Early on Wednesday, in a bizarre rant supposedly commemorating Black History Month, President Donald Trump made a curious statement about the 19th-century black abolitionist, activist, and writer Frederick Douglass: He “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and he’s being recognized more and more, I noticed.”
Frederick Douglass did “an amazing job” and CNN is “fake news,” President Trump says in African-American History Month listening session pic.twitter.com/p3ixDIpSsW— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) February 1, 2017
Douglass passionately wrote and spoke for the abolition of slavery as a black man who himself escaped slavery. His autobiography in particular — with its plain, personal descriptions of the horrors of slavery — is one of the most important works of the era. And when the Civil War came, he argued strongly for the war as a moral crusade that was necessary to put America on the path of racial equality. Even as some of those hopes were dashed by the collapse of Reconstruction in the South and the rise of Jim Crow, Douglass kept on with his civil rights work until his death in 1895 at 77 years old.
But Douglass’s work is already well known among historians, commonly taught in high school history classes, and championed by some Republicans (because Douglass was a Republican when the party was still the party of racial justice). He’s not at all unknown.
That made Trump’s comments that he’s only recently being recognized a bit strange, so a reporter asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer what Trump meant. The answer did not inspire confidence that Spicer knew what Trump meant, or that either Spicer or Trump even know what exactly Douglass did, or that Douglass has been dead for more than 120 years.
“I think he wants to highlight the contributions that he has made,” Spicer said. “And I think through a lot of the actions and statements that he’s going to make, I think the contributions of Frederick Douglass will become more and more.”
People on Twitter were not impressed by Trump or Spicer’s comments:
Trump says Frederick Douglass is "someone who has done a terrific job.” I doubt he knows who Frederick Douglass was.— Touré (@Toure) February 1, 2017
One day, someone needs to ask the president, "What do you think Frederick Douglass did an amazing job of?"— Daniel Dale (@ddale8) February 1, 2017
He's being recognized more and more, so read up on #FrederickDouglass and the amazing job he's done https://t.co/qNZ1Q1mHTW pic.twitter.com/Ri3bgFYqJz— Yale Univ Press (@yalepress) February 1, 2017
There’s a bit of good news: The questions surrounding Trump’s bizarre mention of Douglass and Spicer’s own follow-up remarks got “Frederick Douglass” to trend on Twitter on the first day of Black History Month. So that’s something, I guess.