President Donald Trump, perhaps aspiring to be the next American Historian Laureate, has doubled-down in his defense of white supremacy by declaring it’s “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” He went on to remark “Robert E. Lee. Stonewall Jackson--who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?”
Trump’s comments apparently do reflect public opinion, even if polling also indicated a strong rejection of his handling of the Charlottesville events and intense dislike of Neo-Nazis and the KKK. Most people think that the statues honoring the leaders of the Confederacy should remain as a “historical symbol” and not be removed because they are “offensive” to some people.
This unfortunate view might reflect the success of long-term efforts of defenders of the Confederacy to obscure the actual motives behind secession. Virtually all historians agree that a desire to preserve, strengthen and expand slavery was the reason the Confederacy came into being, not for the defense of abstract “state’s rights.” After the Confederacy’ defeat, there was an all-too-brief Reconstruction Era (1865-77), during which the former slaves benefited economically, politically and socially. Reconstruction ended for a variety of specific reasons, but ultimately because the vast majority of both northern and southern whites rejected racial equality and integration. Subsequently, institutionalized white supremacy in the South reasserted itself in the form of legal segregation. The statues under dispute were all built during the decades after blacks once again became subjugated.
The Neo-Nazis, KKK, and fellow travelers understand full well the symbolism of what was being torn down. They wish, in their fashion, to restore a white supremacy that has never been fully eradicated. There is, after all, no valued area of life in which whites’ opportunities and outcomes are truly less than those of non-whites---wealth, income, education, the justice system, health, and longevity. But, white supremacists perceive they are losing ground because the extraordinary relative advantages whites once enjoyed under slavery, legal segregation, and de facto segregation outside the south, have significantly diminished.
Trump, also, of course, wants to change history, though it’s true the past cannot be altered by returning to it. Rather, he wishes to create a new reality, to enhance the already considerable white skin privileges that he and his fellow Caucasians already have. Preserving the cultural artifacts of the glory days of white supremacy is a symbolic reminder of Paradise Lost. That is also the history from which he wishes to learn.
Trump’s observation that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were slave holders and might become the targets of future attempts to remove statues or monuments might have persuaded some fence-sitters.The two great historical figures were indeed slave-owners, but monuments to them do not exist because of that aspect of their lives, but because of their role in the American Revolution against British colonialism. None of the disputed works were built except to promote nostalgia for the Confederacy and a usable past, replete with heroic ancestors, for the new segregation era.
If we leave American history and consider Germany we can understand the shallowness of Trump’s argument regarding the need to preserve the visibility of artifacts of the Confederacy to learn from it. Germany, perhaps more than any other country, has taken as its historical responsibility acknowledgment of the crimes of the Nazi period. Public spaces and buildings were systematically stripped of any visual association with Nazism. This was, of course, first done under the denazification policies promulgated by the victorious Allies. But later, by the Germans themselves, who call it “defensive democracy.” Criminal statutes outlaw any new displays of Nazi paraphernalia and symbols (e.g., flags, swastikas), public glorification of anything associated with the Nazis, including denial of the Nazi genocidal policies directed at Jews, Gypsies, gays and the mentally and physically infirm. Neo-Nazi political parties are also illegal. The Nazi past is not erased. It is exposed. In public education, the mass media, museums and public memorials, citizens, residents, and visitors from abroad can see the evidence of atonement. There are, of course, a small fraction of Germans today who might be nostalgic for the Third Reich in its ascendancy. Neo-Nazis exist, but they are not aided and abetted by any attempts to officially “normalize” their demagoguery in the way Trump and some of his top advisers and supportive media have done.
The U.S., by contrast, though hardly unique in this regard, officially buries its dark history as much as possible. There are no Smithsonian-type museums which address in depth the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans; numerous wars, almost none of which were a response to being attacked; or its placement of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. The National Museum of African American Culture and History is a welcome exception, but required Herculean efforts to overcome resistance.
Perhaps the greatest denial of history is associated with the motives for the American Revolution itself. Trump could make a self-serving, and disturbing, analogy with his attitude towards non-whites and sympathy for their enemies, if he had any grasp of actual history. Washington and Jefferson were indeed slaveholders, but their failings were political as well. The most lauded recent history of the nation’s origins, Alan Taylor’s American Revolutions, examines three fundamental causes of the struggle against Britain. First, there was anger that their colonial masters did not support westward expansion, because it would invariably require Imperial troops to aid in the dangerous and, to the British by then, morally repugnant brutalization of Native Americans. Second, colonists were concerned the Mother Country was getting soft on slavery and might eventually try to curtail it. The third reason, which would certainly appeal to Trump’s disinclination to pay taxes, was the colonists’ resentment to help defray, through modest taxes, a fair portion of the enormous cost of the Britain’s successful Seven Year’s War of conquest against the French Empire in North America. They heartily cheered for it, both as loyal subjects and for the economic benefits it promised them. They just didn’t want to help pay for it.