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Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Effigies of stability are, at times, the closest that one can hope for the manufacture of a sense of stability in the nation. When Donald J. Trump used the White House as a backdrop from which to accept the Reupublican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate in 2020, he noted that the seat of executive power “has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future,” in ways that reveal his own aspirations to monumentality, and their proximity to his decision to enter political life. To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump used the visages of Mount Rushmore for announcing his plans to create a “National Garden of American Heroes” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents on July 3, converting the tacky and outdated National Monument to a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments–in a manner that was more divisive, if more eloquently divisive than in the past.

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

Calling for heroic monuments in an era divided by racial tensions used the faces of four white Presidents to call for honoring authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined. Mt. Rushmore–four faces that are the primary national shrine of white, male authority–became the place to do so, as if adding, beneath those impassive faces hewn into granite on Black Elk Peak whose steadfast gazes communicate timelessness, the odd compliment of his own somewhat stilted smile.

For a President known to confess it was his “dream to have my face on Mt. Rushmore”–and notorious for blurring personal interests with pubic office–the dream may have seen no obstacles in a lack of space in the granite outcropping in which immigrant sculptor Gurzon Borglum fit four visages, hoping the friable rock of South Dakota accommodate his desire. Trump measured the office of the Presidency by monumentality, and hoped shortly after being sworn in to hope for a fitting monument, ignorant of the structural problems whose sculptor had been forced to alter plans and shift Thomas Jefferson from Washington’s trusty wing man, as he was found the granite would not accommodate it–

–Trump’s attraction to the monument remained so deep that the newly elected Republican governor Kristi Nome presented Trump a version, four feet tall, accommodating Trump in ways Rushmore could not, for display the Oval Office, as a substitute for the man whose megalomania made it difficult to separate his desire from actual constraints. The crowd that he convened on July 4, profiting from the lack of social distancing policy in South Dakota Governor decreed, not only fit his sense of politics as, at root, another medium to promote personal interests. (Indeed, the lack of social distancing in South Dakota, if it created a full audience on July 4, without social distancing or masks, set the stage for the terrifying escalations of reported new cases of COVID-19 across North Dakota, and spiking of weekly averages, although the state governor had promoted social distancing since March–often tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.)

North Dakota COVID-19 Count, September 1, 2020

When Gov. Noem facilitated the gravitational pull of monumentality in allowing fireworks for the July 4 address to the nation, she used the lack of guardrails of social distancing to promote a vision of monumentalism that reminds us all that “America First” places Donald Trump first, front, and center, for a man unable to separate politics from public persona, and indeed sacrificed the public good: was she complicit in the promotion of seeing monumentality as the extension of political office by other means: Gov. Nome presented Trump with the replica placing his face among the Presidents on Mt Rushmore when he finished his speech?

Trump pronounced a need to honor past heroes that had itself desecrated a once sacred space for native ancestors. The visages of Mt. Rushmore intended to include effigies of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–in an attempt at replace the ancestors of native Americans with a spectacle of the theater of their extinction; the anti-indigenous sculptor, also a klansman, sought to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, were shown as emerging from the sacred rock, seemed historically suitable as a site for Trump to proclaim a Garden of Heroes Trump as a new reality park. The patronizing nature of promoting a garden of monuments that honors civil rights leaders, abolitionists, past presidents, astronauts and the heroes of the frontier set a strikingly segregated tenor whose racist undertones suggest a vision of the nation defined by racial divides, reflecting the racial identities of the Presidents it selects to commemorate, rather than that of the nation.

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

The monumental timelessness of this vision of America in a federal garden of heroes sanctioned a “American heroes” to address the toppling of statues of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Presidents as Thomas Jefferson as symbols of enslavement, in hopes to question their continued prominence in our national memories, after toppling statues of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, dear to white supremacists, and covering Columbus with paint. The deep affection for monuments and indeed the affinity for asserting his hereditary aspirations of politics led Trump to write a doting fan letter to Vladimir Putin, ten years before Trump’s inauguration, after Putin was named Time‘s “Person of the Year,” to recognize the stability he brought Russia after the zig-zags of the Yeltsin years, at an uncertain moment of post-Soviet history: the citation described the demise of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” glossing over Putin’s crushing of the Chechen Rebellion and serial assassinations of political opponents.

Trump pretended to introduce himself to a figure of world politics, although his longstanding 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.

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.

His 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.

Memento Park, Budapest HU

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.

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