The transactional nature of Trump’s world view has been so much on view in recent weeks that it is hard to shock. But the cast of characters involved in promoting a grotesquely colossal statuary of the navigator Christopher Columbus, cast out of bronze in Moscow, that he planned to install staring outer the Hudson River in 1997 on a new property development he had secured. While not a threat to national security, the positioning of the statue had been cast in Moscow in 1991, with hopes to be presented to an American president. How Trump became target as an avenue to donate a colossal statue of questionable aesthetic value raises questions about Trump’s connections to Russian oligarchs and realtors, Trump’s longstanding conflation of personal gain and an iconography of national populism, and the rewriting Columbus as a national icon on a global stage. If the monumental statue “Birth of the New World” was meant to cement the post-Soviet era, and inaugurate a new era of global relations, a hailing figure of Columbus would have been an odd addition to a region with few tall monuments save the Statue of Liberty, Trump boasted about his ability to mediate the gift that served to publicize his own development.
If the story of this odd addition to New York’s many monuments–promised to be taller than the Statue of Liberty, i cast an icon of American immigration and ideals in rather startling ways. If Columbus had been an icon of immigration for the Italian-Americans in the eastern United States who had elevated the fifteenth-century navigator’s Genoese origins in the statuary clustered along the eastern seaboard, typified by the marble Manhattan statue that was chiseled and whose base was cast in a Roman workshop in 1892 to be erected in Columbus Circle, with a triumphal image of global gigantism. If the statue was eventually erected after Trump was inaugurated as U.S. president, not on the mainland, as Tsereteli so hoped, but on the north coast of Puerto Rico, an island where Columbus had in fact set foot on his second transatlantic voyage, and an eastern outpost of American territoriality. The privately funded erection of the once-nationalist monument became a bizarre transfer of wealth of a statue whose raw metal was valued at $60 million to a cash-strapped nation, reflecting the financial disparities of globalization as does the private funding of its transport and assembly.
The quadricentennary of 1892 had marked the very first use of a personal likeness on American currency–the reluctance to adopt any image of a person or ruler ran deep in the nineteenth century, given deep suspicion of the imperial connotations of public coinage, and was only allowed on a commemorative coin, linked to the universality of the modern globe, rather than to any explicit sense of territoriality, by appealing to the historical specificity of the anniversary, and th Chicago commemoration. If one Columbus is historically rooted with a ruff, chiseled worn face, and four masted caravel, the smooth-featured cartoon Columbus seems far more concerned with his stature the probity of values he expressed.
The championing of the clear-eyed foresight of Columbus, imagined as able to have foreseen the new continent of America by his foresight and reading of the globe, was recast in the monument. Removed from a map, indeed, the figure of Columbus seems to salute the terra firma as a regal emissary, able to domesticate the New World and impress it by his size and monumental grandiosity.
The huge size of the monument confers on the figure of the navigator a monumental scope akin to Disneyworld, less rooted in any specific time, theater, or moral universe, but only as trafficking in absolutes. The adoption of Columbus as a national icon seems distinct from the odd choice of Columbus as a Neo-imperial visitor from afar, before sails emblazoned with Christian royal emblems, that evoke a sense of government and global monumentality–to be echoed in the projected size of the monument feet taller than the torch held up by the Statue of Liberty of 1896–that the Russian-made monument Trump hoped to sell to the American people, or at least to the New York mayoralty of Rudy Giuliani, whom he believed sufficient to give the towering statue the green light: Giuliani, the yes-man for green-lighting rezoning that allowed Trump to promote his projects of building for financial gain, became the man to whom he showed a pretense to defer.
Columbus’ unmooring from history over the twentieth century has been told. The unlikely story of his adoption as a figure of patriotism told in a previous post advanced to a domain of authoritarianism and fanciful history in the monumental statuary, long kept at arm’s length by American cities and presidents. For whereas vituperative rejection of Columbus as providing anything like an image of national identity of the United States–indeed, Columbus emerged as the target of protest, public contestation, and questioning during the 1992 quincentenary, questioned the universality of the navigator who was an emissary of an old world order, and self-identified as such. Trump believed his prominent position in New York commensurate to receiving a national gift he vaingloriously promoted to whoever would listen in 1997 to help “work it out with the City of New York.” By putting his own prestige on the line in urging Moscow’s mayor mayor, the post-Soviet apparatchik par excellence, Yuri Luzhkov, Trump urged he approach to his friend Rudy Giuliani “stating that they would like to make a gift of this great work by Zurab.” Assuring oligarchs that “I am absolutely favorably disposed” to the monument may have led Trump to imagine himself as representing the American people: it shortly preceded his first declaration of candidacy for President.
