Trump, monuments and the failure of memory | Fletcher McClellan

President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks at an event called "Rolling Back Regulations to Help All Americans" Thursday, July 16, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” —George Santayana, philosopher, 1905

In contrast to Santayana, President Donald Trump wants us to remember the past so we can repeat it.

Fletcher McClellan (Capital-Star file)

A month ago, Trump signed an executive order pledging enforcement of the Veterans Memorial Preservation Act, which declares that those who vandalize or destroy monuments, statues, or other such federal property may face a criminal penalty of up to ten years in prison.

Trump’s order is one of the pretexts for sending federal agents and contractors to Portland, Oregon and other cities experiencing sustained Black Lives Matter protests.

Additionally, Trump defended Confederate tributes, vowing to veto a Defense Authorization bill that aims to rename military bases named for Gen. Robert E. Lee and other leaders of the Confederacy.

The president’s efforts to preserve the “history and culture of our great country” come in the face of a movement that argues much of that history belongs in a dustbin.

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Though Trump’s stance is part of a broader strategy to appeal to whites, the president posed an important question: where does it stop? Where is the line between honoring and disowning historical figures?

To answer this question, we need to address why people erect monuments at all.

First, monuments represent the values that a community holds and wishes to perpetuate. War memorials commemorate heroic sacrifice in the service of larger ideals.

Second, community values reflect the views of dominant groups. For a century after the Civil War, the value of white supremacy framed Southern society.

Third, community values change over time, but often not until there is pressure for change. It took decades for organized women to gain political equality, first at the state level and finally with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution 100 years ago.

There are countless examples of individuals whose historical reputations improved or suffered upon decades of reflection and struggle.

For example, historians who believed that Southern secession was a noble or “Lost Cause” characterized Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as a butcher who defeated Southern armies only because of the North’s overwhelming troop strength.

Many now consider Grant’s military prowess as superior to that of his adversary, General Robert E. Lee, whose reputation has diminished precipitously.

A similar rehabilitation of Grant’s presidency has taken place. Once regarded as ineffectual and corrupt, the Grant administration strongly supported Reconstruction measures to advance and protect Black equality, including the use of federal troops to suppress KKK terrorism.

Grant and Lee’s deeds have not changed in 150 years, but thanks largely to social and political agitation, our interpretation of those events did. With each generation, America’s definition of democracy became more inclusive.

Therefore, it is appropriate to revisit the lives and actions of yesterday’s heroes to see whether the values they represented are the ones we cherish today.

Confederate leaders such as Lee stood for repugnant ideas then and now. Their statues belong on the battlefields where they participated and no place else.

The harder cases are the leaders who performed great deeds but promoted or tolerated great atrocities. Here contextualization, based on moral cost-benefit analysis, is needed.

For sure, Thomas Jefferson had a complicated relationship with slavery. Alongside his contemptible actions as enslaver was his successful effort as president to ban American participation in the international slave trade.

More importantly, the ideas Jefferson expressed in the Declaration of Independence – all men are created equal, endowed with inalienable rights – have inspired reformers and revolutionaries ever since.

Another complex figure is Woodrow Wilson. A fellow Virginian to Jefferson and Lee, he was a Lost Cause academic who brought Jim Crow to federal employment when he was president in the 1910s.

On the other hand, Wilson helped establish the modern administrative state, based on principles of competence and nonpartisanship, and fought for American leadership in world affairs.

Evaluation of Wilson’s actions illustrates how current events influence our view of history.

After nearly four years of mismanagement and diminished U.S. influence under Trump, rule by globally-minded, independent experts sounds pretty good.

At the same time, social activism following the death of George Floyd and Trump’s not-so-subtle nods to white privilege made Wilson’s racism impossible to ignore.

The danger of the present moment is that the battle over monuments will sap the strength of the movement for social justice And by focusing on symbolic politics, anti-racism supporters test the limits of public support.

Besides, Trump would rather discuss anything but his failure to deal with coronavirus, the collapse of the economy, self-serving behavior, and tolerance of Vladimir Putin’s misconduct.

Trump has no interest in the past, except to pass a memory test.

Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @mcclelef