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 Republican 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. As Trump had once confided that Trump Tower was but a “prop” to create the show that was Donald Trump to sold-out performances, in 1990, the border wall had afforded a prop of Presidential authority. The readiness with which Trump used Mt Rushmore as a prop to speak to the nation on Independence Day, 2020, or the White House to address the Republican Convention, revealed an interest in the preservation of statues as loci of authority–and his enmity of identifying as Cancel Culture the criticism of monuments of Confederates, or of Columbus, John Wayne, or of the Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee.
Donald Trump’s cultivation of the monumental may have led to a readiness as a candidate for President to seek out the Border Wall. If it is almost a chicken-and-egg question whether the demand for the wall drove his candidacy or he conjured the spatial imaginary of the wall, the proposal was seized on during the dark years of the Trump presidency as a prop to reveal his commitment to national security far beyond tariffs, trade conventions, and trade wars and revive his presidency or lagging candidacy in what seemed a six year campaign. If the border wall became a marquis event of the Trump Presidency until it occasioned the final public trip of the Trump Presidency, now recast as a site to burnish his legacy and his commitment to ideals, it was by no means the sole prominent he tried to insert in the landscape. Although the addition of a statue of Columbus to the Manhattan skyline was focussed on the microcosm of Manhattan, the first theater of Trump’s public fortunes, the case of the towering bronze statue to an imperious Christopher Columbus, that one-time icon of Italian-American identity, already attacked from the early 1990s, when Trump first floated the possibility of its erection on his properties as a gift from the Russian Federation in 1997. The statue that Boris Yeltsin had proposed Bill Clinton accept as a gift for the Columbian quincentennial was seized upon by Trump in the years that he sought to revive his flagging fortunes in Manhattan as a monument to place his stamp on the urban skyline he identified, regularly drawing on cocktail napkins, with a sharpie, as if he was coveting its gleaming buildings as a young realtor from Queens.
The addition of the planned statue of the Genoese navigator had been routinely rejected as a part of the American imaginary by many groups as early as 1997–the year Honduran indigenous destroyed a statue of Columbus to condemn the project of Spanish colonization, five hundred and five years after the fact, beheading the monument, painting it red to recognize the blood it bore, and throwing it into the ocean, in what had become a ritual desecration of monuments to Columbus since the quincentenary of 1992. The fabrication of the statue in Moscow may have predated the protest movements to remove statues in Britain of Topple the Racists, but reached for a discredited iconography of supremacy at the moment Columbus had been widely questioned as a figure of American identity–but when Trump felt that he might make a deal for the acceptance of a monument that would appeal to the recently elected Italian American mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani. The monument he offered to plant on his properties he was developing on the Hudson River estuary, above Upper New York Bay, near midtown, Harbor, above the Statue of Liberty that rises in the Upper Bay from Beddoes’ Island, would hardly have been precedented for a private residence. But Trump’s sense of combining territoriality of the lands of the old train yards on the expanded west side of Manhattan with a demand for glitz seems to have led him to agree to the deal for erecting a statue, some fifteen feet taller would have provided an improbably gigantic statuary, even if the landfill of his new housing development could probably not sustain its massive weight–yet the image of the massive statue promoting a performative icon of global rule, not long before the first time Roger Stone openly fashoned Donald Trump’s candidacy for President.
The ill-fated story of the attempted transatlantic voyage of this perversion of a Modern Colossus, a triumphant image of the fifteenth century navigator’s imperious gaze, glorified the imperious form of the navigator without a map or compass, but shows him atop a small caravel, behind three massive billowing flags bearing crosses that concretize his claims to have brought Christianity to the New World, glorifying the man who began the slave trade from the Americas, desperate to turn a profit on his second voyage–who never set foot on the continental United States, let alone approached New York harbor. The imperious view of this statue’s grim visage, an assemblage of sorts, first designed to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ expedition made out of 2,500 pieces of bronze and steel manufactured in Russia, cast in 3 different foundries, was assembled in 2016, just after Trump’s election, some 25 years after its first conception, but at a towering two hundred and sixty-eight feet would tower over the sixty meter iron column on which Columbus stood in Barcelona, erected for the 1888 University Exposition, shortly after the Statue of Liberty arrived in New York Harbor in 1885, or the seventy-six foot column on which Columbus stands in midtown Manhattan, adorned with bronze miniatures of the three ships of the Genoese navigator’s first voyage, the Nino Pinto and Santa Maria, planned in 1890 and unveiled in 1892. Unlike the image of the Genoese navigator holding nautical charts and pointing to the Atlantic in Barcelona, or the image of Columbus with a compass or globe, in period costume, this Columbus stares over the land, saluting imagined inhabitants akin to a Caesar. More than encountering natives, as the bas-relief in Manhattan or Barcelona, Columbus in “Birth of the New World” evokes a figure with aspirations to global dominance, removed from time or space, a thoroughly post-modern figure of the discoverer who lacks maps, as if he followed inborn GPS.
His gaze is imperious, but does not scan the seas, or shore, but seems to ahve arrived with a new sense of entitlement, inflected by three royal crosses behind him, and in the relative immobility of his posture and weight, facts that Trump must have noticed or seen in a mock-up when it was suggested as a gift to the realtor who was negotiating the placement of Trump Tower in Moscow, and saw fit to place on the lot of the planned luxury apartments he had been promoting in Manhattan, as another second act to Trump Tower, when his fortunes and global capital were in decline, having just declared a loss in 1995 of $916 billion desperate to relieve some of his debt devised a deal forgiving half of the $110 million he owed, per Wall Street Journal, escaping his creditors in ways Fortune called truly “Houdini-like” and was eager to create a needed simulacrum of monumentality for the Trump brand that would magnify his own personal wealth in Manhattan and on the global playing field, as he aimed to $916 million loss he posted for 1995, or the millions he had been hemorrhaging of the value of Trump International that was rolled out in 1997, in an attempt to eclipse the filing for bankruptcy of Trump Taj Mahal in 1991, by securing a new monument of global conquest.
This giant statue was the first time in the final months of his Presidency, Donald Trump seemed to bond again with the symbolic status of statues as patriotic memorial, so that by May, 2020, during the social justice riots after George Floyd’s killing, he felt oddly impelled to affirm, almost repeatedly, the litany of statues, memorials, commemorations, or neoclassical monuments. From May of that year, he linked the eulogizing of statuary was paired with the end of the “downsizing of America’s identity” to the national wealth “soaring” an additional twelve trillion, concealed in increasing wealth inequality, describing funds “pouring into neglected neighborhoods,” presenting the Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, and “reaffirming our heritage” by in the State of the Union, lionizing the heroism of Americans as if a casting call for the Garden of National Heroes he suggested on July 4, 2020: Generals–Pershing, Patton, and MacArthur–and noble frontier figures like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and other heroes of the Alamo, or the Pilgrims from Plymouth Rock, largely white men, lamenting the lack of heroic statues, rather than affirming a commitment to living humans, and expressing shock and dismay at the attacks on neoclassical statues. Trump had returned as soon as he was elected President to reassert the place the Genoese navigator occupied in a proclamation celebrating Columbus Day the second Monday of October, praising his “commitment to continuing . . . quest to discover . . . the wonders of our Nation,” and, in fact, the “wonders of our nation, world, and beyond,” as if the navigator was indeed a basis for the proclamation of the future vision of the nation, as if replacing the vision of the nation in that other Modern Colossus of the Statue of Liberty, modernizing Manifest Destiny by praising the navigator for having “tamed a continent,” if he had barely arrived at one.
The planned monument was never built. But it evoked a mythos of manifest destiny many found a surprising embrace as a way to “reaffirm our values and affirm our manifest destiny” in the early days of the Trump Presidency. But Trump seemed to affirm his mysterious attachment to global transit of profits in the allegedly cost-free transport of a massive piece of statuary to be built on the Hudson River’s shores as a new way to claim public prominence for his lagging fortunes, jsut years before he first put his hat into a Presidential primary and declared his interest and possible intention to be United States President, as if to familiarize the nation with an idea that was striking by its improbability. The Hudson River, Donald Trump announced to the American press, was in fact the very site where “The mayor of Moscow . . . would like to make a gift to the American people,” a site to erect the massive statuary entitled “Birth of the New World.” He eagerly let it leak to the press after his return from Russia in 1997 that he would be instrumental in the arrival of a new monument for the city’s skyline, based on his negotiations with Russian oligarchs, and that the project hard to imagine as an extension of his own interests to immediately raise eyebrows of a tie: “It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York!” While Trump International was a chain of luxury residences, the elevation of the statue as an image that confirmed his luxury residences as a global attraction were no doubt far closer in his mind than the consensus the new public statuary would imply. Did he realize that the gift was already rejected by two sitting presidents, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, who were approached by what was an ostensible gift of friendship for the quincentenary of Columbus? His image of a new logo for Trump International to show its global ambitions, unveiled in 1997, at Columbus Circle, has an eery parallel to the interest in adopting Columbus as a mascot for his new luxury housing chain, oblivious to the impropriety of placing a triumphant statuary of Christopher Columbus at his own other midtown properties, as if to personalize the contested icon of what had become a disputed and quite loaded figure of global triumphalism–a figure that was almost literally from another time.
