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a “truly incredible group” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents, converting the tacky and outdated National Monument to a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments of the “greatest Americans who ever lived”–including Christopher Columbus and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 Noem presented Trump a version, four feet tall. Noem sought 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 a 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–who has continued to refused to depart from refusing to issue a mandate for mask-wearing as COVID cases surged in the state–early decreed that social distancing was not a need for South Dakotans during the pandemic.

Trump profited from Noem’s lack of precautions to stage a public occasion to suggest a new set of patriotic statues, updating Mt Rushmore’s national heroes. Trump expanded a sense of the deeply transactional nature of politics long before he was a politician, evidenced in how he had in 1990 promoted plans to a erect a monumental bronze Columbus near New York Harbor more impressive in height than the Statue of Liberty. The deeply transactional nature of Trump’s understanding of the Presidency, for what it is worth, is nowhere more illustrated than in planning the place in the Garden of Heroes of the figure of Antonin Scalia, whose death may have helped usher in the radical obstructionism whose logic prepared for a Trump presidency and energized his base, and whose juridical ideals he understood as the mission of his Presidency to enshrine both in the news, in the American courts, and “among the greatest Americans to ever live” in his faux Stalinist Garden of Heroes, an echo of the national celebration in Russia of Heroes of the Fatherland or “Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad.”

Antonin Scalia, November 6, 2014/Kevin Wolf, AP

The posthumous elevation of Scalia in such a Garden of Heroes was an apotheosis akin to Lenin himself at Red Square, or the triumphalism of Budapest’s Heroes’ Square in planing a collection of the “greatest Americans who ever lived” as a new legacy of his Presidency to rival Mt. Rushmore, in which he imagined that he might indeed be placed, if never included on the face of Mt. Rushmore, due to constraints of space on the rock’s face. Was it a coincidence that the very search for a monumentality Trump regarded as inseparable from his own Presidency–the personal project of the construction of a Border Wall, or “new Great Wall” projected in 2015–was 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? The need to affirm these monuments of the Confederacy, whose destruction he criminalized as a federal crime, and assault on national memory, would be composed of an “incredible group” of figures without Native Americans, Hispanic or Latino, or Asian-Americans, even if the figures he mentioned were but “a few of the people” considered in the group of statues of those whose “great names are going to be up there and they’re never, ever coming down.”

Trump’s fantasy memorial is not far from his own initial aspirations to engage in international discussions that placed him on an international stage and an unexpected level of political prestige at the end of the Cold War era, as money was exiting Russian Federation on which he wanted in. 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, even if the plans for such a massive celebration would, we could reasonably expect, set the stage for terrifying escalations of new cases of COVID-19, 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 need for such a spectacle had eclipsed public safety needs or the obligation of the President to ensure national health by a “Salute for America” that used Independence Day as the occasion to promise a Garden including not civil rights figures, or legist, but Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Billy Graham, Douglas MacArthur, and Orville and Wilbur Wright, a pantheon of childhood books, perhaps, embarrassingly dated in origin. 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.

The plans affirmed Trump’s cognitive inability to separate politics from public persona, and indeed sacrificed the public good. Trump viewed Governor Kristi Noem was complicit in the promotion of monumentality to ingratiate herself in a Grand Old Party now a Party of Trump, in a run-through for the coronation of the 2020 Convention: Noem had bonded with Trump in presenting the President with the Mt Rushmore replica adjusted to include his face among past Presidents as he finished his speech, hoping it might be displayed in the Oval Office. Perhaps the speech was difficult to perform without expecting his own face somehow be included in its triumphal display that he saw as the correct reward for his performance of the office of Presidency, and long fantasized his visage might be placed.

Mt. Rushmore Memorial

Trump described the need to honor past heroes excluding indigenous, which in itself was a desecrated sacred space. Borghlum had planned the spectacular construction promoted in the early twentieth century include pioneer figures–Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–according to plans of the klansman and anti-indigenous sculptor, who sought to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, as emerging from the sacred rock, in a national monument that met the new articulation of patriotism and westward expansion, by effacing the sacred space of indigenous tribes with a new vision that enshrined the expropriation of national lands.

Where better than a place of the erasure of memory to propose 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. Trump’s announcement channeled the erasure of memory in Borghlum’s project, but if Borghlum sought to emulate the exhibit of native icons as if they were symbols of patriotism, and to include Sacegaewea beside Buffalo Bill gave way to a pantheon of white men, in a boosterish tourist attraction to the frontier, promoting cowboys and glamorize a western experience, Trump channeled grandiosity alone 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.” The figures, over two-thirds male, if several blacks, reflected the partisan turn of our political landscape. Trump expatiated in the air about 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, whose presence might occur with the erasure of their ideals. Although Trump deferred federal funding of this Garden to a task force, he allowed that although “none have lived perfect lives, all will be worth honoring, remembering, and studying.”

In enforcing the timelessness of this vision of America he addressed the tragedy of “the toppling of statues” of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Presidents as Thomas Jefferson. If these monuments were removed as symbols, as we questioned the place of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, after they were revealed as dear to white supremacists, and of dubious commemorative value. While Trump’s Executive Order stipulates some non-Americans could be included among those who contributed to America’s public life, including among them two figures whose statues of non-americans who had been defaced given their prominence in the colonization of the New World and seizure of indigenous lands: Christoforo de Colon, tied to the father of colonization, who dreamed two days after he made landfall in the western hemisphere that the entire population of the island be enslaved, and Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary from Spain who established a skein of missions in Alta California by christianizing indigenous inhabitants of Spanish colonial possessions in the eighteenth century–founding San Diego’s mission and choosing the site for San Francisco–the prominent placement of both of whose statues had been contested, denounced, and questioned in recent years.

The place of Columbus in curious by placing him in such a broad company. But the insistence on Columbus’ inclusion in a garden of statues to inculcate patriotism is not surprising. It also echoes Trump’s plans to erect a monumental statue of Columbus on the Hudson, an immense bronze comically anachronistic in its inclusion of a rotary wheel. The fantasia of a Garden of Monuments reveals a deep attachment of all monuments to erasing a past. The transactional nature of monuments accompanies its shaping of a world view, illustrated in Trump’s pursuit of his hopes to erect on the Hudson’s banks. The unbuilt statue of Columbus had ben presented by two past Presidents by Russian leaders, but Donald Trump was selected to promote in New York, perhaps given his taste for monument-building, in 1997 that prefigure his emergence in politics by practices of public commemoration in 1997 of puzzlingly transactional nature to place himself on a global stage by erecting a new 6,000 ton bronze monument of Columbus in New York. The statue had been long intended to celebrate post-Soviet friendship, and coming after the end of the Soviet era would rival the French gift of the Statue of Liberty, rising in the Hudson’s estuary, to promote his own properties on the Hudson River’s edge. Trump elevated the White Navigator as a founding father, in the midst of his courtship by Russian governments to negotiate a deal for a Trump Tower Moscow.

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