Comment: Message behind Trump statue as old as the nation

The golden idol is a continuation of the myth of personality fostered by past presidents.

By Ben Railton / Special To The Washington Post

Artist Tommy Zegan’s golden statue of former president Donald Trump, which made its debut at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, has occasioned a great deal of commentary and critique.

Many of those commenting have highlighted a pair of humorous ironies: that the conference’s largely Christian attendees have been worshiping a golden idol and that the statue was made in China. But more seriously, critics have noted that the statue represents a deepening of the cult of Trump, a reverence for an individual leader that seems deeply at odds with foundational national ideals like Thomas Paine’s argument in “Common Sense” (1776) that “in America the law is king.”

Yet extreme as it may be, the Trump statue is not abnormal; indeed, it directly extends the legacy of a long-standing, reverential form of American patriotism. American leaders have often cast themselves as heroes in the American narrative to gain political power and govern, and in the process they create collective moments and narratives that endure long after their administrations have ended. But such practices have had undemocratic consequences: deepening white supremacy and U.S. expansion, while silencing dissent and criticism as unpatriotic or disloyal.

Andrew Jackson’s fame and political career were built on myths. Portraying himself as a frontier warrior and “Indian Killer” whose violent and martial exploits helped carve out an expanding United States became a way for Jackson to position his career and candidacy in opposition to such Eastern elites as John Quincy Adams. He also constructed himself as a self-made man who sought to expand democracy to include the “common man.” He used this narrative as a candidate to reframe campaign controversies over his slave-trading and military massacres of Native American villages; these were cast as part of his identity as a rugged, everyman alternative to elites like Adams.

Casting himself as heroic helped Jackson win the presidency, and then justified his signature presidential policy, the Indian Removal Act of 1830. This legislation lumped all Native American tribes into a single political entity that both state and federal governments could remove from their homelands at any time (in exchange for land west of the Mississippi). In promoting it, he claimed, “Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” Here Jackson wed his personal associations with national expansion and white-supremacist violence to a mythic vision of an America in which only fellow whites had a place, literally and symbolically.

At the turn of the next century, Theodore Roosevelt positioned himself as an iconic American leader standing astride a similar combination of frontier, masculine, white supremacist and “rugged individualist” narratives. In the foreword for a 1900 “Presidential Edition” of his four-volume “The Winning of the West” (1889), Roosevelt wrote, “The whole western movement of our people was simply the most vital part of that great movement of expansion which has been the central and all-important feature of our history.” Roosevelt, the scion of an elite New York family, had gradually reframed his image through the mythos of Western expansion, drawing on stories of military glory with the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. The 1900 edition, published while Roosevelt was William McKinley’s running mate, cemented this new mythic vision of him.

And as president, Roosevelt oversaw the further expansion of that mythic America around the world, from the symbolic journey of the “Great White Fleet” to the long and brutal war against Filipinos resisting the U.S. occupation of their islands in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. A March 1899 Boston Sunday Globe cartoon illustrated the white-supremacist images and myths that were immediately extended to Filipinos as that U.S. occupation began. Roosevelt furthered such images, bemoaning the “half-caste and native Christians, warlike Moslems, and wild pagans” who he argued made up the insurgent forces. Believing the Filipinos must be taught “that we are the masters,” he made this brutal conflict a central element of his broader support for American expansion around the globe.

Expansion advanced white supremacy through language and action. But the American empire has been self-conscious, insecure. Vulnerable to challenges and criticism, the United States passed the 1918 Sedition Act. President Woodrow Wilson argued for the law in his 1915 State of the Union by claiming, “There are citizens of the United States … born under other flags but welcome under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life … I urge you to enact such laws at the earliest possible moment.” The resulting Sedition Act wedded the purported threat of treasonous immigrants and ideological opponents to an idolized vision of the nation and its iconic symbols, including the American flag and the nation’s system of government itself. The law made illegal “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States … or the flag of the United States.” Numerous Americans were deported under the aegis of this law (and its complement, the 1917 Espionage Act).

As the Sedition Act illustrated, such mythic patriotisms have also featured one other consistent narrative: that any Americans who do not participate in their idealized celebrations are unpatriotic and even un-American. The danger of that “love it or leave it” narrative is not simply that it presents a false dichotomy and depicts any criticism of the nation’s mythic histories and identities as treasonous. It’s that the America that all Americans are called to love, the nation being idolized, is quite often the mythic one constructed and deployed by presidents like Jackson, Roosevelt and Wilson to advance their exclusionary agendas. As president, Trump cast himself as white America’s redeemer, the one who would “make America great again.” His supporters, in worshiping him, are hanging on to the mythic form of patriotism he espoused.

But such mythic patriotisms are far from the only long-standing form of American patriotism. Indeed, the legacy of critical patriotism is just as foundational and represents a vital alternative to these exclusionary myths. Yet understanding where we are as a nation in early 2021 depends on recognizing the roots and consequences of the exclusionist legacy Trump has resurrected, and how the Trump statue aims to advance it moving forward.

Ben Railton is professor of English and American studies at Fitchburg State University. His most recent book is “Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism” (2021).

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