As America comes face to face with it’s racism in its past, President Donald Trump has firmly back lined up with those who argue that the pendulum has swung too far in favor of removing statues and other symbols of that flawed history, saying errors will be repeated unless learned from and understood.
Trump’s campaign also sees the division over this new political flash point as a way to improve the president’s reputation, which has weakened through his treatment of the coronavirus epidemic and the social discrimination demonstrations that accompanied the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. After weeks spent demanding “law and order” in response to the protests sparked by Floyd’s death by police, Trump began to draw a line in the sand.
He vowed executive action to preserve landmarks after several Confederate statues and other historical icons with checkered life stories were violently pulled down from parks and other socially popular spots.
Trump says he wanted the highest penalty possible under federal law — up to a decade in prison — for anyone who wrecks or tamper with public property monuments commemorating those who served in the U.S. military. He said the executive order would “strengthen” existing legislation.
“We are looking at long-term jail sentences for these vandals and these hoodlums and these anarchists and agitators,” Trump said, referring to protesters who have vented their anger over racial injustice by toppling statues of figures tied to America’s racist history.
He spoke out after an attempt Monday night to bring down a Lafayette Park statue of Andrew Jackson, one of Trump’s favorite presidents, was foiled by police in the park across from the White House. Trump called it a “sneak attack” on the statue of Jackson, who owned slaves and was ruthless in his treatment of Native Americans. “We should learn from the history,” he told Fox News in a taped interview broadcast Tuesday. “And if you don’t understand your history, you will go back to it again.”
Trump’s campaign sees the attempts to remove statues as a potential presidential lifeline. The campaign argues that liberals are dramatically overreaching by embracing calls to “defund the police” and remove statues of American icons taught in history books.
In the current climate, Trump’s prior support of Confederate statues and military bases named after such individuals posed a political risk. But aides now believe the president has found an unexpected new line of attack on Democrats as the effort to remove symbols has spread to include the likes of Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Jackson and George Washington in some places.
Although all three figures were flawed individuals, Trump’s campaign believes he can use them to wage a culture war and position the president as the defender of a way of life threatened by demographic change and generational shifts in views on issues ranging from marriage to racial justice.
Calls to overhaul policing and confront lingering racial inequality may be bipartisan, but Trump’s reelection team believes the most aggressive steps being pushed by some Democrats will turn off centrists and energize the president ‘s base-– many of whom share his avowed commitment to safeguard symbols of the nation’s past. A White House official and a campaign assistant summarized the president’s rationale by speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to publicly discuss the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Tuesday cast the “lawlessness” of the attacks on statues as a cultural phenomenon among “far-left radicals” in need of a history lesson.