Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Even as he had turned to gambling casinos and Ponzi schemes of refinancing property, Trump desired a sense of public validation that he believed tha the kitsch figure of Columbus might well offer, if only as a symbol of the status his new development would have as a site of global renown. After having created Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the faux Columbus, resembling more than anything the ancient statue of Helios known as the Colossus of Rhodes, itself the model for Lady Liberty, if against the flags of the most Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.

The replication of an image with origins in the ancient world wonder of the Colossus of Rhodes–a statement of the optimism of global unity and republicanism that was constructed at the same time as French geographers adopted Albert Penck’s proposal of a system of post-national global indexing in 1891–that might befit a Casino, as the majestic marble statuary of the replica of Caesar Augustus installed at Caesar’s Palace–

What source of legitimacy would it offer? A language of Spectacle that would seem the apex of personal validation for a realtor whose magnification of identity had been rooted in architectural promotions.

After a decade of bidding on properties to develop in the New York area, even as he filed for bankruptcies, Trump was looking for foreign monies to keep him afloat, he described his foray into politics in early October, 1999 as not due to political circumstances or the Reform Party’s founder, Reality TV star Jesse Ventura, but rather that because “the polls came out, and they said if I ran I’d do very well,” noting that while he had not even volunteered to run, “they put people’s names–they put various celebrities’ names in, and I did very well in the polls and, all of a sudden, people started calling . . .” Trump quite gleefully returned at the end of the interview to the same fact–“The polls have come out so incredibly well. And again, that’s why — that’s why it happened . . .”–giving predictive power to the result as evidence of great consensus of his political destiny–as he openly evoked Manifest Destiny in his 2020 State of the Union speech, as if inviting us to claim a national destiny, outside global context, looking more and more like Mussolini in his manner of public address.

Proclamations of authority are often tied to the social media persona that slid so easily from televisions to social media. Claims Trump made the economy was rigged, claims to represent the common consensus, his gut, and the nation’s common sense, proclaimed a political victory on television as if manifest destiny. Even if Trump would later declare “I don’t have a pollster,” to introduce himself in the Republican debaters of 2015, he had claimed victory in response to topping polls for the Presidency–and was admitted into the Presidential debate because of his standing in national polls, and catapulted into contention as 46% of television observers believed he won the debate. While we were ensnared in the 2016 election by national polls, poll aggregation, and a proliferation of polling that taxed patience, but Trump’s gesturing to polls as the basis to validate his prospects as a candidate as an invoking of public opinion seem not only deeply undemocratic, but scarily akin to his disassociation of Russian backing from his election as President. “I won every single poll of the Republican debate,” as if he had deserved his standing as a victor of the new media, despite little evidence from data journalists that he was poised to win the race for the President, as if he clung to the sense of rightfulness–even if, as Jill Lepore has noted, the rates of response to polls may mismeasure or hinder enfranchisement.

Donald Trump’s 1997 aspiration to erect a monumental heroic bronze of the fifteenth-century Christopher Columbus–just two years before he would note that polls favored his candidacy as U.S. President!–magnified his status, if the boost came from an unlikely source. Trump agreed to accept the statue on the once-submerged properties on the banks of the Hudson River is often noted as but another sign of his notorious vainglory.  But the statue seemed to elevate his status as a divisive a figure of state. Its crass combination of personal self-interest, national symbolism, and the enlisting of foreign aid to procure renown marks an early instance of Russian-Trump cooperation rooted in symbolic synergy that bears reflection as it prefigures the merging of nationalism and internationalism that plagued the Trump Presidency. It also shows him, in surprising ways, acting like a state–monuments of national identity are not often given to a real estate promoter, but planned by a government or government actor–that followed sustained and repeated attempts in the post-Soviet era of presenting the statue of Columbus designed by Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli as a gift of state. Was he accepting the statue in a token of good will, or what he being played?

