Will Donald Trump use statues to divide the nation in the election?
“If this election is a referendum on statues and not on Donald Trump, you Democrats will lose.” That was the warning of a Republican friend of mine. He detests the president and expects to vote for Joe Biden, but he clings to his Wall Street Journal values. He is worried that Trump has cleverly and effectively moved the spotlight away from the grotesque image of a cop kneeling on a Black man to an image of sledge hammers against marble statues. He predicts that Republican voters who now doubt Trump will return to him if the 2020 election is not about him but about culture.
I can hear some of my fellow Democrats agitating. “Who cares what a country club Republican thinks? It is not about politics. It is about the higher cause of eliminating racism whether it is systemic or symbolic.” While they may have a point, this uncomfortable topic bears exploring.
Let me be clear that we should not be memorializing traitors and racists. I realize that as a white man, I can never truly understand how it feels for Black Americans to see the people who enslaved, beat, and raped their ancestors immortalized in marble. I suppose the closest I could come to understanding is the statue of Charles Lindbergh in Minnesota. Lindberg was a rabid antisemite who found common cause with Adolf Hitler. His heroism in piloting a plane across the Atlantic Ocean remains scarred by his noxious views on Jews. His statue has been forever stained with hate.
But what if my Republican friend is right? What if Trump, the most potent demagogue in recent history, finds a way to win his second term on the backs of the broken statues of Confederates? What if such a strategy to change the narrative from George Floyd to George Washington works?
The biggest electoral dilemma that Trump faces today is an erosion of support by white voters without a college degree. He has no path to win unless he reclaims them. What better way than to scare them back? His speech at Mount Rushmore should be accompanied by the soundtrack of the movie “Nightmare on Elm Street.” It was one of the darkest speeches by an American president. Trump stands at the brink of this culture war holding a torch in one hand and a John Birch manifesto in the other.
The subtext of the campaign this year may be coming to grips with our past as a country. History had often gripped me when I was a member of the House of Representatives. I had founded the bipartisan Congressional Battlefield Preservation Caucus, organized several congressional trips to Gettysburg Battlefield National Park, and hosted salons with authors of history, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Walter Isaacson, and others.
Late at night, I loved walking through an empty Capitol Building. My only company were the ghosts of history and the marble statues. I imagined the echoes of John Adams and Daniel Webster as I crossed Statuary Hall. In the small Senate rotunda, I would trace the stone walls with my fingers and imagine the hand of Abraham Lincoln where mine was. I would stand mesmerized at the foot of Capitol Hill looking at the monument to Ulysses Grant on his horse in 1862. His collar is folded up and his hat is sitting low on his forehead. You can almost feel the driving sleet of that night, as he surveyed the carnage after the Battle of Shiloh and decided to attack the Confederate positions the next day instead of retreat with his soldiers.
During these walks, I noticed how age had affected the memorials. There were slight imperfections and discoloration in the stone. This was an apt metaphor since age exposes the frailties of our leaders and history itself. The passing years remind us of our imperfections. So I have found my own reconciliation with the passionate debates and the political consequences of public symbols. Our noblest ideal is not sculpted into stone but written on parchment to form a more perfect union. It is a stunning admission by our Founding Fathers. We are not perfect as humans and, therefore, will never have a perfect union. The best we can do is try to be more perfect.
Let us sculpt, chisel, and erect more statues to the men and women who worked to make us more perfect. We can do what Franklin Roosevelt did in another economic crisis and fund artists to memorialize the extraordinary times in our public places. Let us enhance those places with more statues of the civil rights leaders Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks, of the civil rights martyrs James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, of the suffragist heroes Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others.
We should lift the words “in order to form a more perfect union” from the parchment it is written on and embed them in stone. We should let those portrayals remind us who we are at our best. We are flawed but fearless, human but humane, and always striving to build a better country for our children. That notion will not only shape the election but history as well.
Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and was the chairman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.
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