Trump bemoaned desecration of the monumental on the eve of leaving office addressing in his final rally, on January 6, 2021, bemoaning what he saw as rage against monuments, not a re-questioning of their significance, and cultivating an eery silence on escalating police violence. The danger of disturbance of monuments was only stopped by a law and order affirmation, lest, he taunted, “they’ll knock out Lincoln too,” necessitating the sentences for desecrating statues–“You hurt our monuments, you hurt our heroes, you go to jail“–to restrain the beheading, toppling, or besmirching with red paint of public monuments of confederates, slave holders, and colonizers in all fifty states, including the 1,749 statues of confederates that the Southern Poverty Law Center estimate were standing in the United States in 2019, 1,500 supported by the US government grounds; a sixth of monuments to confederates erected mostly in the Jim Crow era lie in black-majority counties, totems of a past white supremacist culture President Trump had found much support. As the call for the removal of statues that natauralize if not celebrate racism as part of the American social fabric, the reconsideration of confederate statues long prominent in many cities seems to have provoked Trump’s outspoken support for the very same statues as a sign of patriotism.
The statue of the instigator of the slave trade, Christopher Columbus, had claimed a special place in the political emergence of Donald Trump, and in the revaluation of public monuments, form the the civic fraying of debate about the status of Columbus that dates from the early 1991, when indigenous protests against the commemoration of Columbus began, and the proclamation in some cities by 1992 of Indigenous People’s Day. Trump’s attachment to the monumental an an emergence that seemed deeply tied to his desire for the monumental placement of an icon that might command statement was long tied to an aspiration for recognition: Trump claims to have long dreamed he might appear on Mt. Rushmore, perhaps explaining the ubiquity of his name on his buildings, and the satisfaction he drew from that. But the escalation of his drive for the monumental–and, indeed, his hopes for a border wall that might bear his name– may have began, not with his inauguration, but just after Trump Tower, in 1990, when Trump was flailing around for attention and for ways to escape his debtors, and negotiated the arrival from Russia of a monumental statue he imagined would stand in New York harbor–which Trump probably argued was the apt location for “Birth of the New World,” a monument two past Presidents of the United States had turned down, but Donald Trump, eager to please Russians, promised he would erect.
While Columbus was Genoese, and long a confirmation of Italian American pride, the image of a monumental figure of male Christian government that the Tsereteli statue, removed from time and space, staked an over the top monument of an image of the white, male figure of state we might long associate with Trump, a figure numerous American cities would rebuff in the 1990s, before it was relocated to Puerto Rico. The proposed statue marked Trump’s first flirtation with a statement of political monumentalism, inspired by ties to Russian oligarchs who patronized the deeply orthodox Georgian sculptor who had designed the towering neoclassical figure of a heroic navigator for “Birth of the New World.”
The monumental size of the statue of the navigator long deemed an icon of national genius was to upstage the monumental Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, at the end of the estuary, celebrating in monumental form the heroism of the navigator, more a symbol of rapaciousness and plunder but recast in bronze in monumental size as a liberator and conquistador of new lands that, before Trump appeared on Reality TV, would broadcast his achievement and Trump’s munificence on the skyline of New York to all its residents. Columbus would be cast in a new level of monumentality, and even aspire to the new language and logic of monumentality to which Donald Trump had aspired. While it is not clear why the monument did not advance, one suspects that Trump’s eagerness to accept the monumental statue of the Genoese navigator forged in Moscow’s oldest smelting furnaces, founded by Catherine the Great, and designed by the Georgian Zurab Tseretelli, would have been placed on landfill in a Trump project in the landfill of the trainyards in the Hudson estuary, unable to support the ponderous bronze assemblage weighing 660 tons–the ballpark figure Trump cited that oddly hovered near the number of the beast.
Did the negotiation of a figure of rapaciousness as a symbol of the nation find its way to the sponsorship of Donald Trump only by chance? The image of a white conqueror that Russian elites offered to Donald Trump at the same time as he pursued ways to export his brand to the post-Soviet oligarchs in a gambit for greater monumentality was a moment when Trump’s language of monumentality–the expansion of Trump Properties to Trump International and the expansion of Trump Tower in Manhattan to a possible chain of Trump Towers in global capitals–suggested a stagecraft of hotel promoting that was met by a triumphalism of staking his foray into national politics by rehabilitating the figure of Columbus as a hero of globalism and economic conquest that would dwarf the figure of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, as if to cement the gift of Russian oligarchs beyond the French Republicans.
The timing of such an encomia to the rapaciousness of the Genoese navigator as an emblem of global economic ties was perfect. At the very time that Columbus’ celebration as a national hero was being questioned, that the post-Soviet government of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin had once offered a sitting American president–and attempted to offer to a second–that Trump, during a visit to Moscow ostensibly to plan a new residential tower on Red Square, acceded to being amenable to erect on shorefront properties he was developing. But perhaps the biggest irony of Donald Trump’s attempt to promote this monumental statue was that it was a way of selling his own success to an American public, at a time when he was in fact surrounded by mounting debt, having trafficked in debts for most of the 1980s, and in need of an illustration of triumphalism to promote his own pet project of a new West Side development, that would be the site where he proposed the statue of the navigator who had claimed to “discover the New World” was planned to be erected.
If Trump had argued that Trump Tower demanded recognition as “the eight wonder of the world,” the statue of Columbus that he sought to importing to the banks of the Hudson River, or the landfill of the former railway yards where he projected an exclusive new luxury complex, provided a possible basis to erect the monumental bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, designed by Soviet sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, a Georgian member of the Orthodox church, far larger than the statue of Columbus in the act of sighting land from atop a column in Barcelona, in 1997, before two sails billowing with wind, each decorated with a cross, in the act of bearing Christianity to the New Wold as an agent of the Royal Majesties, Ferdinand and Isabella. This invocation of the myth of transatlantic travel–Columbus had never visited New York, sailed in the Hudson, or on North America, save Caribbean islands, had grown in 1892 as part of an American decision to stake claim to the theater of Central American islands as a province of hegemony. As the monarchs were storing all maps of routes to the New World as tools of global power, the throwback image of a Columbus offered a basis for Trump to set his sites on global markets, by 1997, far outside New York, and provided one of the strongest ties between Trump and Russia, as Donald was hoping to build an outpost for a newly branded Trump International, by an actual monument that would have been the tallest statue in the western hemisphere to affirm the global scale of his enterprise.
But the image of this immense statue of a robed Columbus who would be saluting Mnhatttan Island, would be a theatrical addition to the six luxury towers he was planning on the West Side, at a time when Trump was all but crumbling under debt. Would the image of Columbus, shown saluting Manhattan Island and perhaps hailing the towers of Trump and the foreign capital that had funded their construction, as the Russian-made statue that Trump brokered was billed as arriving in New York fully paid for, with oligarchs covering the cost of its transport and construction, aside from the installation of the behemoth on the landfill where Trump planned to build. How the monumental statue would appear on the New York skyline, or be integrated with Trump residences, was never apparently discussed let alone described, so much did Trump trust the sense of theatricality that the erection of the statue would immediately add to his image in the city, which was in need of considerable rehabilitation.
The statue met Trump’s insatiable taste for monumentality, even if the image of Columbus as an elitist mariner and royal emissary was about as out o step with the histroical image of Columbus or his place in a democratic tradition. Columbus stood as if arriving and claiming possession over a nation, echoed a belief in manifest destiny that was more than out of step with the times. It idealized a sense of conquest and of rapaciousness as American, if the recalibration of the legacy of Columbus as a national hero had been percolating across the nation for some years, as many questioned whether the navigator who had been heroized by Italian immigrants as an icon of their ties to the nation of America and an image of their own whiteness, was now reclaimed as a logic of the capitalism of plunder, materialism, and enrichment, rather than the social and civic order that the image of Lady Liberty, standing atop the chains of enslavement, was intended to communicate.
Unlike the stoic monuments of Columbus as a world traveller, the statue of the emissary who arrived in classical robes was an odd appeal to a type of classical statuary, togaed and raising his right hand in a gesture of imperial salute, to exchange for the entry of Trump Properties to Moscow, Is this triumphal image of Columbus not an image of enrichment, as much as Christianization, and image of neoclassical monumentality who masks the violence of disenfranchisement and conquest! In raising one hand worthy of Mussolini more than Augustus, the sttue all but invoked a “Doctrine of Discovery” to lay claims to the New World, unlike Liberty,. For the figure of Columbus lays claim to the ownership of the land and its rulership by a sort of Christian militarism, without a book of laws or declaration, or respect for laws, viewing the nation from atop a small symbolic caravel. It did not make a difference that this figure was so dramatically ahistorical, with his hand on an anachronistic rotary wheel, without a compass, sighting device, or indeed a map.to navigate or to conquer and stake his claim.