Trump was dazed by the Russian oligarchs he had met, and the possibility of expanding Trump Properties to a global stage in the post-Soviet world, including a hotel bordering Red Square he imagined as taller than the Kremlin. He was enraptured with the sculptor’s sense of grandiosity– “Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”–a grandiosity evident on his website, and a bit intoxicated with his global power to serve as a medium for this “gift”–with no strings attached!–from the “Russian people.” How naive he was in accepting the gift of the statue on behalf of the City of New York seemed less of a problem for a man who had already built Trump Tower, which he saw as a new icon of the urban skyline, that had placed him on top of the world–
–as if this would parlay his status to a global stage of realty, in the years that he had already seemed to conquer the New York skyline, as if it were but a microcosm of the world.
The grandiosity of the figure of Columbus proposed for the Hudson shore mirrors the lack of compass and mooring Trump followed in his planned expansion of hotels on a global scale. Trump’s lack of restraint and lack of mooring in imagining himself to proceed across the ocean into realty markets, entering the post-Soviet world with a supremacy free from laws of finance codes of international finance and national imaginaries.
To be sure, Tsereteli sketched the outsized majesty of a statue of Columbus before Trump proposed its arrival, but the utter lack of proportions, in its size tailored to Trump’s outsized sense of himself; its isolation from all context mirror the unmoored nature of Trump’s aims to expand his brand from and unbridled ambitions. Did the outsized desire Trump had for breaking ground in Moscow however find a perfect response in the monumental size of a statue that the sculptor must have shown Trump as he proposed to build the tallest tower in the world in Moscow? Adrift as if in international waters, making landfall in Manhattan, where he never arrived, the statute would have been improbably out of synch with its surroundings, but a monument to the lack of mooring in his overweening ambition to advance personal interests as a developer–or, more accurately, a promoter of real estate.
For Trump, size mattered. Perhaps most. The cartoonish nature of the grandiose version of Columbus that so rewrote the historical role of the navigator seemed to reflect the cartoonish grandiosity, in hindsight, of pursuing self-interst alone as he ventured overseas, and indeed as the disjuncture between his own elevated sense of self-interest from his political surroundings, but presented a sense of absolutism which, if not “despotic in his demeanor,” viewed the landscape with analogous regal remove and glassy gaze, akin to the neoclassical image of Putin in his judo suit, “Healthy in Mind and Body,” as an icon approaching despotism.
As much as Moscow’s mayor sought to attract capital investment to his city, was the monumental statue cast in 1991 a way of concretizing a new relation to space, reflecting an acknowledgement of the huge self-interest of the developer, as much as of squirreling Russian influence across national lines and space? Gargantuan in size and unwanted after it was cast, and only accepted by an island Columbus landed on his second voyage, the “Invention of the New World” may commemorate a new world order with parallels to the new order of end of the Soviet era, was an image of Russonationalism as much as American iconography.
Did potential delivery of the statue recognize Trump’s outsized appetites at promoting his real estate from Moscow, or forge a precedent for future relations between Trump and Russian oligarchs? The gift of this unwanted monumental sculpture to the preening real estate promoter, who placed his own interest outside precedents, was a reflection of his own aspirations to grandiosity. Indeed, it served less as a commemoration of American founding–but rehearsed the poetics of possession of Robert Frost’s “Gift Outright,”–the treacly claim infected with Manifest Destiny, expands to a canvas of land and blood, “This land was ours before we were the land’s./She was our land more than a hundred years/before we were her people. She was ours/ . . . realizing westward,/ But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,/Such as she was, such she would become,” pronounced by a past American poet laureate to inaugurate a new Augustan era of a Republic that had, by 1961, become an empire, the “ours” and “we,” as Derek Walcott put it, were not nearly “so ample and multi-hued as Whitman’s [poetic] tapestry,” written a hundred years previous before the U.S. Civil War, a landscape of manifest destiny echoed in hopes of placing an eastern-facing Columbus on the Hudson shores.
