Donald Trump unleashed several tirades yesterday in defense of racist protesters, but he seemed especially interested in expressing support for torch-wielding activists who rallied in support of a Robert E. Lee statue. From yesterday’s unhinged press conference:
“[Y[ou take a look at some of the groups and you see – and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not – but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson’s coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you all – you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”
This president doesn’t just draw an equivalence between racists and their opponents, he also draws an equivalence between America’s founders and those who went to war against the United States.
I rather doubt Trump has given this much thought, or has any meaningful familiarity with the history, but given his rant, it’s worth taking a moment to set the record straight.
There is no meaningful comparison between George Washington and Confederate leaders. Yes, Washington, Jefferson, and other Founding Fathers had important flaws, and often fell short of their own principles, but they didn’t commit treason. They didn’t try to kill Americans on the battlefield. They didn’t wage war against the United States in order to protect the ability to buy and sell human beings.
And so, memorials to their public contributions are secure.
We can also go a step further and acknowledge that the point of these Confederate statues has long been racist. The Southern Poverty Law Center published a report documenting when these statues were erected, and it wasn’t immediately after the Civil War.
Two distinct periods saw a significant rise in the dedication of monuments and other symbols. The first began around 1900, amid the period in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise the newly freed African Americans and re-segregate society. This spike lasted well into the 1920s, a period that saw a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been born in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. The second spike began in the early 1950s and lasted through the 1960s, as the civil rights movement led to a backlash among segregationists.
Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum added yesterday, “Yes, these monuments were put up to honor Confederate leaders. But the timing of the monument building makes it pretty clear what the real motivation was: to physically symbolize white terror against blacks. They were mostly built during times when Southern whites were engaged in vicious campaigns of subjugation against blacks, and during those campaigns the message sent by a statue of Robert E. Lee in front of a courthouse was loud and clear.”
There’s every reason to believe Donald Trump doesn’t know any of this. There’s also every reason to believe he doesn’t care.