The monument did not have need of either–if all are the tools included in Columbus statuary, for it was actively rewriting history and memory alike. In the service of a banal monumentality, closely recalling the cartoonish monuments that Zurab Tseretelli had helped erect across Moscow, and send to different posts in the world including Paris and New York, the oddly cartoonish navigator is ostensibly a new map of the nation, as well as a new image of global power that had been offered to American Presidents as a gift of the post-Soviet, but that Presidents Bush and Clinton had alike demurred, perhaps seeing something unsavory in selecting a gift form a Russian President as an image of the American nation. This image famously appealed to Donald Trump, who savored its monumentality, the reputation of the lauded Russian Georgian sculptor Zurab Konstantinovitch Tsereteli, and his reputation for controversial monumental art. Trump had a high tolerance for what might be called kitsch of opaque monumentalism. The frozen figure of Columbus removed from time and place is an assertion in empty air, a floating signifier that only seemed to float, standing on a ship in triumph, a made-in-Moscow massive icon of unheard of magnitude, that would be destined to the largest in the western hemisphere. This project to re-monumentalize the image of Columbus in the act of magisterially surveying a continent on which he had barely set foot, as if to justify claiming the conversion of the New World’s inhabitants, offered a claim for Trump’s own arrival on a global stage, funded by underwater financial currents, laundered funds, and foreign backers–many of whom seem to have continued to support his candidacy in a bid to be US President in 2016 and 2020, often through the same contact that Trump wanted Russian oligarchs to talk about the statue’s arrival, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Donald Trump was more familiar with identifying himself with a monument–witness how he became identified with the “prop” of Trump Tower that maps that became a primary residence, a site of his corporation, and a studio set for his Reality TV shows, Trump wanted a monument that would announce his status on a global stage, allowed him to rehabilitate him as he emerged from a mountain of debt, and solidify the claims for a new monument in Moscow, a new Trump Tower a decade later, for which the agreement was to be greased in transactional fashion by the acceptance of an odd statue of Columbus that would effectively remap the nation for Trump’s personal gain. The first second act after Trump Tower, first announced in 1980 as a triumph of the urban skyline, would be erection of an image of Columbus that would similarly dominate the urban skyline, sacrificing debate about an icon of the nation and indeed national identity to meet an undying thirst for monumentalism.
And if Trump repeatedly staked his later Presidential candidacy on his ability to provide the nation with a new monument, a monument to inspire renewed faith in the “sacred bonds of state and its citizens,” as he promised when he unveiled a plan to cut e legal immigration by half soon after his election in 2017, he announced he would run for U.S. President from the atrium of Trump Tower, the nerve center of Trump International, by staking his bonds to television viewers across. the nation by the promise “I would build a great wall,” as a concrete barrier along the United States’ southern border, winking acknowledging “nobody builds walls better than me, believe me” as if referring to the monumental atrium where he spoke. If Trump repeated the claim “I know how to build” and “I am a builder” in an upbeat optimism of the nation, as if the talismanic power of Trump Tower established the legitimacy of his ability to deliver on global wealth to deliver fantastic power, if not a personal fantasy, as he consciously deployed the Tower as an image of power, making good on the promise to deliver a building of unprecedented desirability to Americans and height to the New York skyline as he navigated its construction from 1979 to 1983, the potential addition of a statue of Columbus, the colonizer converted to a heroic figure and White Christian Man, int he 1990s provided perhaps more than a road not taken.
The entrance of this monumental Columbus, proposed for the estuary of the Hudson River, where Henry Hudson, himself in fact once an agent, as it happened, for the Muscovy Company, arrived in New York Harbor in 1609, but Columbus never approached or sailed, would be the first great international showpiece Trump would have promoted as his realty company was pivoting global, by rebranding and expanding as Trump International, on a global stage, as a showman seeking the least modest image of grandiosity able to be imagined. If Robert Musil, the Austrian novelist and critic, had in 1925 imagined that one often passes urban monuments “without [having] the slightest notion of whom they are supposed to represent, except maybe knowing they are men or women,” as you walk around the pedestals of statues that in their remove from the urban environment almost repel attention, leading our glance to roll off, and repelling the very thing they are meant to attract as water drops off an oilcloth, the showpiece that Trump was aspiring to bring to his Hudson River properties would cast Donald Trump as presenting a new image of the nation. The fantasy that Moscow fed Donald Trump to Americans was modeled, like the Statue of Liberty, after the Wonder of the World of the Colossus of Rhodes, was difficult to deny for a man who had declared Trump Tower a Wonder of the World, and attempted to replicate a second global wonder in Atlantic City in Trump Taj Mahal, recently built for $1.2 billion as “the eighth wonder of the world,” but the 360-foot bronze statue of Columbus Russian oligarchs had promised to deliver was. a monument he seems to have siezed on to promote his own public prominence in Manhattan.
Trump’s promise of the size of the statue and its ostensible value–$40 million!–would be a sort of windfall that would serve as a small downpayment on the $916 million loss he posted for 1995, or the millions he had been hemorrhaging of the value of Trump International as Trump Taj Mahal filed for bankruptcy in 1991, or the deals he had cut with banks that unloaded his personal debt for about $55 million–half of what he owed, in what Fortune had marveled was a “Houdini-like escape” from his creditors, having walked away from personal debts to relaunch his hopes for a real estate empire without the encumbrance of any federal tax claims at all. The monument to Columbus would relaunch his brand, Its size concealing that Trump’s increased search attracted illicit flows of Russian money in hard times to puff up his grandeur and indulge his vanity, in the guise of promoting patriotism, even if the image of Columbus it would advance. At the same time as Giuliani proclaimed Trump’s “genius” during his later Presidential run was revealed in his ability to financially rebound from the devastating indebtedness of 1995, the statue of Columbus would be a similar dissimulation. The massive statue–taller than the Statue of Liberty!–would be an illustration of his ability to create a “comeback,” and to reburnish his public citizenship. The statue transposed from a register of patriotism to promoting a residence would have been the fulfillment of Trump’s past plans to create on the same site the very tallest building in the world of seventy-six stories– complimented by a statue the tallest in the western hemisphere, whose maquette Trump had already presented publicly with paternal pride. The spire of the newly planned central tower would dance in dialogue with a statue of the discoverer, a sort of grotesque dialogue of monumentality commanding global attention, demanding that the world recognize Trump’s return to the top of his game and reclaiming his status as a global real estate developer.
Hopes for marking the complex to be named Riverside South on the banks of the Hudson River in New York City of a monumental bronze statue of the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus cast in Russia–“Look on my works, ye might, and despair!“–adopted colossal statuary of a figure Trump has affirmed as central to the nation–and preparing for its settlement by Europeans as President as a promotional illustration of his latest property’s value and its status as a global destination. in a new language of architectural monumentality, unsurpassed world wide, a showpiece that would be a credible second act for Trump Tower that would supersede the tower Trump had planted in the New York skyline with an even more monumental eyesore that no one in Manhattan could ignore.
Trump declared himself considering a Presidential run in 1988 to Oprah, offhand, and was perhaps destined to intersect with the boondoggle of a statue offered to President Clinton and President Bush in 1990 and 1994, respectively, who seem to have demurred or declined the grotesque statue that they saw mostly in models, one of which was brought to the White House by Boris Yeltsin in 1990. If the prototype was sent to the Knights of Columbus in Maryland, destined for the harbor, the small model that was on offer at an auction house in Florida suggests the circulation that the proposal for this statue of a man on a boat, the very incarnation of individual agency in relation to the New World, removed from any networks of power or of funding, was intended to make: the odd figurine foregrounding the navigator’s agency unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears, but the token of globalism appealed to Trump, so delusionally sure of his own genius as a realtor to win a statue to take home to New York.
The megalomaniac sculptor Tsereteli fashions himself as a builder for new global emperors, and invested Columbus in a roman toga, as he would Peter the Great, in the colossal monument that finally appeared in Puerto Rico near San Juan off the shore in Arecibo, far closer to the Genoese navigator’s actual itinerary, after the megalomaniac sculptor had shopped it around the globe, hoping the ridiculous sculpture would be realized.
Trump, laden with debt at this point in his life, would have seen in the statue the opportunity for global symbolism, able to restore his public reputation and image of public citizenship in New York, and balance the exclusivity of dwellings destined to be removed from the city and for the superrich with a front of civic generosity and showmanship. While the maquette of Tseretelli’s statue was probably glimpsed while he was in Moscow, Trump was quick to adopt the monument of Columbus as something of a pet project that he might advance his hopes for a Moscow hotel and tower to Moscow’s corrupt mayor and other post-Soviet oligarchs, promoting a gigantic statue of the Genoese navigator in 1997 he imagined might benefit from an assist from then newly-elected mayor Rudy Giuliani, who Trump must have imagined would comply with the role of past mayors in acceding to the bending of local regulations and zoning requirements to arrange sites for his Manhattan buildings. Trump was for his part happy to promote the arrival of the monumental statue as if it was imminently impending, as a true showman, telling Michael Gordon of the New York Times with satisfaction that “[the deal]’s already been made,” while not mentioning the Russian offer had been rejected by two American presidents, allowing “it would be my honor if we could work it out [that the statue be erected] with the City of New York,” on a stretch of landfill he promoted for his properties, as if he had brokered a deal on behalf of the city, only requiring the Mayor to sign off. The Master of the Art of the Deal boasted a done deal, anticipating approval of Giuliani to erect the 660 tons of bronze that he claimed valued at $40 million, on the development site where Tseretelli ostensibly desired it be located, in anticipation of the completion of the stalled construction project that he hoped would be a display of super-wealth for residential towers to be built, in hopes that they would find their counterpart in a monumental prop of global kitsch.
It is apt the monument was relocated to Puerto Rico, on whose shores the historical Columbus actually set foot, and renamed from anisland known by Taíno inhabitants as Borikén (Spanish Boriquen), “land of the brave lord,” to a city named after Saint John the Baptist. The commemoration of Columbus in San Juan occurred only in 1893, to be mirrored in the new centennial by the 2016 outsized statue largely visible to luxury liners arriving at or departing San Juan.
