clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Donald Trump is a monument to our past defending monuments to our past

The aftermath of Charlottesville shows it’s not 1950 anymore.

President Trump Arrives Back To White House From New Jersey Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

There is something strangely self-referential about President Donald Trump standing up to defend Confederate monuments across the country. Trump himself is a monument to our political past — an elderly culture warrior who ran promising to restore America to the greatness of yore; a candidate whose coalition of older, whiter voters would have been dominant in 1980 but is a weakening political force today; a president who symbolizes a power structure he can’t quite restore.

The Confederate memorials Trump defends were not raised in the aftermath of the Civil War to memorialize the fallen or comfort the vanquished. As this chart and report from the Southern Poverty Law Center shows, the two eras that saw the bulk of memorial building were the early 1900s and the civil rights era — the statues are monuments to white backlash politics, not to the wartime dead.

Most Confederate memorials were built in the first two decades of the 1900s, and in the civil rights era.
Southern Poverty Law Center

Here, too, the parallel with Trump rings out. He shot to political prominence championing a racist conspiracy theory about Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, and he mounted his campaign in Obama’s wake, framing his candidacy as a last line of defense against immigrants from Mexico and Black Lives Matters activists from Chicago. He, too, is a monument built by white America in a moment of backlash to racial equality, a symbol of white supremacy erected as it was being challenged.

Trump’s reaction to the Charlottesville march was appalling. But it should not have been shocking. In the mid-20th-century America Trump reveres, it was possible for men and women who marched for white supremacy to believe themselves “very fine people,” and to do so without challenge or sanction. Trump promised to return us to our past. Is it any wonder that he found himself in sympathy with a rally that summoned the social mores of the 1950s, the era in which he came of age?

None of this makes Trump or the ideas or coalition he represents less dangerous. The opposite could well prove true. Political movements can become more vicious as they become more threatened. White supremacists who feel their power slipping could turn to violence and terrorism, as they have in the past, and as some did in Charlottesville.

Even so, the week following the “Unite the Right” march has been a reminder that it is not 1950 anymore — the white nationalist fringe may have a friend in the White House, but ideas that once dominated national politics are increasingly marginal, isolated, and condemned today, and their future looks even bleaker.

The aftermath of Charlottesville showed how America has changed

In a powerful piece, Vox’s Lauren Williams rebutted those who sought to defend American values by denying the very Americanness of the Charlottesville protesters. “As wrong as white supremacists are about most everything, they’re right about this,” she wrote. “White supremacy is our culture — not just theirs, but all of America’s. It lives in our hearts and minds and institutions, and in public parks and highways across the country. Hate has a home here, and it always has.”

That’s true, and it remains true. But if the events of Charlottesville were a reminder of how deeply racism is woven into our history and present, how easily and honestly white supremacy lays claim to be a venerated part of American life, their aftermath has offered some hope that America is changing, and for the better.

It is likely that the immediate legacy of Charlottesville will be the dismantling and challenging of Confederate monuments. In the days after the march, Baltimore removed its four Confederate monuments in a single night, the governor of Virginia reversed his previous position and endorsed removing the state’s Confederate monuments, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi joined Sen. Cory Booker in calling for the US Capitol to do the same.

Top leaders in the Republican Party, who often stay quiet during Trump’s eruptions, found their voices. “White supremacy is repulsive,” Paul Ryan tweeted. Mitt Romney was even less sparing. “Racial prejudice, then hate, then repugnant speech, then a repulsive rally, then murder; not supremacy, barbarism.” The list could go on, but the most unexpected message came from GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch, who chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee and has been reticent to criticize Trump in the past. “My brother didn't give his life fighting Hitler for Nazi ideas to go unchallenged here at home,” he said.

The business community, which has held its tongue on Trump’s behavior in the hope that silence would bring corporate tax cuts and friendly regulatory rulings, began to rebel. In a message to Walmart’s employees, CEO Doug McMillan wrote, "as we watched the events and the response from President Trump over the weekend, we too felt that he missed a critical opportunity to help bring our country together by unequivocally rejecting the appalling actions of white supremacists.” Led by Merck’s Kenneth Frazier, so many CEOs quit Trump’s manufacturing advisory council that the White House shuttered the board entirely rather than face further defections.

Amid this firestorm of criticism, Trump was forced to make the condemnation of the protesters that he clearly sought to avoid. “Racism is evil,” he said. “And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.”

