that read, “God Hates Trump” and “Trump & GOP – Hands Off Women,” were blurred out.

David M. Perry

It turns out that the National Archives, whose mission statement touts “openness” as its first principle, edited out anti-Trump statements in order to avoid “current political controversy,” according to a spokesperson. The National Archives also initially defended their decision on the grounds that the photograph was for display, rather than being a historical record, but that’s a distinction without a difference when it comes to communicating with the public. In fact, an edited public exhibit might have a greater propaganda effect than an altered historical record.

While the National Archives issued an apology and vowed to undergo “a thorough review” of its policies after the Washington Post first reported on the alteration, having discovered it by chance, as a historian I worry about how many other altered documents the Trump administration has buried in our records. Will we ever know?

Censoring photographs to avoid angering a political leader is not a new phenomenon: Stalin’s regime famously manipulated photographs to shape public perception. It’s all part of what Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University, calls “memory politics,” and the American right has played an ongoing role in shaping our memory in ways that support their goals.

Conservatives, for example, have asserted control over history textbooks to play down the horrors of slavery and diminish the degree to which teaching focuses on slavery as the cause of the Civil War. Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence authored a mendacious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which touted one senator’s vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson as a profile in courage, despite historians’ agreement that the senator was, in fact, likely bribed.

It’s likely no one from the White House gave the National Archives orders to alter the image. Instead, it seems the museum – an independent organization that seeks to “cultivate public participation, and strengthen our nation’s democracy through public access to high-value government records,” voluntarily corrupted themselves and diluted our memory of the past to avoid controversy. But editing a photo and glossing over the fact that many demonstrators turned out to protest Trump is, itself, a political act.

We’ve seen this kind of voluntary self-corruption throughout the Trump regime. Yes, he seems to have surrounded himself with a cadre of amoral clowns, but Trump has also created the conditions for others to abase themselves. That’s how White House officials, reportedly without checking with the President, asked the Navy to cover up the name of the USS John McCain and give sailors (who wear hats bearing the name) the day off when Trump, a rival of the late senator, came to visit.

This kind of corruption is, perhaps, even more dangerous than intentional conspiracies. The historian Ian Kershaw coined the phrase “working toward the Führer” as a way to explain how fascist regimes work. Hitler was not a bureaucrat, but a skilled rhetorician able to articulate his values to his administration and countless other Germans, who then on their own worked to figure out how put his ideals into action.

Trump governs in a similar way – he lays out his principles whether in Oval Office meetings or in mass rallies, then lets others implement them. There’s no evidence of secret orders flowing out from the Oval Office, commanding people erase documents or cover ship names to please him. He doesn’t have to issue the order.

We end up with conscientious librarians choosing to alter a photo that might show opposition to the President. What else has been altered? Who else goes out of their way to treat someone cruelly, change a document, shift a contract to a Trump property, all out of the assumption that they are working towards the President’s goals.

On Friday, the President quoted Fox News host Laura Ingraham and tweeted, “Years from now, when we look back at this day, nobody’s going to remember (Nancy Pelosi’s) cheap theatrics, they will remember though how President Trump brought the Chinese to the bargaining table and delivered achievements few ever thought were possible.”

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    In the replies, there’s a constant refrain that historians will resist that propaganda, and instead eventually craft a true portrait of Trumpism. I’ve been hearing that refrain since Trump was inaugurated, but I’m not so optimistic.

    Political regimes manipulate historical memory to craft usable pasts. We won’t always catch them. Instead, we’re going to have to rebuild governing norms so that thousands of officials make decisions based on law and in pursuit of truth, or those historians in the future may have to spend all their time reading between the lines, wondering how so many people chose to act so badly. In the end, the folks at the National Archives are going to have to choose whether to work for the President, or work towards preserving the past.