The argument itself carries very little weight. Trump is wrong if he thinks that seriously engaging in the complex realities of our nation’s past is an act of wiping out our history. It’s the people who deny that racism is embedded in our democracy’s evolution who are wiping away our history.
To love this country, and to understand it, means grappling with the nuances of our former leaders, our policies and our culture. President Abraham Lincoln, who saw the nation literally torn apart by the institution of slavery, would be the first to admit the need to reckon with our national failures (incidentally, his impact on this country is also under scrutiny given his damaging policies toward Native Americans).
There’s a reason President Trump is focusing on the controversy surrounding monuments of important historical figures who supported slavery or racism. It’s his latest effort to use the culture wars as a means of overcoming the huge gap that exists between his administration’s economic policies and the bread-and-butter needs of middle-class Americans.
Since Ronald Reagan, Republican presidents have had to reconcile their own economic policies — which largely benefit corporations and the wealthy — with the growing populist rhetoric that their base responds to.
In their new book, “Let Them Eat Tweets,” political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson astutely chronicle the ways that the GOP has attempted to navigate this fundamental contradiction. While some conservatives in other countries have moved toward the center in a conciliatory fashion and agreed to raise taxes to support a social safety net, the GOP has flouted this strategy in favor of dividing the electorate through incendiary social rhetoric to rally supporters who might otherwise find the economic policies of the Democrats more appealing.
President Trump has mastered this political approach. Since taking office, he has not pushed for many policies aimed at improving the economic circumstances of middle-class Americans who are struggling. His recipe of supply-side tax cuts and deregulation continues a decades-long trend that has helped fuel economic division and middle-class insecurity.
His response to the pandemic has also placed millions of working Americans in jeopardy. By ignoring public health experts, throwing his weight behind swift re-openings, mocking the use of face masks and downplaying the need for social distancing, we are now facing a surge in Covid-19 cases and staring down the very real possibility of another national lockdown.
The long-term economic effects would be devastating. The businesses that survived the first round might not make it through another shutdown. And then there are the frontline workers who will be forced to continue working in dangerous conditions. Many of their children, who need education for economic advancement, could fall behind if schools don’t reopen in the fall. If the President had taken active measures to contain the coronavirus and managed a slow and cautious reopening, we could have joined the list of nations that are currently on the path to economic recovery.
Stoking the monuments controversy is the latest polemic rhetoric from a President whose economic policies are failing working and middle class Americans. In doing so, President Trump has revealed his 2020 campaign strategy: He will do everything he can to exploit cultural tensions in an attempt to overcome the fact that so many Americans would answer Reagan’s famous question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” with a resounding “no.”