Although the “Birth of the New World” was never built near New York, the promise of the arrival of the statue, first planned to coincide with the quincentenary of the Columbian voyage, but long languishing in storage lockers on both sides of the Atlantic, demands exploration as a moment to examine the trust Trump placed on a monument albeit a second-hand one forged in Moscow, for staging his own triumphant return to a global stage. No one had ever seen so large a statue of Columbus–the figurine that survives which the sculptor seems to have made to shop around the discarded project–but the idea of redeeming an image of pompous grandiosity from the dustbin of history on the properties he sought to developed on the West Side in the mid-1990s, when he was clawing himself back to a place on the global stage, was a new fantasy project that Trump had hoped to sell the the nation. The plans to erect the monumental statue, double the height of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro, preceded his project to run as a candidate for President with the Reform Party, a fledgling renegade party begun by former Television Star and World Wrestler Jesse Ventura, later placed in Puerto Rico in all its 6,500 tons of bronze, on the port city of Arecibo, shortly before Trump was elected U.S. President, was a fantasy project that
1. The triumphalism of the statue of Columbus he boasted to bring to his properties on the Hudson had been proposed to three earlier U.S. Presidents as a gift for the Columban centenary that would cement the post-Soviet friendship between the United States and Russia, but the odd arrangement that emerged from protracted real estate negotiations in Moscow had Trump promising the deliverable of a site for the statue of Columbus on his Hudson river properties. Trump’s boasting of Trump Tower as a wonder recalls the huge attention he assigned recreating a modernized version of an actual global wonder–the ancient Colossus of Rhodes–in a bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, taller even than the Statue of Liberty that dominates New York Harbor, gifted to the American government as a “Modern Colossus” that claimed to celebrate freedom of the same height as the ancient wonder of the world, all but intended to be situated on the Hudson to contrast with the slightly smaller Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. The “white monument”–proclaiming the truth in a Dead White Man History–aligned Trump not with conservatism but a transactional story of glitz, grandiosity and power that provided both a telling warning, touchstone, and recapitulation for Trump’s entrance into a political career, which while never built provided a deeply comic and incredible image of Trump’s tie to the figure of the navigator, “Behind [whom] the Gates of Hercules;/Before him not the ghost of shores,/Before him only shoreless seas.”
The monument would have been impossible to not entertain as a prop of global power, as much as of his own sense of import, and offers a model of the sort of monument he sought–and the deeply transactional nature of Trump’s notion of global power that is important to recall. As Donald Trump had ridden the monument of the border wall to the office of the Presidency in 2015, as a sign of his ability to contest the political status quo, he indulged himself in imagining the monument that symbolized the scale of efforts to curtail immigration Trump would pursue as President by Executive Orders and diktat, days after inauguration, the border wall perhaps demands to be seen as a “prop”–as Trump the realtor admitted he considered Trump Tower a prop for his promotion of real estate worldwide with Trump Properties during the 1990 interview, as if the hundred room triplex he kept for himself in the building were secondary to the public status the building afforded him. To be sure, the penthouse he shared with then-wife Ivana were sites of almost regal lifestyle, importing a version of Versailles to Fifth Avenue, but as “props” created a lifestyle and a global status–he confessed Playboy with some facetiousness, be as happy in a one bedroom apartment–but valued the “gaudy excess” of the building to “create an aura that seems to work.”
The projected tower attracted Trump to a new language of monumentality of truly hubristic size, but he believed he could pull it off. The lines of Joaquin Miller of the navigator who both “gained a world; [and] gave that world/Its grandest lesson–“On! sail on!“–parallels Trump’s own approach to political power, and suggests the deep ties to Russians that led to the homes to entertain the Presidency as an occasion to create a monument to himself. Trump’s hubris in claiming Trump Tower as global wonder lay in promoting his real estate of returns that must have seemed to Trump akin to a Midas’ touch. Yet if the “Modern Colossus” was, as the monumental statue at Rhodes that spanned the city’s harbor with a stride of unprecedented size, was a celebration of freedom, as the Liberty statue, but upstaging it, standing the same height from toe to head as the modern colossus, not to extend freedoms to all races or subjects, but to stand as a symbol of glorification, which Trump imagined he might accept in place of the United States Presidents who had demurred on accepting the monumental cast statue of the Genoese sailor. Trump promoted the arrival of the odd monument to the Genoese navigator as a servant of the Spanish crown as an agent of colonization and conversion for unknown Russian oligarchs as a present to New York, as much as to the nation, but used his ties to Mayor Rudy Giuliani to promote a statue of a figure who was in 1990 emblematic of disenfranchisement and a figure emphasizing the unity of European racial descent by rehabilitated the place of the navigator in the mythology of the nation.
The figure of Columbus wold have been a monument to racial hierarchy, echoing Trump’s championing of statues of confederate generals as part of America’s common history as President of the United States. 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 Columbus–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 had emphasized the place of honoring statues of racists before Mount Rushmore, which proclaimed plans to create his own statuary garden, a “National Garden of American Heroes” in a campaign stunt that sought to paint his defense of “standards” and non-threatening images of authority to many members of his base. Before the massive statuary of past Presidents of European descent, he called for the need for a Garden that featured more monuments of the “greatest Americans who ever lived”–as if to compensate for the loss of Columbus monuments in many cities over the previous years. Such a Garden would prominently feature not only Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra, as honorary Americans, blurring church and state, but stake out a divisive vision of the past, that echoed Trump’s forgotten plans, 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, providing a vision of his second term by announcing the National Garden would open in 2024. 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 wing man, until finding the granite face, due to constraints of space on the rock’s face.
–Trump had long hoped, in a fantasy the South Dakota Governor, Kristi Noem, long humored, to be included, if a planned photo op might associate him, as he had long dreamed, leading her to gift a $1,100 bust in the past that included Trump among granite visages, a piece of kitsch he was hoped to keep in the Oval Office. If President Trump had already confessed to Noem a longstanding hope to have his face carved in the granite hillside, on July 4, 2020, a photo op would have to suffice to meet his unquenched thirst for monumentality.
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 entertained his own taste for monumentality, profiting from Noem’s lack of interest in public safety precautions to stage a public occasion to suggest a new set of patriotic statues, updating Mt Rushmore’s national heroes, and imagining his own place on a new monument that might rival itisit provided the last chance to model how that might look, as he sought signs of his sovereignty in increased visits to the southwestern border, at a time when the spread of coronavirus was spinning far out of his control.
This post focusses on the transactional basis for Trump’s hopes to erect a Columbus statuary on his property, as a new symbol of his place in global finance A sense of the malleability of local politics was evidenced in how he had in 1990 avidly promoted plans to a erect a monumental bronze Columbus near New York Harbor to New York authorities, overlooking and even boasting that it would be more impressive in height than the Statue of Liberty, eager to apply the transactional nature of local politics that he had gained in years of real estate promotion, regularly gaining permission for sweetening deals by working around city regulations or gaining exemptions for buildings’ size, in ways that must have made him learn the plastic sense of politics, by entertaining the promise to Moscow’s mayor to bring an effigy of Christopher Columbus to New York Harbor, whose placement, size, and sense of theatrics seem pregnant with Trump’s sense of showmanship and his desire for a new “WOnder of the World” that might join Trump Tower on a global stage.
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 a Garden of Heroes, itself echoing the national celebration in Russia of Heroes of the Fatherland or “Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad.” The posthumous elevation of the totemic Justice of the Supreme Court, Scalia, in such a Garden of Heroes was a reminder of the benefits of Trump Presidency to the Heritage Foundation and to the Right, as the affirmation of the he “greatest Americans who ever lived” offered a legacy to rival Mt. Rushmore, of his Presidency. 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–
–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.
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.
2. 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.
Russians had approached American Presidents with such a deal in recent years. On July 4, 1987, Trump took out an advertisement bemoaning that “the world is laughing at America’s politicians,” and after flying to Russia, to plan, ostensibly, a “large luxury hotel, across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government,” he returned with plans for the statue, he hoped to forge an enduring a geopolitical alliance with Russia and to imagine himself on a global stage for the first time. While the monument to Columbus, first imagined as an intended gift for the Columbian quadricentennary of 1992, mirrored renewed negotiations in the post-Soviet era, Trump seized on the hope of a new national monument he boasted would magnify national grandeur as a possible alteration of the New York skyline in hopes to cement his prominence on a global stage.
The true extent of transactionality Trump continued with Soviet and Russian leaders–from the Soviet Russian ambassador Yuri Dubinin who expressed a desire to construct a version of Trump Tower in Moscow, hearing of it from the press, or the Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who organized the very deal to bring the Columbus statue to New York City, and who so transformed the Napoleonic plant of Moscow to make it all but unrecognizable by 2010, Trump continued to maintain ties across governments that were preeminently transactional. And if Luzhkov’s desire for a regime of monumentality ushered in an age of false populism from his statuary of Peter the Great by his preferred sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, in the 1990s, long rumored to be in the process of removal, at the heart of the Russian capital, Trump embraced a monumentalism he had reserved for buildings, even if a monumentalism that embraced a sense of heroism removed rom public ideals of citizenship.