Was the image of Columbus, as a figure of spectacle, acknowledging the subject land he views from his ship, reduced to a ridiculous miniature, an acknowledgment of a new age of spectacle? Surely the statue reflects Trump’s grandiosity and taste for immensity; his readiness to embrace plans to import a monumental statue that cast the navigator promoted a monumental aesthetics, recasting the navigator as a herald of a new age in quite openly authoritarian terms.   As universal historian Yuval Harrari casts the fifteenth-century navigator as part of a Scientific Revolution, the legendary navigator provided a durable potent image of the global extension of political authority, echoing the promotion and extension of Spanish monarchs’ authority over New World inhabitants.

Indeed, the overseas expansion of boundaries of sovereignty offered an icon for globalism, eclipsing the optimism of the Republican icon of the Statue of Liberty–“Liberty Enlightening the World“–with a far starker image of authoritarian power of aspirations to global power than the vertical thrust of the raised torch of the figure of Liberty, clutching a book of laws, proclaiming Republicanism to the world in 1893, rising in the harbor and meant to be seen in the harbor skyline from afar, holding not a spear but a torch, rays of reason emanating from her crown.

While diminished by office lights once emanating from the Twin Towers,

the vigilant open upraised eyes to the harbor offered welcome to immigrants, torch only transfigured by Franz Kafka to a gleaming sword.

The massive bronze statue made to be presented to the United States marked the fall of the Soviet Union was a symbolic opening a new era of global history, echoing the past arrival of Liberty Enlightening the World–but seeming far less celebration, or based on laws, but to command assent.

 The pseudo-imperial statuary of unprecedented grandiosity aspired quite openly to be a new Wonder of the Modern World, as the Statue of Liberty had, emulating in so doing one of the classical Seven Wonders of the world in antiquity as a marker of the defense of space, the gigantic towers that were pierced on the shores of a classical port city of monumental limbs, championing the wonder of the towers Trump was building as much as being a figure of an early modern colonizing drive–a figure, to be sure, emblematic of what Frederick Douglass bemoaned as the “Satanic spirit of colonization,” as he conferred with President Lincoln. The statue designed to rise in New York’s skyline above Lady Liberty seems almost to manufacture alienation from its authority as an image of dignity standing at an intentional remove from the observer.

The powerful vision of the approach and arrival of a monumental Neo-Augustan vision of Columbus, right hand outstretched, raised above his head in a salutation of adlocutio, left arm bent at the elbow, as if addressing the continent to inaugurate a new age, captured by its title, “Birth of a New World.” As if sustaining a globe, or gathering the attention of his audience, the oddly nostalgic image of a Columbus with an open palm of his right hand seems less posed to speak than to hail the New TWorld as he arrives from overseas. Almost fittingly, there is no sense of a voyage of arrival in the monument, so much as the majesty of arrival at a destination that seems preannounced as destiny by the very majesty that the monument seems both to celebrate and to monumentalize.

The figure of Columbus standing tall with his right arm raised, palm open, as if bearing testimony to an oath, or trying to hold up an image of a globe, might well have inaugurated a new era of globalism–one Trump might well have seen as an image of the global aims of Trump International as the Donald set sights on expanding his properties beyond New York and Atlantic City for the first time,–eventually expanding across four continents to 19 cities across the globe, a global expansion that would bridge national and international space in ways that mirror the consolidation of finance in an age of unrelenting globalization.

The monument to the fifteenth century navigator indeed intersected with Trump’s earliest aspirations to royalty, and designs for global expansion of the Trump brand. The coat of arms first devised for Trump’s Scottish international golf course was used before being registered, but revealed his aspirations to royalty; the monument’s planned arrival would have intersected with designs for the global expansion of the Trump brand, that bridged global and national ends, by a marker of white, Eurocentric national identity. Team Trump had felt sufficiently entitled to devise a crest of an eagle clutching golf balls with his talons above the motto “Nunquam concedere” [Never Give Up], from 2006, even if a crest was only granted to Donald Trump in 2012, after receiving a warning for using an unsanctioned crest in 2008; the importance and image of tenacity that he sought to project was long planned with “Trump’s family heritage” in mind, with an eye to fashioning himself as royalty, combining a Lion Rampant to refer to his Scottish ancestry and the stars of America, omitting his German father, with three chevrons to denote sky, sand dunes and sky as components of the golf resort.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, Donald J. Trump, globalization, globalized economy, national monuments

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