The statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, surrounded by Confederate and state flags, along Interstate 65 in Nashville. (Steven S. Harman/the Tennessean)
President Trump came out strongly in opposition to removing Confederate statues from public places, saying it was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”
That appeal to “history and culture” echoes arguments made by neo-Confederate groups, who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, couch claims about the meaning of statues and other Confederate symbols in terms of “heritage and other supposedly fundamental values that modern Americans are seen to have abandoned.”
Most mainstream historians note, on the other hand, that the whole point of Confederate monuments is to celebrate white supremacy. Most of them were erected between 1895 and World War I, “part of a campaign to paint the Southern cause in the Civil War as just and slavery as a benevolent institution,” according to University of North Carolina historian Karen Cox.
“Most monuments were created during the Jim Crow era to stand in opposition to racial equality,” according to the Atlanta History Center, formerly the Atlanta Historical Society. “Veneration of Confederates symbolized white racial dominance.”
But the president is not a historian, and neither are most members of the American public. A survey by the Economist and YouGov earlier this week found that, by more than 2 to 1, Americans believe that Confederate monuments are symbols of Southern pride rather than of white supremacy.
Whites (66 percent), Republicans (84 percent) and Americans over age 65 (71 percent) are especially likely to say that Confederate monuments represent pride rather than supremacy. Liberals (54 percent), Hillary Clinton voters (52 percent) and black Americans (47 percent) are the groups most likely to say that the monuments stand for white supremacy.
Similar, a plurality of Americans (48 percent) say they disapprove of the decision to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from Charlottesville — the decision that sparked the violent rally by neo-Nazis and white supremacists last weekend. Only 30 percent say they approve of the decision.
In his remarks about the monuments, the president may be making a calculated attempt to motivate the approval of voters, like the ones identified in the Economist/YouGov survey, who aren’t sold on the idea that monuments to the Confederacy are monuments to racism.
The president’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, made that calculus explicit in an interview with the New York Times this week. “Just give me more,” Bannon said. “Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”
But that calculation could backfire. Trump remains a historically unpopular president, with approval ratings in the mid-30s. Given that unpopularity, taking a strong stand in favor of Confederate monuments could simply motivate public opinion in opposition to them.
We’ve seen Trump’s “inverse Midas touch” in action many times before, on a variety of issues — Obamacare, transgender troops, the border wall, the Mueller investigation.
“It’s almost as if the best way to make something popular is for President Trump to take the opposite position,” The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote this month.
By taking a strong stand in support of Confederate monuments, Trump may ironically end up ushering in their removal.