Donald Trump had hoped to claim a prominent role for himself in the world. He eagerly composed an admiring letter to Vladimir Putin in 2007, a decade before Trump’s Presidential inauguration, that affirmed the ties between the two. The letter, tantamount to an oath of fealty to keep his Russian ties alive, was sent promptly when Putin was named Time‘s “Person of the Year,” at an uncertain moment of post-Soviet history: if the citation of the magazine praised the demise of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” eliding Putin’s crushing of the Chechen Rebellion and serial assassinations of political opponents, Trump seems to have lined up at the Kremlin with his own best wishes, at the very time that the man who invited Trump to the Kremlin, Vitaly Churkin, previously Ambassadsor-at-Large from the Russia Federation, was ambassador to the United Nations, up to his 2017 death–Trump pursued hopes to use his ties to local oligarchs to build his Moscow tower at this time, and to see the monument of a a white Columbus as a non-inclusive counter-vision of history of Great Men he sought to celebrate. Churkin in one of his last public statements condemned the protest of a UN official of the endorsement of torture and interrogation that Trump enthusiastically offered as “a front-running” Presidential candidate in an Ohio rally, where he described the importance of restoring water-boarding, prompting questions of Russia’s ties to the campaign and his persona, in light of th fawning position the candidate had put himself to Vladimir Putin, in an apparent attempt to further hi building projects in Moscow.
Trump was poised as early as 1987 to introduce himself to a figure of world politics, even though he presented himself as having led a purely business career, removed from politics, in 2015. But involvement with post-Soviet figures led to his first aspirations to erect an unbuilt colossus that one might imagine lay at the root of his theme park for a Garden of Heroes: for Trump hoped to install on the banks of his Hudson River properties of the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus, then rightly increasingly identified with the colonization of the Americas and start of the slave trade or “slave triangle” of the seventeenth century. And his public advocacy of the erection of this figure of Columbus, increasingly an icon of non-inclusive models of history, ran against not only the revisionist histories of America but a critical removal of American history from national identity, that the heroization of Columbus as a national figure, eerily akin to the statue Tsereteli had made in Moscow of Peter the Great, advanced.
Trump sought to bring the monument from Russia to Hudson River properties he was developing, before the deal went south. But the monument of Columbus led Trump to revel in a telling moment of aspirations to monument-building and totems that did double duty as signs of authority and belonging that conceal their immobility–as if a sign of eternity. Beyond the temporal nature of Trump Tower, the New York realtor hoped to attract global interest to New York City by bringing the largest statue in the Western Hemisphere–and the largest of Christopher Columbus–to tower above the island on the Hudson’s banks, a towering bronze colossus greater in size, whose sails, mast, and pedestal condense the history of the discovery of the Amerias as a triumph far greater in size than the declaration of American principles the Statue of Liberty given by France to the United States in 1884 to celebrate Republican ideals. Rather than Liberty stepping on chains beneath her feet, in an echoing the abolition of enslavement in America as an expression of the deepest principles of equality, the royalist Neo-imperial statue was a monument eliding whiteness, Christianity, and sovereign dominion.
Donald Trump’s deep affection for monument building may well have prefigured his ambitious call for a national exercise in monument building and restoration of national ideals recalled for me the graveyard of the past of Budapest’s Memento Park, opened in 1993 collecting displaced statues of the Communist era, serving as a theater of dictatorship preserving the false future they once sought to create, their forms drained of modern relevance, but providing a receptacle for the statues removed from the city in 1989, removed from the capital city to brick platforms off nondescript highways. By underscoring both the emptiness of their rhetorical gestures and the poetics of the passage of time, the transposition of dictatorial figures to a democratic space doing double duty as an injunction to remember the past as a period–as much as to negate the emptiness of their very assertions of timelessness.
Seeking to foreclose debates about public memorialization by announcing a Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes a park of “historically significant Americans,” Trump affirmed the relevance of statues as “silent teachers in solid form of stone or metal” as if to create a sense of collective unity as COVID-19 pandemic revealed inequities across the nation, and as the need to contain the virus prevented in-person instruction at schools for the foreseeable future. In asking “gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow-citizens . . . despite their flaws” Trump emphasized the didactic and educational ends of the theme part, not to affirm a direct relation between the spectator of a statue and the state, but that oddly circumscribe agency of many, given who is absent or excluded from the Garden set to open to the public on the 2026 anniversary of Independence Day.
If widely interpreted as a response to the removal of statues of Columbus and the changing of military bases that honored confederate generals, in its call to prevent the overthrow of monuments as an attempt to “desecrate our common inheritance” and common culture–even to “overthrow the American revolution”–the thirst for building monuments reflects Trump’s search for self-memorialization–a taste already hinted at in his discussion of the Border Wall as a monument–and DHS to tweet out with pride a commemorative plaque of Trump’s name on the first completed section of Border Wall in October, 2018.
The call for building more statues responded to those “determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage” was an exaggeration, but men like Confederate General Albert Pike, Presidents who owned slaves like Ulysses Grant and Thomas Jefferson, and even the composer Francis Scott Key, or Daughters of the Confederacy was a reckoning of the monumental inheritance of America, as much as a blanket rebuke of the past. But in affirming the need to build more statues, rather than to assess the objections to honoring men who owned slaves, or fought to enslave others, Trump promoted a cult of statuary, criminalizing their vandalism as federal property, as if to resolve a sense of purpose including those who fought to restrict the franchise or were associated with white supremacy he had nourished.
Trump’s attachment to monumentalization as revealed as he addressed the nation beneath the colossal visages of past Presidents, more than the relation of the statues to civic or state values; his attempt to burnish the notion of a monument to his own accomplishments seemed evident. His the promotion of more statues in such a “Garden of Heroes” took its spin from promoting a massive bronze of Christopher Columbus in 1997, hoped to be erected as rising in the Hudson estuary, not long before he entered politics, beside a skyscraper developing in West Side Yards, greater by several feet from the more distant Statue of Liberty. The proposal of a monument taller that the Liberty icon was an almost Icaran gesture to redefine the New York skyline around his own development, and to create am image that would be too costly to dismantle by the local government, once erected on the landfill he built; the monument’s arrival was brokered from Russia in attempts to broker a deal with Moscow’s mayor–betraying the very inseparable relations of personal interest and public symbolism that has haunted Trump’s Presidency, but which the Garden of Heroes might seem to purify.
One wonders if Trump remembered his plans for the massive statue as he spoke below granite faces of four white male Presidents on Independence Day, commemorating a declaration that only white men had signed, and creating a tableau of a reduced image of inclusivity that demanded consent. The Garden that he conjured on July 3, 2020 included police killed in the line of duty beside a list of male childhood heroes–Daniel Boone, Douglas McArthur, George S. Patton, and figures who accommodated slavery to American values, and slave-owning Presidents, beside Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln, in a pastiche of history that has no central narrative save to mainstream history to partisan terms in a restrictive model of exemplarity: the absence of latinos, migrants, or feminist figures underscores these are men used to being monumentalized, and now non-threatening to a status quo–or a “Dead White Male” history that Trump adores.
Embracing the heroism of the built spectacle, Trump returned to his roots in real estate promotion, embodied in his grandiose 1997 plans to erect–although never constructed–a colossal bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, fabricated in Moscow foundries dating from Catherine the Great, betraying more than a touch of Disney-esque kitsch, of an effigy of a robed royal emissary, greeting the New World, that the Soviets Union had long tried to present as a gift to American Presidents?Columbus was, thankfully, absent from the reality park he described below the backdrop of sixty foot-high granite faces of past United States Presidents–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln–the carving of this earlier shrine to whiteness on land sacred to native Americans provided the basis of to attacked “deface[ment] of our most sacred memorials” including Columbus, secessionists, and slave-holding presidents, as nothing less than a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history”–a possessive perhaps restricted to his audience.
We’ve been having a broad discussion and debate about the nature of our monuments and the memories that they embody in this nation, that raise questions of public memory and historical legacies that enshrine inequalities and a racist imaginary–and indeed a racist geography–for some time. Even before the questioning this summer of the place of celebrating Civil War heroes who defended enslavement as a law of the land, pressing questions were raised about the scope, scale, and triumphal imaginary of the monuments of generals of the short-lived Confederate States of America, whose four-year period of survival is commemorated as a far more prominent part of our collective history with pride. And when Kehinde Wiley, in a project with the Richmond-based Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, he was struck by the equestrian monument to a Confederate general, James Ewell Brown Stuart, at the same time figural monuments have been removed or decontextualized in thirty states–as well, no doubt, as the http://monumental statues on Richmond’s own Monument Avenue, nationally landmarked but lined with monuments glorifying generals of the Confederacy, from Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis to Stonewall Jackson.
And so his 2019 response was his first effort in counter-statuary, “Rumors of War,” as a reflection on the relation of art and violence, suitably installed for initial viewing in New York City’s Times Square, that crossroads of the globalized world, to reflect on the place of the monument in public life.
The concept of this commemorative statue, arriving at a highpoint in the Trump presisdency, was an artist’s intervention on the relation of monuments and the African diaspora, and indeed the place of neoclassical statuary as a remapping of violence in the national public imaginary. Trump replied with overkill to the questions that Wiley’s work raised about art and violence, as if to insist that violence–and radicalized violence–had no part in our national memory. In conjuring an array of a virtual army of statues of assorted generals, frontier figures, and further Presidents, that he hoped might transcend 2020, the President betrayed deeper ties to monuments than virtues, and revealed a keen interest in replacing a personal relation to national history with empty symbols. One could only remember the eagerness with which he had promoted a massive monument to Christopher Columbus, forged in Moscow, that the city’s mayor had in 1997 promised him as a gift, in what seems one of the earliest cases of Trump comparing himself to the nation.
To be sure, the spectacle of more statues may have hoped to reclaim a place in the national news media from which he was inexorably displaced as the novel coronavirus spread. Inability to steer attention to alleged acts of vandalism on individual statues must have nagged, as tear gas and pepper spray had been used by conjures of National Guard, Border Patrol, and Park Police against the specter of “violent protestors” across the country, but the nation was less interested in the violence, than the rising rate of infections alarmingly rising across the nation more quickly than anywhere in the globe: if the notion of a plague or illness that was beyond American medicine seemed a thing of the past we all became as vulnerable as Americans were to influenza, or other specters of infectious disease.
