When a combination of Confederate nostalgists and outright white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville in 2017 to maintain a statue of Robert E. Lee, President Trump embraced their cause. His statement, which contained a shocking defense of Nazis, was so disgraceful that several members of his administration could not hide their humiliation.
And yet Trump has oddly decided to revisit the theme. He is not invoking the “very fine people on both sides,” but he is emphasizing his original defense of Confederate memorials. Trump is not only denouncing protesters who are pulling down various statues — some of them honoring anti-slavery icons — his supporters are claiming that he was right all along to defend the Lee statue.
“Trump Was Right in 2017 When He Said Statue Destroyers Wouldn’t Stop With Confederate Figures,” argues the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway. “Trump Predicted Attacks on Washington, Jefferson Statues Three Years Ago — He Was Ridiculed at the Time,” declares an article in Sputnik. (Sputnik is a propaganda organ funded by Russia; the Federalist is funded by an undisclosed source.)
Trump’s allegedly correct claim, from August 2017 — comically recorded on the White House website, “Remarks by President Trump on Infrastructure” — went as follows:
If you take a look at some of the groups, and you see — and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not — but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
But they were there to protest — excuse me, if you take a look, the night before they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
Trump was “right,” according to the Federalist and Sputnik, because events did follow this sequence. Protesters came for Confederate statues, and then came for non-Confederate statues.
But the point of disagreement was not over what would happen to statues, but what should happen. Trump was arguing that there was no possible distinction between statues honoring figures whose defense of slavery was the reason they were being honored, and statues honoring figures who owned slaves but who were being honored for other things.
Trump was implying that anybody who supported removing Lee’s statues must support the removal of Washington’s and Jefferson’s. This prediction has proven false. While historians have no consensus, they have generally distinguished between different categories of figure, and drawing a line between traitors who fought for slavery and flawed heroes of American history has not proven impossible.
It’s common for political extremists to argue that the only alternative to one form of extremism is the opposite kind of extremism. Conservatives are particularly fond of insisting that bending laws or social conventions will automatically descend into social disintegration. During the early 1960s, they often argued that civil disobedience would inevitably lead to wholesale lawbreaking; indeed, when riots and violence broke out later that decade, they held it up as vindication. After Martin Luther King was assassinated, Strom Thurmond gloated, “We are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case.” Ronald Reagan had a similar response.
But to concede the opponents of civil rights had the sequence correct is not to concede they had the analysis correct. The fact B followed A does not mean A caused B. One could just as easily argue that moderate reforms prevent more drastic action. Had the United States already removed its monuments to the Confederacy, the mobs pulling down statues at random might now be smaller.
Trump’s analysis also failed to distinguish between removing a statue democratically and doing it through vigilantism. The Charlottesville City Council voted to remove the Lee statue. Not a lot of cities are voting to take down George Washington. And while random protesters and hoodlums may be doing it with ropes, those statues can always be put back up. Trump’s prediction that only a full defense of Confederate memorials could allow for George Washington to be honored was not right at all.
Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle endorses the position that Trump has been vindicated:
What Trump understood, and his critics perhaps didn’t, was that you cannot credibly declare that some revolution in social affairs has a natural stopping point unless you personally commit to stopping it when it goes too far. It’s not enough to say that very clear distinctions can be drawn between allowing gays to marry and forcing people to cater weddings that conflict with their religious beliefs; between the father of our country and the traitor who led a rebel army in defense of slavocracy. When the moment arrives, you have to actually draw them.
Counterpoint: Trump did not understand that. He wasn’t demanding some limited principle be applied to the Lee statue removal process. I highly doubt the concept is one he is capable of grasping at all. What Trump does understand is the power of polarization. By reducing questions to the bluntest possible choice, he can collapse the distinctions — Lee versus Washington, democratic decisions versus mobs — into a binary choice, pushing public opinion into the camps at both extremes.
Trump can now pose as the defender of statues honoring the likes of Grant and Lincoln and try to pretend their defense was his purpose all along. But his actual position all along has been to defend Confederate historical propaganda and goad on violent backlash against moderate reforms — which is why he insisted on praising the violent mobs that descended on Charlottesville three years ago. If there are violent mobs on the left now, it is not because Trump was vindicated, but because he got his wish.