Yes. You read that correctly. The President is moving quickly and decisively “to protect our monuments, arrest the rioters, and prosecute offenders to the fullest extent of the law.” As a matter of fact, he said with pride, “yesterday federal agents arrested the suspected ringleader of the attack on the statue of the great Andrew Jackson in Washington, D.C.”
The renewed fervor around this debate is part of a nationwide reckoning with racism after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks sparked mass protests calling for reform under the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” While substantial change in the justice system will take time, the removal of monuments honoring Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and others who are readily identified with racism provides the country with a sense of symbolic progress.
In South Dakota, Trump tried to cast the anti-racist protest movement as a terrifying enemy. “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children,” he said. “They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive, but no, the American people are strong and proud and they will not allow our country and all of its values, history and culture to be taken from them.”
In his speech, Trump appeared to want to associate himself with the more admired figures of the past; as he spoke of Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and others, Trump sounded like a fifth-grader reading random pages of a history book. There was Washington crossing the Delaware, Jefferson dispatching Lewis and Clark and Roosevelt overseeing the construction of the Panama Canal.
In the simpleton’s view of history offered by Trump, there is no room for the slaves owned by Washington and Jefferson or for Roosevelt’s white supremacy. According to this perspective, sins and flaws must be denied; otherwise the greats of history cannot be honored. This is, of course, what a child might think upon learning that his or her parents are not quite perfect. But with maturity, children, like citizens, can both revere their heroes for their strengths and criticize them for their failings — and judge who, in the end, deserves to be on a pedestal.
“Here tonight,” he said, “before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago, that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people. It will not happen.”
This declaration, like so many of the disjointed passages in Trump’s speech, would make a perfect soundbite for a campaign ad. Always eager to be seen as a fighter and a champion, Trump left out the real battle he is losing — to the coronavirus– and invented another so that he could pose as a valiant defender of this country.
The absurdity of Donald Trump’s night in South Dakota might be merely laughable if the country weren’t staring in the face of death and suffering. In days, or perhaps weeks, we’ll likely learn whether the gathering facilitated the spread of the coronavirus. By then, pollsters may also be able to tell us whether Trump’s political pathogens — anger, distortion, misinformation — are spreading as widely or rapidly.