Another horrific Islamist terror attack occurred in Spain on Thursday, which should have provided President Donald Trump an opportunity move past the racial controversies that have dogged him the past week. He responded to the deaths and injuries in Barcelona with an appropriately dignified statement of sympathy and support delivered via “tweet,” but spent more time in the day prolonging the racial controversies, provoking new ones, and picking fresh fights with his growing number of critics.
That appropriately dignified “tweet” to Spain was followed within an hour by another advising the Spaniards to summarily execute the captured terrorist suspects with bullets dipped in pig’s blood, based on a thoroughly-debunked story he likes to tell about the American an anti-insurrection campaign during the Philippines occupation, and thus far the Spaniards seem to be ignoring the counsel. A similarly shaky historical knowledge of the Civil War seemed to misinform another series of “tweets” lamenting the recent removal of several statues and other monuments honoring heroes of the Confederacy in several cities, including the Virginia town where a white supremacist rally set off deadly violence that started the past week’s lingering controversies.
There’s a reasonable case to be made for leaving the monuments that expressed the beliefs of past generations be, and letting future generations draw their own conclusions about them, but the aftermath of a deadly white supremacist rally is the wrong time to make the argument, and throughout the week Trump has demonstrated he’s not the right man.
He spoke of the “beauty” of some of the statues, but as a real estate developer in New York City he was notorious for razing such historically beautiful structures as Fifth Avenue’s Bonwit Teller Building, with its classic art deco bas-relief sculptures preserved only by court order and charity funds, and his aesthetic sensibilities are not well-regarded by most architectural critics. Trump is right to worry where such historical revisionism might end, as some people would like to see even such founding fathers as the slave-holding George Washington and Thomas Jefferson banished from places of honor in the public square, but he only bolsters their case when he consistently fails to not the crucial difference between the Revolutionary heroes who won America’s freedom and created a system of government that inexorably led to the abolition of slavery and those Confederates who fought to destroy that country and forever preserve the peculiar institution.
Some of those Confederate soldiers fought for the safety of their homes and families rather than for slavery, to be sure, and there’s certainly a strong case to be made that their descendants should be able to honor such bravery and sacrifice in their own communities. For many of those descendants the memorials express only the virtues of loyalty to home and family and the bravery that backs it up, values they now wed to the still-United States of America and feel with a deep regret for the worst of its past, and their views deserve the respect Trump has given them.
Any honest argument, however, requires a frank acknowledgement that slavery was an intolerable moral evil and that the Confederacy did wage its war of rebellion in defense of it, that many of the memorials were explicitly intended by their builders to honor that indefensible cause, and the sort of torch-bearing and shield-wielding and Nazi-flag-waving white supremacists who provoked the deadly violence in Virginia last weekend wanted the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue in the park preserved for the very same reason. Any honest argument would also have to address all the people in those communities whose ancestors were enslaved, who might have a very different view of the statues in their hometowns of the general who fought preserve slavery, and frankly acknowledge that any American president also owes those views his respect.
From our very old-fashioned Republican point of view, we also think it best this argument he made at the local level. It’s taken a while, but those descendants of slaves and slave-holders and the folks who only fought for the Confederacy because that’s where their homes and family were have been working things out fairly well for themselves in the past few decades. There are still the occasional racial atrocities — yes, on both sides, although we don’t want to get into the score — but the region has seen rapid economic development, enough racial amity to draw many black migrants back from the north, and their college sports teams have been hugely successful. Southern legislatures and county commissions and town councils now work out such mundane matters as tax abatements and bridge-building contracts and zoning permits with black and white representatives, so we also trust their judgment whose statues should adorn their city parks. Here in Wichita in the heart of “bleeding Kansas” all the monuments are to the boys in blue, so we don’t have deal with these issues, but we trust that the people of the south interact with one another enough to know which white folks were for home and family and which black folks won’t want to tear down the Washington Monument, and can come to a reasonable conclusion. If they decide they’d rather not honor Confederate generals, we figure there’s also a strong case to be made for that.
General Ulysses Grant allowed the Confederate army he’d vanquished to ride home atop their own horses with dignity and a military salute from his own victorious troops, and although Grant was also ruthless in battling the newly-formed Ku Klux Klan there was also a strong case to be made for that. The Reconstruction years of occupation by the Union army were harsh on the south in less defensible ways, too, but there was good reason to usher the south back into the Union with something of its dignity and values of home and family and martial spirit intact. President Abraham Lincoln made that case with enduring eloquence when he stated a policy of “Malice toward none and charity toward all.”
Trump is admittedly more the “punch back ten times harder” and summarily-execute-’em-with-a-bullet-dipped-in-pig’s-blood kind of president, though, so he’s handling the latest recurrence of the debate quite differently. The critics of his rather equivocal response to the white supremacist violence in Virginia now include South Carolina’s white Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who knows his constituency better than Trump and has calculated that he shouldn’t run for re-election on a neo-Confederate platform, and Trump “tweeted” back with a claim that the “publicity seeking” Senator had lied about him. South Carolina’s black Republican Sen. Tim Scott, who wouldn’t have been elected without a lot of votes from the descendants of slave-holders and those who fought for home and family, and strikes us as an impressive fellow, declared the president had abdicated any moral authority, but so far as we can tell he hasn’t yet been met with any presidential “tweets.”
By now the entirety of the Democratic party and much of the Republican party is critical of the president, along with most of the executives of the Fortune 500 companies and the entirety of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and most of the heads of state of our democratic allies, but Trump seems unlikely to back down any time soon and move on to such mundane matters as that debt-ceiling resolution that’s going to need Graham’s and Scott’s votes if the country doesn’t go bankrupt. Like the vanishing heroes of the Lost Cause, though, his most stubborn defenders can be assured that at least he fights.
— Bud Norman