Statues like Mt. Rushmore may have once been inspirational, but even they rang hollow. Trump seemed to bury himself in a mausoleum of memory by describing the national need for such a Garden of Heroes in a global pandemic. The role of the statues seemed to rally hope as the United States is an epicenter of infection, isolating figures of historical significance, to re-assert isolated inspirational figures of Dead White Mens’ history, to replace a living one, in a gambit to resolve a significant calls to rethink the nation’s national heritage as his Presidency seemed to wane. The President seemed eager to enshrine himself in figural monuments of President Jackson, Lee, Columbus,and Washington, in a preserve a culture of monumentality.
Before seeking the office of United States President, the feisty real estate developer Donald Trump entertained obtaining a monumental icon of Columbus, a piece of statuary of bronze that would tower over three hundred meters in height, a statue that an unknown American patron commissioned requested from the Soviet sculptor of Zurab Tsereteli to commemorate the quincentenary of the Genoese navigator’s voyage.
Trump would have entertained the idea shortly after he had purchased the iconic Gulf + Western Building on the southwest corner of Central Park, emptying the modernist icon of corporate America of all of its offices, to remake it as a skyscraper beside Columbus Circle: the sleek steel and glass beside a steely globe was remade as a luxury development taller than New York zoning laws then had allowed in 1994, and came with the steely orb that was, akin to an astrolabe, an icon of the old World’s Fair, an image of globalism. The new Trump building would dwarf the statue of Christopher Columbus on a pedestal nearby, and met needs of succeeding Trump Tower as not only a “premier residential site–[but] one of the best in the world,” as his brochure put it.
The construction of a building near Columbus Circle in 1994 with a Trump name made it part of the realtor’s properties, and perhaps plans for global expansion of the soon-to-be-inaugurated Trump International. Did plans for expanding Trump’s brand to Moscow by 1997 turn to the heroic statuary designed by an old friend of Moscow’s notoriously corrupt mayor? It would not be a stretch to image discussion turning to erecting a larger monument of the navigator that Zurab Tsereteli, his old schoolmate, had made, which other American leaders had rebuffed, and of a new site for the navigator standing aboard a sailing ship, that might make due on the investment an unknown oligarch had made for the monument. Might it be located to the site of development the realtor had begun on the Hudson, placed in all its glory as a colossus overshadowing the Statue of Liberty in New York’s port?
If the shadows that the monumental statue of the navigator who had convinced the Spanish monarchs of a westerly route to the Indies pilot would fall over Manhattan, had this structure been built, the hopes that Trump had entertained since the Gorbachev Era of “restructuring,” to explore deals to expand his brand, on a belief “some people have an ability to negotiate” that is innate: and in 1984, soon after a Soviet Ambassador arrived in Trump Tower, to plan “building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government” soon before he enrolled in the 1988 Republican primary, claiming positive polls encouraged him to launch a campaign in the Reform Party, headlining a ticket under the auspices of Jesse Ventura. Trump’s hopes for an initial joint venture with the Soviet government had morphed, perhaps as a result of one looking for a deal, to a a belief that “Soviets are reportedly looking a lot more kindly on a possible presidential bid by Donald Trump, the New York builder” on the eve of the New Hampshire primaries, noting that Trump was tied to “the notorious, organized-crime linked Resorts International,” and returned to the post-Soviet city hoping for a contract for Trump World Tower in Moscow.
The 1997 offer of the monument as a “gift” fitting a builder who specialized in building monuments to himself, without a sense of a global context–and unable to separate his own personal gain from the promotion of his brand–provides, perhaps, the deepest irony of the hopes for this arrival of a symbol of post-Soviet Russia rebranding its own geopolitical hopes and aspirations. Trump was far more of a monument builder and brand promoter rather than a realtor or investor; he confidently monumentalized buildings by bestowing on them his name, and had promised similarly promised to supersize America, in ways that melded with his own massive ego. Making monuments was Trump’s trade since the Trump Tower, from The Plaza to Trump Palaces in Atlantic City, as monument-making was an investment from which he spun a sort of career: for this reason, Mark Singer aptly and importantly characterized Trump as specializing in building monuments to himself, first Trump Tower, in 1984, and he relished that its sawtoothed silhouette fit into the skyline of New York to be a tourist attraction; Mark Singer likened his monument-making to a performance art of deeply compulsive proportions, as the salmon-hued monumental marble atrium of Trump-like that, in the increasing simulacrum of America, were the same fantasies that he pedaled as a Presidential candidate, on an odious platform of strong policing, disenfranchisement and hate.
The appeal of the monumental statue, that he began talks with Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor, to approve for this landfill development,–to whom Luzhkov was advised to forward the request “to make a gift of this great work by Zurab” in “the City of New York!”–would adopt an icon of the nation, of Russian fabrication, whose patriotic value would have been instrumental in his brand. Trump oddly returned to promote this brand, before promoting “our collective national memory” as a fragile good, if his defense of Columbus as “truly inspirational” for “our great Nation” as a “skilled navigator and man of faith” who was “transformative . . . for our great Nation.” Trump returned to a rehashing of such patriotic claims of the National Garden of American Heroes strums patriotic chords that seemed designed to make it hard to be against, as well as including something for everyone from Antonin Scalia, Rev. Billy Graham, Founding Fathers, and past presenting, who are lumped with “opponents of national socialism or international socialism,” as a response to an assault on our collective national memory,” embodied a collective in stone, rather than addressing real problems of the rising infection rates of the novel coronavirus, unemployment and economic decline, and police violence and systematic racism.
When Trump returned to Moscow in 1997, with plans for a Trump International project, these concerns were far from his attention. But discussions with the Moscow’s opportunistic post-Soviet mayor of the flamboyant monument-builder turned to the monumental statue, that seemed to transcend the statue of Columbus existing beside his new property. For was not the monument of bronze more of a Russian doll, concealing far more than its sleek exterior the navigator betrayed? The Disney-esque kitsch of the immense ahistorical navigator astride a ship in a port where he had not set foot, oblivious of his surroundings, was an exercise in myth-making. Hand resting upon a rotary steering wheel of the sort Columbus never saw, and never existed in his life, the monument magnified the authority of “Columbus” stripped of historical associations, an image of “kitsch” emptied of any aesthetic experience, akin to Trump’s emptying of office buildings of their contents, as a colossus standing outside high art and without aesthetic aspirations: designed to please its audience, but having failed to attract western sponsors as a massive glorification of Columbus as a monarchal emissary to a New World he would conquer, the statue reminds one of its pretensions, and currying of an audience, as if to move the observer by its hyper-reality of an industrial-grade bronze monument of 6,500 tons of sub-export bronze, its immobility more of an effigy that is self-congratulatory than inspirational.
A monument in search of an audience, it suggested a weird sense of the logic by which Trump would himself pursue a global audience from 1997, seeking to restyle himself as an expert in nuclear disarmament, public office, using his belief “some people have an ability to negotiate” whose negotiating abilities embraced strategic arms limitations, recast the bona fides of a realtor as a bona fide international operator, and indeed ambassador to Russia in the Reagan era, as an office able to ingratiate his firm to overseas audiences, to meet aspirations for “building a large luxury hotel across the street from the Kremlin, in partnership with the Soviet government” and seeking acclaim, with an uncanny tone-deaf sense of his surroundings.
As Trump was trying to turn a trick in resuscitating Trump Tower Moscow, boasting of plans he drew up with Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, and Robert A.M. Stern for luxury apartments towering near Columbus Circle, did the discussion ever turn to the statue now contested as a part of the national memory? The residential complexes he planned was, after all, more than a building, a monument, emblazoning his name/brand on above the Moscow skyline with prominence that it seemed, somehow, to him to be due–
–as if emblazoning the name “TRUMP” in Moscow’s skyline would place his name among the influx of money he promised the building would attract, even if few Russians then recognized the name of the realtor as a status-symbol that, in 1997, would have been worth covering their high price. Trump argued the complex could attract global buyers, however, as if to inflate his own brand, that would have made the statue of the navigator who was hired by Ferdinand and Isabella to discovery a new sea route to the Far East in three small ships, and was more than ready to assume credit for the “discovery” of a land first spotted by a fellow sailor, Rodrigo Bernajo, and rename the populated island San Salvador, leaving behind some of his crew in Hispaniola, before he converted the claims of discovery to a title–Admiral of the Ocean Sea and Governor of the Indies–that magnified his own global status, even as the indigenous revolted against the regime settlers sought to impose in the renamed island of Hispaniola.
Columbus had, of course, come from a family of wool carders in Genoa, the fabrication of global status as bringing Christianity to the new world that the monumental statue reified, embodied claims to having “discovered” the New World were full of a bombast that was pure Trump–whether Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and Tsereteli knew it or not.
But in working the possibility of a deal, mere mention of the building he worked on transforming to luxury apartments at Columbus Circle, which he boasted toward above a monument of Columbus, would have turned the attention of Mayor Luzhkin and his real estate developer wife to the incomplete monument of Columbus,–a monumental statue which Boris Yeltsin hoped to present both Presidents Clinton and Bush as a sign of his commitment to future partnership between the countries–in an attempt to jump-start investment in his economy, by a monument that would have consciously been akin to a symbolic marker of their hopes for displacing the special relation of the United States and the European Union; its presentation on the quincentennial of Columbus’ arrival would upstage the presentation of the Statue of Liberty, commissioned earlier by a French abolitionist, but unveiled in 1886 to celebrate the quadricentennial of 1893?
