The flaw in Trump's case for Confederate names on military bases

Trump's argument for naming U.S. military bases after Confederates is spectacularly unpersuasive.
Image: US Soldiers, Fort Hood
Army soldiers walk along the U.S. Army post at Fort Hood military base in Kileen, Texas on April 9, 2014.Erich Schlegel / Getty Images file
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By Steve Benen

For many years, several U.S. military bases and installations have been named after Confederate military leaders. U.S. Army leaders recently opened the door to renaming the facilities after Americans who didn't take up arms against the United States.

Yesterday, Donald Trump and the White House slammed that door shut.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday he would "not even consider" renaming Army bases that honor Confederate leaders who fought to protect slavery and uphold white supremacy despite nationwide reckoning over racial discrimination in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.

As a political matter, the posture is hardly surprising. The president almost certainly knows a change would be unpopular with elements of his far-right base, whom he's eager to please in an election year.

But as a substantive matter, what was striking about yesterday's announcement was Trump's awful explanation for his position. As part of a multi-tweet thread -- which was printed and distributed to reporters at yesterday's press briefing -- the president made the case that naming the bases after Confederates reflects "a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom."

The president's idiosyncratic approach to capitalization notwithstanding, has no one told him that the Confederates lost? And that "freedom" wasn't exactly at the heart of their cause?

What's more, as retired U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus explained in an essay for The Atlantic this week, "It also happens that ... most of the Confederate generals for whom our bases are named were undistinguished, if not incompetent, battlefield commanders."

As part of the same thread, Trump concluded, "Respect our Military!" But that, too, is strange: by what reasoning does it respect our military to name installations after those who fought against our military?

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany added at yesterday's press briefing, "Where do you draw the line here? Should George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and James Madison be erased from history?"

For what it's worth, I'm not aware of any effort to erase Washington, Jefferson, and Madison from American history, which in the context of Confederate generals wouldn't make sense anyway: Washington, Jefferson, and Madison didn't go to war against the United States.

If we're wondering where to "draw the line," perhaps that would be a good place to start.

Looking ahead, the White House seemed eager to put an end to the conversation, but it may not be that easy. Around the same time as Trump and McEnany were making their pitch, the Senate Armed Services Committee was moving forward with plans to require the Pentagon to rename the relevant bases over the course of the next three years. As Roll Call reported, the provision -- authored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is likely to be added to a larger defense bill, which the president would be reluctant to veto.

All of which suggests the debate isn't over just yet.