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As Monuments to Racism Fall, Trump’s Culture War Falters

Francis Wilkinson

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If you want to know who’s winning the battle being waged on the streets of America, look at who’s being beaten up. It’s not just peaceful protesters, though many police officers across the country — perhaps taking their cue from the June 1 assault in Lafayette Square across from the White House — are having a wilding time of it.

Statues are getting roughed up, too, and their travails may be even more telling. Because while it takes but an instant to crack the head of a protester of racism, it can take a century or more to bring down a monument to racism. Yet they are coming down.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said last week that the statue of Robert E. Lee that “towers over homes, businesses and everyone who lives in Richmond” will be removed “as soon as possible.” Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said he would propose removing four other Confederate memorials from the city’s Monument Avenue as well.

In Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor Randall Woodfin used the nationwide protests as an opportunity to remove the city’s 52-foot Confederate Soldiers & Sailors Monument despite a law passed by the Republican legislature expressly designed to safeguard racist iconography from the ravages of public opinion. The statue’s removal, which took place on the state holiday marking the birth of Jefferson Davis, prompted Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to sue the city. Sue away: The statue is not coming back.

In addition to Alabama and Virginia, Confederate monuments were defaced or removed in Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

It’s not hard to figure out why last week suddenly turned into a giant dustbin for Confederate granite. Just as millions of Americans are invested in the lie of the noble “Lost Cause,” millions are invested in a proximate lie: that racism is a figment of a brutalized people’s collective imagination. Some 22% of Americans believe that blacks face little or no discrimination, a figure that rises to 39% among Republicans. Reactionary and resentful politics work to transform that self-deception into laws such as Alabama’s monument preservation act, which ensures that public spaces feature icons of racial dominance and subjugation.

When acts of racist brutality, such as the killing of George Floyd, break through the national cacophony, they expose the lie as both absurd and corrupt. In that moment of collective recognition, racial reactionaries retreat, and the ground on which racist monuments stand quakes.

America’s veneration of racists, in public memorials that both weigh on black consciousness and distort white perspective, is not an exclusively Southern tic. Elizabeth Samet, a scholar of Ulysses S. Grant, notes that Robert E. Lee’s ghostly presence at West Point, a couple hundred miles above the Mason-Dixon line, has long eclipsed that of Grant, who had to wait until 2019 before a statue on campus was dedicated to him. In addition to barracks named after Lee, there is “a road, a gate and an entire housing area commemorating him.”

Perhaps the most interesting assault on a monument last week took place in a cradle of the abolitionist movement: Philadelphia. A statue of Frank Rizzo, a rough-and-tumble cop who rose to become police commissioner and, in 1972, mayor, was uprooted from its base across the street from Philadelphia’s ornate city hall. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney called the Rizzo statue a “deplorable monument to racism, bigotry and police brutality for members of the black community, the LGBTQ community, and many others.”

Rizzo was a Trumpy kind of guy, minus the vast inheritance from a wealthy father. He was a white cultural reactionary with a readily identifiable racist streak and a high tolerance for corruption and brutality. Like Trump in 2020, Rizzo made “law and order” his political mantra. If Rizzo had a bad week, it’s very likely that Trump did as well.

There is a symbiosis between images of police officers battering anti-racism protesters and those of anti-racism protesters pummeling statues of racists. Police, a largely Trumpian constituency whose aggression Trump has encouraged, are lashing out as the white nationalist cultural terrain of MAGA recedes.

The contest isn’t over, of course, and may persist in various manifestations for years to come. But with each protest march, and every discarded Confederate, the direction of the battle is becoming more clear. Future Americans will be spared the labor of uprooting a granite Donald J. Trump from a tainted plinth. It won’t be necessary. There will be no monuments to tear down.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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