Plans for placing the monument of Columbus on Trump Properties conflated a public symbol whose universality was being contemporaneously interrogated with personal gains, of a stunt of unprecedented real estate promotion by a national symbol. Its brazen elevation of Columbus as a new King, in undemocratic fashion, elevating his figural place in a city he had never visited as a foreign emissary of majesty, unmoored from constraint and of cultish majesty.
In a city that in fact lacks many statues of such size save Lady Liberty, its placement would acknowledge the sanctioning Trump had won to promote projects of real estate in Moscow, and appeal openly to his sense of vanity. The plans for the Tower that Trump later promoted as tallest in Europe–beyond the Lakota Tower in St Petersburg–arose in 2016 after having been rebuffed for proposing a tower bearing his ever-present last name towering over the Kremlin–by 2016–inexistant, of a gigantism preserved in architectural renderings, revealing a similar aspiration to altering the Moscow skyline by elevating the “Trump” brand above the city, and was similarly lavishly promoted as “a triumph of architecture and luxury.”
The vanity and license with which Trump examined real estate projects in Moscow to promote in 1996 found a more than fitting response by casting Columbus on a huge pedestal; mirroring a monumental statue that mirrors the Tsereteli statue of Peter the Great, founder of the Russian navy and nation, whose reforms subsumed Ukraine in the early eighteenth century, of 1997, that was suggested to have been Columbus in disguise, in mockery of the failure of Tsereteli’s earlier sculpture to find an appreciative audience abroad: the grotesque monument glorifies the figure of Columbus as a law-giver removed from history, outside history, in a grandeur destined for a Trump Properties’ development pandered to an American symbolism of national identity Trump would have understood as reflective of his own grandeur.personal grandeur and the promotion of his properties for. a man concerned only with size–and linking his own promotion of brand to brusque assertions of size.
Was the image of Columbus as open a political statement as the monument to Peter the Great, mining a dismissed American national symbol to new ideological ends? Trump seems to have appreciated the statue for its grandiosity, and he famously introduced Tsereteli to American audiences about “this great work by Zurab” in 1997, investing a familiar relation with a sculptor then largely unknown in the West as offering him the next movement after he named a tower in New York after himself: he wanted to build a tower in New York that extended beyond the tower he had named after himself, to be joined by statute taller than any statue in the Western Hemisphere.
The monument would dignify Trump Properties on the level of a state–or to suggest the bridging of the diminished importance of national frontiers in a context of global realty–and indeed the adoption of the global at the base of the old Gulf+Western building remarked as Trump International, by Columbus Circle–which he converted to a joint hotel and condominium in 1994–as if Trump Properties were a truly “international” entity. What is the scope of an image of globalism than to promote his own personal brand, and aiming to extend that brand broadly, far beyond national interests?
The fatal confusion, tied to the grandiosity of Trump International, placed Trump in his own eyes on a global stage equal to figures of state, if one that he arrived at for solely personal self-interest. The paradox was profound, and in ways revealed in proposing to place a gargantuan statue of Columbus on his development, blind to the international import of the deal, and embrace of the historical revision of Columbus as a an authoritarian figure as something that would only affirm the importance of his own size on a global marketplace, and to launch multiple dealings across the globe with little attention to national politics. (Indeed, few better images of globalization exist than a map of Trump Properties.)
Is Columbus not a preeminent figure of globalization, avant la lettre?
The openly authoritarian imagining of the navigator long identified with patriotic ideals undertook by Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli was an early if particularly telling illustration of how transactional Trump’s world-views,– and how removed they were from any sense of the recreation of political space. Indeed, the image of a Presidential authoritarianism–evident in Donald Trump’s striking familiarity with a cast of strongmen ranging from Recep Tayypi Erdoğan to Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong-Un,–all nominal Presidents, but operating with quite unfettered understandings of their offices, seem to have found an odd precedent as a model of cross-national authoritarianism, deserving perhaps of further attention and concealing many clues to the present.