Perhaps, as Trump contemplated what sort of monument to plan across the street from Red Square, and imagined one towering above the Kremlin, the realtor flew, like a moth, too close to the flame, and was invited to accept a towering bronze monument to Columbus to erect near his riverside complex, as a prominent marker of a new relation of Russia and America. While these images were made in an LOI 2015, in a planned 120 story “world class luxury condominium,” with pool, Trump World Tower Moscow, the initial plans for Trump tower began long before Michael Cohen lied, but perhaps in the prospective conversion of Federation Tower as a building he might brand with the Trump name, just before 2008, and which Trump wanted to repurpose in 2013.
About the time that Trump visited Moscow in 1997, discussion turned to the shipping the body monumental piece of Columbus statuary–the largest built–to New York, whose head was already in the United States territory. “On the banks of every great river in the world, you’ll find a monument to excess,” observed a bombastic character in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide observes, on British imperial plans for a port at Calcutta. The building of the port recalled an imperial relation to sovereign territory in the 2004 novel was, perhaps in retrospect seems a bit of a tacit critique of the plans for constructing the world’s largest statue, over 182 meters, and 54 meters above the pervious record-holder of the $55 million Spring Temple Buddha in Huenan, China, and uses a 6,500 tonnes of steel around a concrete core to monumentalized a figural symbol of Indian unity, whose cost won much scoffing from local farmers.
Trump made monuments to excess that prefigure the statue of Christopher Columbus that he was eager to accept from Moscow’s Mayor, who had earlier tried to resolve the site of a work by one of his favorite sculptors of public statuary, for the banks of his unbuilt Hudson River development. While only six feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, it would be magnified by far greater proximity to Manhattan–and be part of the New York skyline that he was so eager to include himself in more prominently, that he traced the skyline, as if he was identified with it, and gave it away as a souvenir.
Was it also a point of entrance of Trump into his authoritarian stage? To be sure, the current defense that Trump has launched on social media as President of the preservation of monuments–and the rabid charges he has made against “hooligans” and “thugs” who deface monuments as assaulting national memory–a disgust that may be authentic, but betrays some greater sympathy for statues than for people; for sure, it rings hollow for someone who has assailed individual rights The Constitution enshrines, is puzzling, and odd—as is the support he had given to figures of Columbus in the face of recognization of their authoritarian and racially insensitive use of iconography and territorial claims. As used Twitter to threaten to incarcerate those who had defaced statues of George Washington with red paint, based on the Monuments and Statues Act, calling protestors Anarchists and claiming “We have them on tape!” threateningly, and indeed reposting grainy photos of suspected vandalization of monuments at Lafayette Square in Washington DC, to his over 80 million Twitter followers, his serial tweets predicted a “battle to save the Heritage, History, and Greatness of our Country!” as a new culture war, distracting from the deep inequities revealed in the ravages of police violence or COVID-19. Does Trump display more affection for monuments than individuals?
The sympathy and indeed self-identiicaiton with statues and monuments–described to his social media followers and supporters as “DEFENDING AMERICAN HISTORY FROM THE MOB”–has indeed accentuated iconoclasm as if it were a talking point of political advantage, identifying if not equating his political authority with a shared iconography of civic identity and white nationalism that boosts symbols of the confederacy, under the guise of the preservation of “legacy,” “American values,” “civic heritage,” that seems to seek to convince his supporters he is able to stave off dangerous destruction of property and white privilege that can be naturalized in the land.
The monument to patriarchal authority echoes Modi’s statue, but the Russian-made statue that was first made to celebrate the 1492 arrival of Columbus that named America openly recalls an era of mapping when one could lay possession to space in a map–indeed, even to the extent of claiming possession of much of a continent. Its authoritarian image and profile recalls the doctrine of “America First” doctrine that Trump embraced openly when he began his political career; for if the doctrine is based on the exclusion of a foreign “other” perspective, including any migrant–anyone not a member of a clannish nativist white “America”–the statuary of a Columbus stands so oblivious to the other, announcing his arrival as a foundational act of government, in an immobile heroic relation to the land while hailing a New World–captured the rhetoric by which the historical Columbus hailed a new continent as a possession of the Spanish monarchs deputized him to take possession on their behalf.
Perhaps this is an “America First” modeled after the very leaders who created such similar monumental statues of patriarchal authority as Narenda Modi, Kim il-Song and Kim il-Jong, or the subsequent 2016 statue of Prince Vladimir the Great, who united Russia and Ukraine as Orthodox Christian states in 988, bearing a cross, that he presented as founding not only the Kievan Rus, but “moral foundation on which our lives are based.” Much as Putin’s namesake Vladimir holds a weighty cross on his shoulder, the statue of Columbus was always an odd gift for a nation separating church and state, as it celebrated the visionary nature of Columbus as a converter of natives, with encoded Christian symbolism in the royal crosses engraved on its billowing sails, as if he were a mythic founder of a state that never existed in America, but would be accepted in the global financial capital where Trump was expanding his promotion of real estate developments to a global scale. The stolid statue of weirdly royalist as much as patriotic ideals seems to have used its Neo-Augustan robes of his monumental bulk both to pose as a new Colossus, akin to the ancient marvel of Rhodes, and to conceal, beneath them, as if under the presence of public duty and patriotic heroism, not only a claim to the supremacy of the white, educated race in the global playing field, but the hope for private gains that led Donald J. Trump to return from Moscow with hopes to build the statue on the Hudson, on a pilot of landfill he was developing near midtown.
1. The statue strikingly foregrounded a conceptual confusion between public shows of patriotism, rolled out with so much pluck and stagecraft, and the search for private gain, not an eery predecessor and embodiment of what we have come to expect from Trump as United States President? As a Russian doll, as much as a fifteenth-century navigator, the ahistorically dressed navigator, one hand guiding a rotary wheel not used to navigate in 1492, taps a mythistokry to conceal the financial interests of a real estate promoter of newfound global ambitions inside an icon of national prestige.
This autocratic neoclassical Columbus, an unbuilt monument that has not come in for public attack, would have staged an autocratic ideal of government destined for Trump Properties in a Hudson River lot of landfill on Manhattan, looking with thin-lipped autocratic supremacy upstream, as if akin to the Colossus of Rhodes that had indeed been a model for the Statue of Liberty that the Columbus appears designed to surpass in height and monumentality–and whose body was perhaps expanded to ensure its greater height than the iconic Liberty statue given to the United States on the quatricentennary of the Columbian voyage–as if a rejoinder to Liberty Illuminating the World–would have provided an off-kilter rejoinder to the monument to Republicanism. Indeed, if the Statue of Liberty might be seen as an affirmation of Republican values and the rejection of enslavement, sponsored by a French abolitionist who had studied Constitutional Law, who had imagined her holding broken chains in her left hand as well as lifting a torch with her right, the magisterial salute of this Columbus echoed a sovereign relation to the land, although its kitschy visage seems removed from any clear political agenda in its immobile naturalization of authority.
The very Trumpian aspirations to monumentality that had led the realtor to propose hubristically building a Trump International Moscow beside Red Square towering above the Kremlin in 1997, an icon of the Russian capital–perhaps led them to send him home, with the offer of a statue of the navigator Columbus that would be tower above the Statue of Liberty downstream in New York harbor not only in appearance, but actual height. The revelation by Mark Singer that Trump had eagerly entertained if not negotiated the possible arrival of the massive cultic statue forged in Moscow to New York’ s new mayor, Rudy Giuliani, the “great work” of a Moscow sculptor he guaranteed was “major and legit”–would be a new Colossus of Rhodes, of sorts, not defending the nation, but a wonder of authority that would surpass his Taj Mahal as a new wonder of the world.
The Columbus in “The Invention of the New World” would be an addition to the building that would supplement its authority, a symbol of a patriarchal order, unlike the figure of Lady Liberty, with whom Trump’s public image as a sovereign ruler has been broadly fraught. The subsequent association of Columbus and white supremacy made the statue a less than desired proposal, and Trump’s eager proposal to erect the monumental statue, five feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, on his properties, went nowhere: if the modern colossus was an emblem of sorts for his new globalist world, the image was animated by monarchical rule, and not by democracy and republicanism, had fell on deaf ears when it was proposed to Presidents George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton, he no doubt felt it could be he a triumph of his own deal-making if built on his private lands
Did he appreciate its political connotations of using an icon of white supremacy whose objective identification with America had been questioned from 1992? While America has long denied its imperial identity, the statue seemed a bid to recognize it, if it was also a Russian reading celebrating the authoritarian image of the navigator as a figure of state, and a nationalist symbol. The story of this weird fantasy image of Columbus, as a navigator who arrived in a New World in peace, saluting the continent over which he was taking possession in thin-lipped solemnity, was both a kitsch of a monumental who seemed to bear regal insignia around his neck, rose an arm affirmative as an imaginary past of the founding go the nation, as if this monument in bronze would set a precedent for “Make America Great Again”—conjuring the allure of an imaginary past demanding complete the complete assent from observers, as if to allow no possibility of choice for native inhabitants, and to remove a myth of the New World and America from an idea of freedom, more akin to a westward progression of empire, driven by sails decorated by royal crosses of the most Catholic majesties Ferdinand and Isabella, than by recognizably American values. If the notion of a monument-building had long been a sleight of hand, since Theodore Roosevelt transformed the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred to the Sioux, accords to the Sioux in an 1868 treaty to the Sioux in perpetuity, if in fact only until prospectors arrived, as a monument to American empire, named after the general who commanded American soldiers to slaughter unarmed Sioux women, men, and children, by using the sleight of hand of monumentality to transform a sacred site to a massively offensive cultic icon of Presidential supremacy–the very site where Trump chose to propose his new monumental project of a “Garden of Heroes” on July 4 2020 in South Dakota.