Elsewhere in the Trump administration, senior officials seemed to be quietly distancing themselves from their boss. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for instance, gave an interestingly timed speech lamenting the fact that “only about 12 percent of our senior Foreign Service officers are nonwhite” and promising that, going forward, “every time we have an opening for an ambassador position, at least one of the candidates must be a minority candidate.”

The most concrete change inside the Trump administration, however, came on Friday, when White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, the alt-right’s most powerful and prominent ally in the Trump administration, was ousted. Bannon’s removal does not appear to have been related to Charlottesville, but it was telling all the same. “The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over,” he raged to the Weekly Standard.

During this period, Trump registered his lowest-ever number in Gallup’s approval polls: a dismal 34 percent. “Trump's current approval rating is lower than any reading for his immediate predecessor,” noted Gallup’s editor-in-chief, Frank Newport.

This weekend, the alt-right sought to build on the success of Charlottesville with “free speech” protests in Boston. The paltry turnout of white supremacists was so overwhelmed by anti-racist protesters — more than 15,000 by one count — that the original rally wasn’t visible in aerial shots.

#bostoncommon #bostonprotest #freespeechrally

A post shared by Tejendra (@tejendra_patel) on

If the present has proven inhospitable to the Charlottesville march and Trump’s initially sympathetic reaction, the future looks likely to be more so. As Ronald Brownstein, our most perspective chronicler of America’s changing political demography, argued, the Republican Party and business community responded so sharply because they see what’s coming:

By 2020, the highly diverse Millennials will clearly pass the predominantly white baby boomers as the largest generation of eligible voters. That Millennial advantage will widen over the next decade, and it will be reinforced when the first post-Millennials — the generation born after 2000 that’s even more racially diverse — file into the voting booth.

You can watch this dynamic playing out even in Trump’s own family. After each racially toxic action by the father, there is a coordinated series of leaks from Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner trying to distance themselves from his actions. In this case, the New York Times reported, “Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, urged him to take a more moderate stance, according to two people familiar with the situation.”

There is a darkly comic predictability to the Ivanka-and-Jared two-step in these moments, but there is also a lesson in the fact that even Trump’s loyal daughter and son-in-law recognize that he speaks for a past that they do not want to be called to defend in the future.

A political movement is dangerous when it is threatened

None of this should inspire complacency or even comfort in those who would like to see America live up to its founding ideals. For all the political damage Trump has inflicted upon himself, a CBS poll showed two-thirds of Republicans approved of Trump’s handling of Charlottesville. Trump’s approval rating continues to bounce between the high 30s and low 40s — poor, but not disastrous. Political movements can be at their most dangerous, and their most unified, when they feel their power slipping.

Trump’s presidency is itself evidence of this dynamic — he won by persuading working-class white voters to vote like an embattled minority — but his strategy has been tested before: There are reams of research showing white Americans turn more Republican in their political allegiances when reminded of the growing power of nonwhite voters.

Take a 2014 study by psychologists Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson. They asked one group of white political independents if they knew that California would soon have more nonwhite residents than white residents. Then they asked another group of white political independents if they had heard another highly racialized, but less threatening (at least to white political power), fact — “that Hispanics had become roughly equal in number to Blacks nationally.” And then they compared the two groups’ political opinions.

The study participants who had been pushed to think about their coming loss of political power turned sharply toward the Republican Party — in the West, the swing toward Republicans was a stunning 11 points. “These experiments provide striking evidence that perceived group-status threat, triggered by exposure to the majority-minority shift, increases Whites’ endorsement of conservative political ideology and policy positions,” concluded the authors.

It is entirely possible that Trump’s strategy of exacerbating racial conflict could prove politically successful in the short term even as it grievously wounds the Republican Party in the long term.

And even if that doesn’t happen, the white supremacists emboldened by Trump’s presidency, and by their own sense of threat, could do great damage without ever winning another election. In Charlottesville, police arrested James Alex Fields after he allegedly drove through a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding dozens more. It was only two years ago that Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, entered a Charleston church and opened fire, killing nine people. He later said he hoped to start “a race war.”

This country has experienced waves of terrorism from white supremacists before, and it is not impossible it will do so again.

I am Jewish. There are few sights that awaken more primal fears in me than Nazis marching through a town square with torches. But I took some grim satisfaction in the white supremacists and anti-Semites chanting, “You will not replace us!” and, “Jews will not replace us!” Their chant was driven by weakness, not by strength. They believe they are being replaced, and the aftermath of their rally has given me hope that they are right.