For decades Mount Rushmore has been a popular tourist attraction where visitors can view, with admiration and amazement, the colossal carvings of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Yet it has recently become an increasingly controversial symbol of the ongoing culture war in which we are embroiled. How has this come about? What does this mean for presidential politics in 2020?
Since 2015 Americans have been fighting over which statues and monuments to slave owners and Confederate Civil War figures should be destroyed or removed. The discussion was accelerated with the death of Trayvon Martin in Florida and the mass murder of African American churchgoers in South Carolina, and has been intensified by the killings by police or vigilantes of unarmed African American men. Those favoring the removal, at least, of these monuments claim that they honor practitioners and defenders of slavery and white supremacy, and therefore they’re an affront to African Americans and everyone else who believes in racial equality. Those favoring their preservation in their current locations say they represent important facets of history and culture. President Trump, by speaking on July 3 before Mount Rushmore, has shown he will make the culture war a central topic of his re-election claim while leaving no doubt as to which side he will represent.
You may recall the 2017 incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, wherein rival protesters clashed over whether to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, and where a right wing extremist murdered a peaceful leftist by deliberately running over her with his car. At a news conference discussing the murder, President Trump said that what the murderer—his term—had done was “horrible,” and that the “neo-Nazis and white nationalists” should be “condemned totally.” Of course, the media chose to ignore those comments and instead condemn his ill-advised assertion that there were nonetheless “very fine people” on both sides of the clash.
Also widely condemned and ridiculed was Trump’s raising of the possibility that if Lee’s statue was removed, statues to Washington and Jefferson would be next. Not so, said his critics. Granted, Trump was correct in noting that both Washington and Jefferson, like Lee, were slave owners, but Lee had rebelled against the United States. Washington and Jefferson had helped found the United States. Trump was obviously too ignorant to see the difference; his prediction was nonsense.
In fact, Trump’s prediction, while turning out to have come true, didn’t go far enough. Two years before Trump made his prediction, I made one of my own: Mount Rushmore would be targeted not only because two of the presidents carved into the mountain—Washington and Jefferson—were slave owners, but also because neither Lincoln nor Theodore Roosevelt had perfect records on race: At the outset of the Civil War, Lincoln had expressed his willingness to preserve slavery in the states where it was legal in 1861 if that would preserve the Union. Roosevelt discharged, without due process of law, about a hundred African American cavalry soldiers for alleged misconduct.
Today, as Trump predicted, statues to Washington and Jefferson are, in fact, being removed from various sites—after all Washington owned 300 slaves, Jefferson 600. Also under threat are statues to both Lincoln and Roosevelt. The Emancipation Memorial in Washington and its copy in Boston are under assault because they portray a newly liberated ex-slave seemingly kneeling in supplication before Lincoln. The possibility that the statues, the original of which was financed by ex-slaves, may actually show the ex-slave rising with Lincoln’s help has been rejected. African American activists at the University of Wisconsin likewise want to rid themselves of a statue of Lincoln to protest his alleged mistreatment of Native Americans—he authorized execution of 39 members of the Dakota tribe found guilty by an Army court-martial of insurrection in 1862; he gets no credit for commuting the sentences of 264 other warriors whom the Army and the public wanted put to death, but he gets further blame for stealing tribal lands to distribute to pioneers under the Homestead Act. The Roosevelt statue in New York shows the former president on a horse, while a Native American and an African flank him on foot. Its critics say it reflects racism, colonialism, and imperialism.
The fact that Mount Rushmore portrays all four presidents no doubt contributes both to Trump’s decision to speak there, as well as to growing demands that the statues somehow be removed. Its critics also claim (unfortunately accurately) that its creator, Gutzon Borglum, was a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, and the monument itself defiles sacred Lakota tribal lands.
So what does all this have to do with Trump’s re-election campaign? A major theme of his 2016 campaign was to recognize and promise to address the growing cultural and economic uncertainties felt by white working class Americans over the influx of immigrants, of the import goods produced abroad as a result of NAFTA, and by the first wave of attacks on American monuments and other cultural icons. These anxieties are being reinforced by the current cultural challenges posed by the Black Lives Matter movement and others who demand a reinterpretation of American history. Once we were taught that the men on Mount Rushmore were among America’s greatest heroes, and in the South that Confederate generals were the defenders of a refined and cultured civilization now “gone with the wind.” Now we’re being told that these once-heroic figures are unworthy of our respect because at worst they owned slaves and defended slavery and white supremacy, and at best they showed less sensitivity to racial issues than is currently demanded by many in 2020.
President Trump will portray himself as the culture warrior who will stand up to the revisionists who seek to radically interpret our history. His prospects for success, and the likely strategies of the Democrats, will be the subject of future columns. In the meantime, you may, at your earliest convenience, want to see Mount Rushmore for yourself. It’s truly breathtaking. Besides, it may not be there forever, so see it while you can.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.