If the Roman poet Horace had famously boasted his own writings would outlast monuments in bronze in the Augustan era, in an age when writings on papyri were imagined less durable than epigraphic inscriptions in stone, the bronze monument whose imperial relation to space mediates a tradition of Augustan statuary in kitsch. And if Horace seems to have punctured Augustan vanity by identifying his poetry as a testament outlasting monuments of bronze or pyramids, displacing the written object by a new language of monumentality fitting a man with global aspirations.
The colossus Trump sough to erect on his property at tax payers’ expense was presented as a gift from the Russian people, although it was rejected as a Soviet gift for the quincentennial celebrations of Columbus. The new version would be, of course, something of a monument to his vanity, and it occluded personal and national interests in a way that prefigured the Trump Presidency, if its construction predated Trump’s political aspirations by a few years. He had recently poured money into boondoggles–the Taj Mahal built in Atlantic City for $1.2 billion in 1990, promoted as “the eighth wonder of the world,” but the 360-foot bronze statue of Columbus seemed a way to use Russian donation to promote his own public prominence in Manhattan, as if it would restore his public citizenship in New York, if it was a quite kitschy image of the navigator as a Renaissance hero, transcending the very masted craft representing the Santa Maria, as if a statement to his global grandiosity. The “Birth of the New World” was never built near New York, but was erected in time for Trump’s inauguration as the tallest statue in the Americas, although the monolith known locally as “La Estatua de Colón” is located at the edges of American territoriality, on the island of Puerto Rico, where it packs less punch as a celebration of the navigator as a discoverer, after resting in an abandoned factory for years in Cataño, PR.
Back in 1893, visitors to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL could enjoy entering a replica of the ship, which had itself sailed across the Atlantic from Spain, entering it as a tourist attraction. The show was the third American iteration of a “World’s Fair” tradition, but in celebrating the navigator who traversed the seas as a home-grown version of globalism, it cast the globalism of worlds fair traditions that had begun in the Crystal Palace in an American idiom of Manifest Destiny-with a large water pool that represented the transatlantic voyage of the fifteenth century navigator, in a replica of the caravel similar to the skiff in which the new statue of the navigator stood–
–amidst the neoclassical buildings of the Exposition that were called a “White City,” in an exposition that notoriously excluded figures of African Americans, but boasted a range of ethnographic villages.
Larger than life, mounted on a similar boat, the bronze Columbus of 300 meters in height majestically surveying the shore of Arecibo in Puerto Rico where it now stands, addressing no one, its sculptor, Zurab Tsereteli, impatient at the refusal to erect the statue in the many American cities to whom it had been offered–first New York, where it was to be built on the premises of a luxury development entrepreneur Donald Trump promoted on the Hudson River, where Trump crowed Zurab “wanted to have it built.”
The many stories of the monstrosity have perhaps detracted attention from what it would have looked at on the Hudson River, or the hubris with which Trump invited or solicited the offer as a cementing of friendship with the post-Soviet elites as he sought to build a Trump Tower Moscow in 1997.
The monumental statue concealing the act of dispossession of native lands seem to have appealed to Trump, and not only because the six hundred ton statue that Donald Trump hoped would promote his latest luxury housing enclave. If the statue is ridiculously ahistorical, planned for a place the fifteenth century navigator never arrived holding navigational tools he never used, the 6,500 tons of sub-export bronze almost erected on the banks of the Hudson River, selected as the site to be “gifted” by Russian oligarchs who had long globally peddled a massive statuary two American presidents had demurred, probably both an aesthetic grounds and for its autocratic form, an imaginary of conquest almost foreign to Columbian iconography.
If all maps freeze cruel dialectics of power and inequality, the image of Columbus, arm on a rotary nautical wheel not used on his transatlantic voyage, suggested a poetics of dispossession that was broadly revisited in the United States at this very time. Although the statue would be adopted as an icon of the “anti-Christopher Columbus attacks from the political left wing in America,” as if facing threats of a desecration of models of heroism, the totem to Columbus that defined the taboo nature of expanding political discourse to critique Columbus’s historical identity, the endurance of the massive sculpture “Discovery of the New World” in Arecibo recapitulated a logic of discovery: even as the liabilities for disaster approached $50 billion, according to the Office of Management and Budget, did the town ever consider melting down the 6,500 tons of bronze to recoup their monetary value?
Columbus had become something of a trope or specialty of monumental sculpture that Tsereteli had adopted in the 1990s, at a moment when increased questioning of the iconic nature of the navigator had begun to grow. While the unpaid import taxes on the massive bronze monument had caused it to languish in the harbor, it formed part of a range of massive sculptures of the navigator from Tsereteli’s productive studios, more kitsch than national icons, but that provided an odd tail-end to the construction of Columbus monuments around the world, as if to recuperate a tired tradition of monumentality for an audience it had trouble finding. Completed from the pieces stored in the factory in 2017, after it had been rejected as a monument suitable for the 2010 Central American and Caribbean games, and not erected on the Mayagüez coastline; it was also rejected as a project suitable for the cities of Baltimore, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, or Columbus, Ohio, the ghosted monument finally found a home–after import taxes were resolved–although it is difficult to balance the aesthetic ugliness of the monument with the charged subject matter of glorifying a navigator who had been increasingly out of synch with a global map, if not purged from its surface.
As kitsch as the surface of the Columbus colossus is, hopes of eredting the monument on the Hudson suggested an overlapping of spatial imaginaries that demand to be untangled. The retrospective glorification of the fifteenth century Genoese navigator was in the end less easily aptly situated as a global hero on the coast of the impoverished island, raises questions of the how Trump desired the coastal monument on his properties, imagining it as an icon for Trump International as his real estate business sought to expand beyond New York City to boost its fortune. Did he propose it as an option to a sculptor who was still searching for a home for his bronze statue, in storage in Puerto Rico, and gathering dust, when Trump saw the somewhat smaller statue on the Volga for which it was the prototype? If the monument to Peter the Great installed in 1997 to commorate the foundation of the “navy” in 1693 of Russia’s first Emperor was only , the statue since planned to be relocated to Leningrad, Archangelsk (Russia’s only port city), or Petrazavodsk, is but a third as tall–ninety eight meters–but towers above Moscow above the city’s architecture as monumentally as allowed. Yet the the attempt to rehabilitate Columbus as an icon of globalism that restored post-Soviet-American ties was imagined by Trump as a means to confirm his fantasy of his new global profile, as it was entertained by Moscow’s elite to be seen as a symbol of friendship and a new world order.
If the global map seemed apt as an icon of the voyage of Columbus on the obverse of the coin minted in the fourth centenary in 1893,
–the tired trope of the monument glorifying the navigator was adopted wholesale by Trump, as he sought a new, global icon of his ambitions, conflating his business interests with the apparently abandoned icon that Tsereteli’s prowess had so awfully embodied, a new image of a new Stalin, that had served so appropriately to embody–as Tsereteli remained unhappy with the lack of a site for his statuary that he has promoted globally–with a decisively smaller Moscow monument, of Peter the Great (1672-1725), that commemorated the three-hundredth anniversary of founding Russia’s Navy, and triumphal naval mission to Ukraine down the Volga. As the “Mother Volga” that ran to the Caspian Sea was long a symbol for Russian unification Peter the Great championed–“Mighty stream, so deep and so wide, Volga, Volga, our pride“–and a symbol of Russian modernization, and consolidation of the Baltics and of Crimea, the statue erected in Moscow in the very year of Trump’s visit to search sites for a Trump Tower–1997–and may have led him to propose placing the Columbus colossus on the Hudson. He would have seen the newly erected monument to Peter the Great, that persecutor of the peasantry, as a national hero who had become inseparable from military success and culturally transforming Russia in the Soviet period–and idealized by both Yeltsin and Stalin–celebrating his foundation of the Russian Imperial Fleet as a central to his imperial claims.
The national icon was designed to replace the prominence of spires on the Moscow skyline, and has been widely opposed. Although ships are hardly models of navigation or exploration, the evocation of an era of conquest, navigation, and the decisive expansion of borders that the Peter the Great statue celebrated in all its kitsch was a bizarre step-child of a triumphal image of global networks in not only the Columbian Exposition, but the very global supremacy Donald Trump hoped for in Trump International.
It surely admitted the imperial nature of the United States more concretely than any defense of the nation. The appeal of the massive statue was quick to gain an almost cultish meaning in the light of open attacks on Columbus’ monumetnalization that began around the time that Trump announced the statue’s arrival in 1997, or from 1989 by pouring blood on Columbus statues. The lionization of Columbus grew to counter fears of attacks on Columbus statuary on the mainland as tantamount beheading a cultural figure in an act of wanton sacrifice–rather than a political act–and they had grown by 2015, and dismissed as monumens that embodied the nation by 2020, as a rejection of Trump’s politics of race-bating swept the land.