I don’t think there is much more to say about Trump’s raving belligerence, his hideous instincts, and his incoherent tirade against decency yesterday. As Pierce pointed out, he was a guy who was clearly angry about having to release a second statement on whether or not Nazis and racists are bad, and stewed about it for 24 hours, then let the world know how he really felt. To say it was un-Presidential is to pretend that this guy is a real President.
But he did inadvertently stumble onto a good point, albeit from the wrong direction and with the wrong intent. He brought up a normal right-wing Confederate talking point, bringing up the fact that many of the Founding Fathers were indeed slave owners.
“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Mr. Trump said. “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.”…
“George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? …Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK, good. Are we going to take down his statue, because he was a major slave owner. Now we’re going to take down his statue. So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally — but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”
Obviously, the “there were a lot of good people carrying torches alongside the Nazis and white supremacists!” line that has people talking. But the Washington/Jefferson part is really interesting. This is a common sneer among the right, an unlettered attempt at logic, and, to them, an attempt to get us to consider how much we’re “changing” history.
There are a few obvious rebuttals here. The first is the easiest, which is: we’re not changing history, you dolt, we’re just not honoring terrible people anymore. The second is related, which is: sure, we have a complicated history, but maybe we’ll draw the line at honoring people who committed treason against the United States in order to defend slavery.
That one is worth unpacking. We can point out the obvious hypocrisy in the idea that the right wing is telling us that some Founding Fathers were bad, as an excuse for maybe worse behavior by CSA leaders. When the left points that out we hate America, remember. But I think we should actually happily accept those terms.
One of the worst parts of this country, and one of the wells from which a lot of contemporary poison is drawn, is Founding Father worship. We do tend to deify these man, and the end result is really pernicious.
For one thing, it has partly led to the contemporary cult of the Presidency. After all, of all the Founding Fathers who are worshipped, most were Presidents. Franklin is really the only non-President who is deified, until Hamilton the last couple of years. Men like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine are more known than understood, and tend to get lumped together, even though they were remarkably different men with remarkably different ideas.
And that’s sort of the point. The Fathers were a fractious bunch with a hell of a lot of competing ideas, and barely worked out a compromise to set up the government. That’s a good thing. The problem is that their ideas, and indeed their lives, have been dipped in a sort of amber. The differences are smoothed out. And they are lumped together into a sort of cult.
Really, the fact that not capitalizing “founding fathers” looks sort of weird is a tell. They are almost gods, and that is really pernicious. It is literally undemocratic, and it has infected our politics. We parse the text of the 2nd Amendment to see if it is ok for you to carry a bazooka to a Nazi rally. We ask what the Fathers would have thought of internet pornography (Franklin: Thumbs up). We try to imagine what 18th-century farmers would have done today.
That’s really antithetical to their whole project. The people who created this country believed in common law and progress. They didn’t intend for their word to be Gospel. This isn’t just an argument against “originalism”, which is an obvious intellectual fraud, but against the whole idea that we should be beholden to a bunch of flawed dudes from 240 years ago.
And so maybe we should look at our history. Maybe we should say “Oh yeah- George Washington would have been super weirded out at civil rights, and just seeing an airplane would have fucking blown his heart up. Let’s not look at them as gods. In fact, let’s examine the whole history of this country, and not pretend it was uniquely moral. Let’s not pretend that the slavery was an aberration. Let’s not pretend that we didn’t literally wiped out hundreds of nations in order to colonize the continent. Let’s not pretend that the monuments to men like Lee weren’t to honor soldiers, and not put up by Jim Crow politicians to remind blacks of their place. Let’s not pretend about anything, and maybe we can fulfill the promise inherent in our creeds.”
This obviously isn’t what Trump meant. In his mind, and the mind of his Confederate-loving Nazi-humping Lowes-shopping patio-torch-wielding white supremacist jackass buddies, Washington isn’t bad because Lee is, but rather Lee should be fine because Washington is great, and they are both great because they are both white. So why question their greatness?
But just because that isn’t what our idiot President meant doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run with this in another direction. I argued yesterday morning that maybe Trump will inadvertently help tear down the cult of the Presidency. I didn’t know he’d do it that afternoon.