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If some future generation puts up a statue of President Donald Trump, it will shave his weight, remove his wrinkles and present him godlike and without fault.
That’s what statues do. They airbrush features, make humans larger than life and paint over history.
A Trump statue will not mention that while a coronavirus killed his people, he refused to tell them to wear masks.
It will not dwell on the fact that at a moment when the country was ready to reconsider the racism of its past, he mobilized US Marshals to protect monuments to the Confederacy.
US Marshals have a section on their website explaining their proud history of integrating schools in the ’60s.
No matter how much historical revisionism we undergo in the next four years, I guarantee you the US Marshals will never, ever, add a section to their website about their proud moment protecting Confederate statues in 2020.
Related: These Confederate statues have been torn down in recent weeks.
Statues give no context
We’re more likely to put up statues of sports figures these days, for better or worse. They’re less divisive than presidents. But Trump probably imagines his own face cast in bronze across from the White House.
Maybe that’s why he’s so bent on keeping the jaunty statue of Andrew Jackson, whose presidency predates the Confederacy, in Lafayette Square across from the White House safe from protesters.
Jackson, an outsider who took over Washington, is Trump’s favorite president. That Jackson initiated a removal policy that forced Native Americans west of the Mississippi and today would be considered genocide is not something that concerns Trump.
He can see that good-looking president outside his window, waving his hat and rising up on a horse.
Even if you can understand Trump’s efforts to protect Jackson – he prefers Jackson to Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill – I challenge you to understand his fealty to Gen. Albert Pike, the Confederate whose statue near Judiciary Square in Washington he wants replaced after protesters tore it down.
Trump demands return of statue of a guy he’s likely never heard of
I don’t know for absolute certain that Trump had never heard of Pike until he became incensed at the general’s statue being torn down.
But I’d be willing to wager.
I hadn’t heard of Pike. Had you?
He was a Northerner who traveled South and bought a newspaper in Arkansas. During the Civil War, he joined the Confederacy and led a regiment of Native Americans, but he wasn’t any good, and lost his command.
After the war, he became a leader in the Freemasons. And it’s that group that erected his statue, in 1901. It got a few lines in The New York Times that year.
There was more reporting in The New York Times that year about controversy over a special appropriation of $75,000 (about $2.2 million in today’s dollars) the US government paid to Pike’s heirs on behalf of the Choctaw tribe for his earlier help in getting the tribe government money.
Everything was totally aboveboard, I’m sure.
Pike is known, to the extent that he’s still known, as a journalist, a writer and a poet. He rose to prominence as a Freemason, but there are some disputed allegations that he was involved with the Ku Klux Klan.
Regardless, his way of thinking doesn’t have much bearing on modern times.
Read this writing. Try to understand it. Here are some of the opening lines to his book “Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry,” which I downloaded for free from Amazon.
“Thought is a force, and philosophy should be an energy, finding its aim and its effects in the amelioration of mankind. The two great motors are Truth and Love. When all these Forces are combined, and guided by the Intellect, and regulated by the RULE of Right, and Justice, and of combined and systematic movement and effort, the great revolution prepared for by the ages will begin to march.”
Say what now?
My point here is that Trump does not give a whit about Albert Pike, even though he’s promised to prosecute anyone targeting statues with the full power of US law.
To the extend that Trump is protecting Pike, it’s because he’s a symbol of the Confederacy.
Public turns against Confederate statues
Trump does care about divisions, particularly racial divisions, and exploiting them.
According to the National Park Service, the artwork of Pike is the only outdoor statue of a Confederate officer in DC.
There are tons of other memorials to the Confederacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a database. They’re everywhere.
But the current swing of public opinion is against the statues, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released June 17.
It found that voters support, by 52% to 44%, removing Confederate statues from public spaces around the country.
Less than two years ago, in August of 2017, the poll found that only 39% supported removing such statues.
“Historic figures in granite and iron that seemed protected just a few years ago now face the wrecking ball of public opinion,” said Tim Malloy, Quinnipiac University’s polling analyst, in releasing the poll.
Trump did indicate openness to removing some monuments and putting them in museums instead.
“We can take things down, too. I can understand certain things taken down. But they ought to go through a process legally,” he said Thursday night in a town hall on Fox News. “And then we take it down and in some cases put them in museums or wherever they may go.”
But he kept up his tough talk against protesters who pull down statues: “These are really rioters and a lot of bad people involved.”
Bad representations of Black Americans
It’s not just symbols of the Confederacy being targeted.
DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has called for the removal of a statue of Abraham Lincoln from Lincoln Park near Capitol Hill.
The statue is called “Emancipation.”
It was paid for by donations from former slaves and erected in 1876 before a crowd of 25,000 people. President Ulysses S. Grant and Frederick Douglass both spoke, according to a New York Times write-up.
And protesters in DC may target that statue soon.
Before you throw up your hands thinking they’ve gone too far, look at the statue.
It shows Lincoln standing with his hand over the head of a cowering black man, shackles falling from his arms.
From 1876 until 1974, it was the only outdoor statue of a Black person on public park land in DC.
It’s not a favorable look for the Black man, who is apparently based on the freed slave Archer Alexander. They are not presented as equal human beings.
“I can see controversy and I can also see beauty in it,” Trump said of the statue in his town hall Thursday night.
“The designers of the Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park in DC didn’t take into account the views of African Americans. It shows. Blacks too fought to end enslavement. That’s why I’m introducing a bill to move this statue to a museum,” said Norton in a recent tweet.
And while it’s true that freed slaves paid for the statue, it was not freed slaves who controlled its creation, in Germany, according to the National Park Service.
That 1876 New York Times story mentions that the design was “repugnant” to some even when it was unveiled.
A quote it attributes to Douglass captures how statues can miss complexity – that the President who emancipated the slaves was not part of the abolitionist movement of the time and held his own racist views.
“Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the negro,” Douglass said, “it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed slavery.”
Do that math – If that info from the National Park Service is true, from 1901, when Pike’s statue went up, until 1974, when a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune was dedicated, there was one outdoor statue of an African American, a Black man bent at the knees, and one outdoor statue of a Confederate general, standing proud, in the Nation’s capital.
The right side of history
Perceptions of history change.
In 1853, years before the Civil War, Andrew Jackson got a statue. It’s hard to believe that would happen today.
For 100 years of this country’s existence, there was no statue of a Black person outside in Washington, DC. For 100 more, there was one, of a man on his knees.
Now, as Americans are trying to move ever so slowly toward equal treatment for all, there’s a memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall.
In 50 years, will people be clamoring for Donald Trump to join him?
This story has been updated with comments from Trump later Thursday.