In his speech at Mount Rushmore, President Trump came out against the current mania of mindless iconoclasm.
Politically, it’s an obvious play. Sinking in the polls and going into what ought to be the middle of his reelection campaign down by nearly ten points, Trump is grasping for anything he can use to prop himself up, and the rioters of the far left have given him a gift. When they were protesting against monuments to the Confederacy, Trump couldn’t oppose them without looking like he was endorsing the Lost Cause. But then they went on a senseless rampage, attacking statues of Union generals, abolitionists, random dead white dudes, an elk, and even the Emancipation Monument, for crying out loud.
So this is a gimme, an easy layup for Trump to present himself as a defender of our nation’s history—or even as a defender of art and culture, no matter how implausible that may seem.
But Trump is the wrong man for this message and the way he’s going about it is only going to make things worse.
Part of the problem is that Donald Trump cannot deliver a unifying message because he is not a unifying person.
He can mouth a line like this: “1776 represented the culmination of thousands of years of Western civilization and the triumph of not only spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason.”
But he cannot convince anyone who does not watch Fox News that he knows what this line actually means.
Trump has just enough self-discipline to be able to look at a camera and say, “We believe in equal opportunity, equal justice, and equal treatment for citizens of every race, background, religion, and creed.”
But he does not have enough self-discipline to avoid turning around the next day or week and calling Nazis very fine people. Or cheering on the Mother of Groypers. Or tweeting a video of a guy shouting “White Power!”
So his high-minded message about preserving history for all Americans is going to fall flat.
The American people have already rendered their judgment on Trump. They know who he his, and he couldn’t pivot to a new style or message even if he sincerely wanted to. Which—spoiler—he does not.
For those who care about preserving a regard for America’s history and its legitimate heroes, the last person you should want as your standard-bearer is a figure who has already been rejected by the American people—a man whose approval rating is sinking below the 40 percent line and who looks likely to be swept out of office in November.
Worse, in associating this cause with his losing campaign, Trump is increasing the partisan politicization of American history. The big proposal in Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech was an executive order to create a “National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live.”
But think about it: If the problem we face right now is that people are trying to bend the nation’s historical memory to their narrow political ends, how does it solve that problem to transform public monuments into a talking point for Trump’s reelection campaign, delivered to chants of “Four More Years”? How do we solve the problem by making our cultural heritage even more fully into an instrument of partisan electioneering?
This is exactly how Trump wants to create his national sculpture garden. It’s important to note that he isn’t trying to pass legislation in Congress and bring together a bipartisan majority. He’s issuing a presidential edict, making the “National Garden” a unilateral and partisan enterprise to be carried out entirely by officials he appoints and drawing on money he thinks he can wring out of existing agency budgets without going to Congress.
In short, Trump’s plan is to turn public art into another piece of political spoils for the party that manages to capture the presidency.
Which makes you wonder what will happen when the other party captures it. It would be far better—far more of a unifying gesture—to do the hard work of forging a bipartisan consensus among reasonable people about what to do with existing monuments and which new ones to build.
But again: Trump could not plausibly offer that alternative, even if he wanted to.
But it’s not clear he can plausibly offer this one, either.
Trump’s executive order notes that it is “subject to the availability of appropriations.” Which is a way of saying that, like the border wall that Mexico isn’t paying for, it involves spending money the president doesn’t actually have at his disposal.
Anyone remember Trump’s draft executive order to mandate supposed “neoclassical architecture”? That has quietly disappeared. The National Garden of American Heroes is just another piece of Culture War vaporware—a loud and splashy announcement meant to create an impression among the base that he doing something. It is made with the full confidence that—just like with the wall—his base won’t follow up to see if it actually happens.
Here’s a betteer idea.
There is a good chance that in roughly six months Donald Trump will be a private citizen again. If he feels so strongly about the ways that 1776 represented the culmination of thousands of years of Western civilization and the triumph of not only spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason—a phrase that is surely ingrained in his heart—then he can put up the money to create a National Garden of American Heroes as a private philanthropic effort.
This sort of thing has certainly been done before. But that assumes that he cares about any of this beyond his election campaign or the latest political rally.
Given his history on this, I wouldn’t bet on it.