Trump aimed to bring to his development on the Hudson River shore a monumental Columbus, the tallest statue in the western hemisphere, which would have cast a long shadow each and every evening across Manhattan. The monumental statue of cast bronze only recently relocated to Arecibo, Puerto Rico, casts a long shadow over the verdant island where the navigator Columbus did set foot, if dislodged from the shady international exchanges Trump sought to broker, opens a quite surprising forgotten history demands to be mapped, as we process the unbound proclamation of executive authority from the Trump White House in 2020.
The oddly stateless notion of the figure of Columbus–who moved across the Atlantic Ocean with royal privileges, to be sure, but set foot in what were previously unknown islands, which he claimed for the Spanish King in 1492, was shown as arriving at a New World. Columbus had to be sure long evoked the rational arts of cartography and global circumnavigation, becoming an emblem and figure of lettered tradition of civility, learning, and mental apprehension of the globe, figurative of the westward expansion of Empire. But in an authority beneath which a history of colonization is barely concealed, his immobile statue moves triumphantly between different worlds, not only as an emissary but the herald of a new order of things. But if Columbus was long celebrated as confirming the spherical nature of the earth–a belief increasingly in question among Americans–two percent ready to identify as strongly adhering to a doctrine of global flatness, with some ten percent unsure or skeptical–the broad acceptance of a curved earth was less contested among educated than the extent of global circumnavigation.
The discovery of Columbus as a figure of unbound authoritarianism was perhaps only made in the late twentieth century. The statue that towered above the ground, and seemed to befit the complex that contained the world’s tallest building, may well have incarnated the promise of public authority that Donald J. Trump was promised by Russian oligarchs as a suitable gift in the post-Soviet era, which might take its place as a gift from “the Russian people” on the very development that Trump must have described his hosts in great detail and with great self-satisfaction, having only recently rezoned it a residential, and imagined as a complex boating the tallest building in the world, which he planned for the old railroad yards by the Hudson River–and saw as a model for the quick negotiation of rules, precedent, and local codes of laws to which he was as if by birthright entitled as a realtor.
The poise and stature of this monumental refiguration of Columbus suggests a future able to move outside a state, or navigate stateless waters in a strikingly frictionless manner. Represented in 1892 in New York as a preeminent Renaissance figure, as if without concern of his relation to his surroundings, but to be a testimony to a removed past, but self-contained in his dignity, but affirming his role in spatial conquest in multiple ways.
The Columbus cast in the 1996 Tsereteli monument in bronze was triumphant in his ability to move outside of sovereign boundaries, demanding recognition as a vanquisher and victor who with the support of a foreign imperial ideology and faith, in the act of claiming ownership by a single gesture over a newfound land. First presented to Trump four years before he declared himself a candidate for the Presidential primary as a candidate for the Reform party in 2000, the image of such imperial identity would have provided a model for the excavation of a public sphere by entertaining a new symbolics of global empire.
Without any sense of triumphant reaction to transoceanic travel, the odd image of an impassive, idealized, “white” Columbus erases race, omits questions about his own relation to the new land of the so-called American continent or its inhabitants, and seems to have been carried by the winds that billow behind him as if to designate him as a royal Catholic emissary of a foreign land, or ensure smooth landing in port as he guides his ship across international waters by anachronistic means of a rotary wheel. The kitsch image of the monumental Columbus would be an aspiration to a global stage that Trump had aspired with Trump Intenational, but was sanctioned by his post-Soviet hosts.
Was the monumental Columbus, first commissioned from Tsereteli in 1992, a prescient image of a future President who would distinguish himself primarily by moving outside legal precedent and defining his exceptionalism to the law? The monumental statue had its origins in the post-Soviet restructuring of Moscow by he new image of Columbus, who seemed to view Columbus as an iconic symbol of a new world order after the Cold War when Luzkhov and Tsereteli had jointly arrived in America to present “The Birth of the New World” as a gift of friendship, recasting this emissary from foreign lands as a triumphant herald of a new world order. By 1997, Luzhkov’s attraction of billions of dollars into Moscow’s development, as housing complexes replaced historic buildings and the monumental Christ the Savior Cathedral was rebuilt in its gold electro-plated splendor of onion domes as seat of the Patriarch, after Stalin had destroyed the structure with dynamite in 1931, represented the intersection grandiose plans for monumentality.Continue reading