Monthly Archives: November 2019

Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Effigies of stability are, at times, the closest that one can hope for the manufacture of a sense of stability in the nation. When Donald J. Trump used the White House as a backdrop from which to accept the Reupublican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate in 2020, he noted that the seat of executive power “has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future,” in ways that reveal his own aspirations to monumentality, and their proximity to his decision to enter political life. The appeal to these larger than life figures create a new discourse on monumentality across the nation, as if hoped to bridge national and partisan divides, that seemed an attempt to elevate the loss of statues with the dismantling of many icons of the Civil War, posing a threat to the increased nationalization of white supremacy during the Trump Era. Even as images of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis were removed–with statues of Christopher Colombus–to question their speaking for America, the need for a new monumentality was felt acutely by Donald Trump, as if in search for his won monument.

To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump used the visages of Mount Rushmore for announcing his plans to create his own statuary garden, a “National Garden of American Heroes” featuring an array of past Presidents and explorers deemed a “truly incredible group” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents, converting the tacky and outdated National Monument to a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments of the “greatest Americans who ever lived”–including Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra, as if blurring church and state. The absence of any Asian Americans or south asians proclaimed an image of the nation in a manner not only divisive, but more eloquently divisive than in the past. And one could not forget that Trump had, shortly before he first hinted at a Presidential run, proclaimed plans to erect a statue of the very same fifteenth century navigator whose place in the nation’s memory is increasingly queried, as a pantheon by which he wanted the nation to be understood: plans for such a statuary garden revealed the stakes of the Presidential election, as they proclaimed the vision of the nation a second term would provide the basis to complete, when the National Garden would be opened in 2024.

Donald Trump on Juily 3, 2020, near Keystone, S.D. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Calling for heroic monuments in an era divided by racial tensions used the faces of four white Presidents to call for honoring authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined. Mt. Rushmore–four faces that are the primary national shrine of white, male authority–became the place to do so, as if adding, beneath those impassive faces hewn into granite on Black Elk Peak whose steadfast gazes communicate timelessness, the odd compliment of his own somewhat stilted smile of brash over-confidence. Trump took delight in the speech before a site of national memory where he admitted to having long had the “dream to have my face on Mt. Rushmore”—a dream may have seen no obstacles in a lack of space in the granite outcropping in which immigrant sculptor Gurzon Borglum crammed four visages, whose friable rock could not accommodate another.

Perhaps Trump measured the office of the Presidency by monumentality, and hoped shortly after being sworn in to hope for a fitting monument, ignorant of the structural problems whose sculptor had been forced to alter plans and shift Thomas Jefferson from Washington’s trusty wing man, until finding the granite face unable to accommodate it–

Mt. Rushmore Memorial in fieri
Borglum’s Model for Mt. Rushmore Memorial: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln

–Trump’s attraction to the monument remained so deep that the newly elected Republican governor Kristi Nome presented Trump a version, four feet tall. Nome south to accommodate Trump in ways Rushmore could not, hoping the model fit for display the Oval Office. But the concrete embodiment of his megalomania was projected on the idea of. Garden of Heroes, as if the scenic park might eventually accommodate a figure of himself, beside his heroes General McArthur, Antonin Scalia, and Daniel Boone. While entertaining the crowd assembled July 3, 2020, profiting from the lack of social distancing policy in South Dakota Governor decreed, Trump expanded his sense of politics as one of rewards and to promote personal interests, that first led Trump to plan a monumental statue of Columbus near New York Harbord that would be taller in height than the Statue of Liberty.

Was it a coincidence that the very search for a monument that Trump had long seen as inseparable from his own Presidency–the construction of a Border Wall–was being eclipsed at the same time that statues of the heroes of the Confederate States of America, that long-lasting alternative America preserved in monuments, was also threatened? A new search for monumental building was indeed in the grain of Trump’s presidency and his hopes. The setting of Trump’s announcement made no mention of COVID-19. Indeed, the lack of social distancing in South Dakota, if it created a full audience on July 4, without social distancing or masks, set the stage for terrifying escalations of new cases of COVID-19 across North Dakota, a continued tragic spiking of weekly averages of ne infections, after the eclipse of social distancing tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally–

North Dakota COVID-19 Count, September 1, 2020

–before South Dakota seemed a site to flout social distancing before the founding fathers. The spectacle by allowing fireworks for the July 4 address without social distancing guardrails to advance a corrupt vision of monumentalism that reminds us all that “America First” places Donald Trump first, for a man unable to separate politics from public persona, and indeed sacrificed the public good: was she complicit in the promotion of seeing monumentality as the extension of political office by other means: Gov. Nome presented Trump with the replica placing his face among the Presidents on Mt Rushmore when he finished his speech? For the President Trump was unable to watch the monument without expecting his own face somehow be included in its triumphal display

Mt. Rushmore Memorial

Trump described the need to honor past heroes that had itself desecrated a once sacred space for native ancestors. The visages of Mt. Rushmore intended to include effigies of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–in an attempt at replace the ancestors of native Americans with a spectacle of the theater of their extinction; the anti-indigenous sculptor, also a klansman, sought to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, were shown as emerging from the sacred rock, seemed historically suitable as a site for Trump to proclaim a Garden of Heroes Trump as a new reality park. The patronizing nature of promoting a garden of monuments that honors civil rights leaders, abolitionists, past presidents, astronauts and the heroes of the frontier set a strikingly segregated tenor whose racist undertones suggest a vision of the nation defined by racial divides, reflecting the racial identities of the Presidents it selects to commemorate, rather than that of the nation. The garden of heroic statuary “of Americans” would include no indigenous, Asian Americans, or Latino, but include Columbus and Junipero Serra, men whose memorialization has been contested and their statues taken down.

It channels who Borghlum’s project to include Sacegaewea beside Buffalo Bill gave way to a pantheon of white men. Boghlum had first hoped to create a boosterish tourist attraction to the frontier, promoting cowboys and glamorize a western experience, that Trump channeled in promoting the value of the backdrop to celebrate achievements of new “giants in full flesh and blood” of “great, great men” who “will never be forgotten,” in a promoting a federal statuary garden that would canonize “historically significant Americans”–over two-thirds male, if several blacks–a reality park reflecting the partisan turn of our political landscape. The project ran against the grain of an apparently non-partisan speech. In place of Buffalo Bill Cody and Lewis and Clarke, Trump embraced an array of Republican Presidents, free spirits like Wild Bill Hickok, Antonin Scalia, Billy Graham, and Ronald Reagan, beside Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas–African Americans beside southern separatist Henry Clay, in an indignity echoing including Red Cloud and Sacagawea on Mt. Rushmore.

The monumental timelessness of this vision of America in a federal garden of heroes sanctioned a “American heroes” to address `the toppling of statues of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Presidents as Thomas Jefferson as symbols of enslavement, in hopes to question their continued prominence in our national memories, after toppling statues of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, dear to white supremacists, and covering Columbus with paint or destroying them wholesale: coming’s full circle, at least two statues deemed offensive, including an equestrian statues of a past President deemed offensive–Teddy Roosevelt–have been bought by a Russian billionaire eager to relocate the monument to Russian lands, adding a fold to the memorialization of historical figures; his Arte Russe foundation declared “the need to preserve their memory for future generations” that makes one’s mind turn back to the fabrication of the monumental statue of Columbus with his hand on a rotary wheel which, if comically anachronistic, Trump hoped to erect on the Hudson’s banks.

Did the statue prefigure not only his taste for monument-building, now viewed as a battleground of public memory, but his investment in practices of public commemoration in a terrifying manner?

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, globalization, monuments