There is something especially grotesque about the timing of President Donald Trump’s pledge to veto a $740 billion defense bill if military bases named for Confederate military leaders are renamed.
He made this pledge during the July 4th holiday week.
This is a moment when Americans are roiling over issues of racial intolerance that date back to America’s founding, including whether and what historic statues deserve to be toppled because of racist taint, even if they represent some Founding Fathers.
The president’s signature divisiveness comes at a moment when much of the country is also reeling from a coronavirus resurgence, even as he refuses to mask in public. And during a week when he sloughed off revelations that Russia may have paid bounties to Taliban-linked Afghans to kill U.S. soldiers.
Yet Trump’s Independence Day timing is fortunate. It symbolizes his total uninterest in pulling this country together. And it forces all Americans to confront the urgent need for new leadership that will finally put Americans first.
No trip to Mount Rushmore can change this fact: In endorsing Confederate traitors and racists, Trump is totally out of tune with the historical moment.
These bases were named for war criminals such as Confederate general George Pickett, a man accused of cowardice at Gettysburg, who bragged about executing Union prisoners. Or Henry Lewis Benning, who advocated that African Americans weren’t really human.
The purpose of these base names was to embrace white supremacy within the military during the first half of the 20th century, a time when Black servicemen and -women were treated with brutal discrimination.
The Pentagon supports these name changes. Prominent U.S. military leaders, active and retired, support them. Even senior Republican leaders support them. For heaven’s sake, the state of Mississippi has joined the Navy, Marine Corps, and NASCAR in recently removing displays of the Confederate flag.
July 4th would have been the perfect moment for a president of all Americans to throw his support behind this healing gesture. Instead, intent on solidifying his shrinking base, the president put Trump first.
Of course, beyond changing base names and removing statues of Confederate leaders, the broader issue of what historic statues are offensive is conflicting the country.
I would prefer to draw limits, considering the intent of the historical figure, however flawed some of their actions.
Confederate generals fought to maintain slavery. George Washington owned slaves but was the father of this nation and ensured that it did not become a new monarchy. Thomas Jefferson drafted an independence declaration that introduced Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality that changed the world, even if Americans still struggle to implement them fully. It is those very principles that define the racial equality protesters seek today.
I have spent so much time in dictatorships and authoritarian nations that wholly lacked those freedoms that I remain in awe of the achievement of those founding fathers. As Joe Biden put it this past week, there is “a distinction” between “whether or not George Washington or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and somebody who was … committing treason … to keep slavery.”
With a leader of all Americans in the White House, the statue debate could be a teachable moment, and this holiday the time for national introspection. Instead the country gets a tweet-slammer-in-chief in search of 2020 votes. Instead of Americans first it gets Trump first.
And when it comes to putting Americans last during the holiday, Trump’s attitude toward new allegations about Russia is particularly illuminating. Whether or not Russia actually paid bounties to kill Americans, it’s no secret that Russia has been cultivating the Taliban.
As told to me by Tina Kaidanow, a former top State Department official who served as the number two at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in 2012 and 2013: “Everyone knew that the Russians had been mucking around in Afghanistan for a long time. Of course the Russians and the Taliban want us gone and are making common cause.”
The real issue here is Trump’s unwillingness to confront Vladimir Putin on Russia’s malignant behavior toward America. And his refusal to listen to or read intelligence briefings.
Trump has said publicly he believes the Russian leader over U.S. intelligence agencies. This delusion – born of a consistent unwillingness to critique Putin — puts American soldiers at risk not only in Afghanistan, but elsewhere. For example, in Syria, Russian mercenaries have attacked U.S. troops in the past.
So instead of pulling the country together during multiple crises, Trump turned the July 4th week into a new display of divisiveness. Instead of defending the safety of U.S. soldiers, Trump chose to attack journalists and stay silent on the substance of Russian aggression. During the holiday, Trump still refused to wear a mask in public, even as a COVID-19 resurgence led to cancellation of fireworks and closing of beaches.
This divisiveness is becoming so obvious — never more clearly than the president’s embrace of racist base names — that a majority of Americans may finally be awakening. We need a president who will pull the country together and put Americans First, not Trump First.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at email@example.com.
©2020 Trudy Rubin