Trump sees an opening in the statue wars

“I don’t like the idea of honoring the losing team with a statue,” said Stephen Miller, a conservative media critic and contributor to The Spectator.

But protesters have gone further in recent days, defacing monuments of prominent figures who owned slaves or oppressed minority groups, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Andrew Jackson also owned slaves and oversaw an era of forced expulsion of Native Americans from their territories. Even Civil War heroes have not escaped the fury. On Friday, protesters attacked a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, the Union general and future president who literally waged war against the Confederacy, citing a slave Grant was gifted and later freed before the war.

Even seemingly unaffiliated statues, like one of blues guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan in Austin, have been lightly vandalized. And on Monday, high-profile progressive activist Shaun King urged protesters to go next to churches with statues and images of “white Jesus,” saying the depiction of Jesus as a white man was a form of “white supremacy.”

“Toppling Washington, Jefferson and Grant obscures the more important point about Jim Crow monuments and makes it about the protests, rather than the issues — which is exactly what the right-wing culture warriors want,” Nichols said.

During last week’s rally in Tulsa, Okla., Trump and Pence came down firmly on the side of keeping Confederate statues up as a way to “remember our history,” a stance that could alienate moderate voters ahead of the 2020 election. But Trump and his allies have now shifted focus to the vandalism targeting non-Confederate monuments, potentially seeking to pander to a broader audience while trying to paint progressive protesters — and the Democrats supporting them — as detached from mainstream American norms.

“They hate our history, they hate our values, and they hate everything we prize as Americans,” Trump said Tuesday night. “The left is not trying to promote justice or equality or lift up the downtrodden.”

Trump and his backers have spent weeks trying to find a way to discredit the protesters — claiming without evidence that violent antifa provocateurs were embedded in Black Lives Matter protests, attacking the largely peaceful activists in Seattle’s autonomous zone as “domestic terrorists.” But those appeals largely played to Trump’s base. Conservatives are hoping that Americans more broadly will be concerned with protesters going after non-Confederate statues.

Miller argued the widespread statue attacks play into a stereotype conservatives are pushing that Democrats are yoked to “white bourgeois podcast Marxists” who are blaming dead white men for all of today’s problems.

“This is all meant to be a shiny object to distract [from] addressing the policies of the people who have been in charge of these cities and communities for decades,” he said.

Seth Mandel, executive editor of the right-leaning Washington Examiner magazine, said Trump is making the subject into a dichotomy — statues or no statues — that serves as a proxy battle for the ideological culture war. He compared it to the way Trump treated mask-wearing during the current pandemic — the subject started as a public health debate but has at times turned into a sign of whether someone supported Trump or not.

“Statues deserve nuance, too,” he said. “There are many statues that are legitimately controversial — meaning wanting to take them down shouldn’t be considered nihilistic. But it strikes me as a fringe position to say Jefferson and Washington should come down, too.”

He added: “It would be a shame if the national debate came down to statues vs. no statues, instead of a serious debate over what the statues represent.”