Trump is dredging up the dark history of Mt. Rushmore as turbulent times call for a new monument
The news that President Trump is planning to stage a “massive fireworks display” before a sizeable crowd on Independence Day eve at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial (notwithstanding the prospect of both wildfires in the tinder-dry surroundings and the further spread of Covid-19) has left me mulling over once again the possible creation of another such epic-scale monument. Maybe it could even be incised into a nearby ridge in the same Black Hills area of South Dakota as the original, if the Lakota Sioux could be convinced to allow it, which they certainly didn’t the first time around.
After all, back in the late 1920s, less than three decades and not 70 miles from the site of the ultimate treachery of the Wounded Knee massacre, that original undertaking to carve the faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt into the side of Mount Rushmore barreled heedlessly along, oblivious to Native American concerns. In the process, it desecrated one of the Sioux’s holiest sites (the stark cliff face the Lakota ironically called the Six Grandfathers) in order to celebrate the leaders of the very nation that had stolen their land and then so savagely repressed them.
Incidentally, did you know -- I hadn’t -- that the sculptor of the original Rushmore monument, Gutzon Borglum, was an avid member of the Ku Klux Klan? In fact, his first stab at such a gargantuan effort, earlier in the 1920s, had been his proposed Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial, featuring the mounted figures of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, as well as the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, leading their rebel armies.
That vast bas-relief was to grace the very site, half an hour outside Atlanta, where, on a cold Thanksgiving night in 1915, just a few months after the premiere of D.W. Griffith’s movie Birth of a Nation (and shortly after that, the notorious mob-lynching of the falsely convicted Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank in nearby Marietta), a select group of sheet-hooded men, led by William J. Simmons, founded the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. Their ceremony culminated with the burning of a 16-foot cross atop the dome of the mountain, an act commemorated there every Labor Day for the next 50 years with similarly festive cross burnings.
As it happened, Borglum only made it as far as sculpting Lee’s head before the initial version of the project bogged down in financial difficulties and intra-Klan sectarian strife in 1925. A couple of years later, he moved on to the Mount Rushmore project. Several decades later, however, work on a variation of Borglum’s Stone Mountain would be revived by others, long after Mount Rushmore’s completion. Indeed, with work once again well underway toward what would become the largest bas-relief anywhere in the world, a vast state park at the bottom of the mountain was inaugurated on April 14, 1965, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, and the place would quickly become Georgia’s most visited tourist attraction. But that’s another story, worthy perhaps of an entirely different reckoning.
As for my own fantasized Rushmore 2.0, perhaps the Lakota would be more amenable to this version than they were the first time around, since the project would be aimed at addressing our common future, maybe half a century from now, and represent a graven missive from our own time to our progeny’s, an attempt to account for the botched and blighted world we’ll likely have bequeathed them by then.
Whose Heads (and Whose Hands) in the Pillory Stockade?
Rather than gazing off with visionary zeal toward some divinely sanctioned manifest destiny, as in the original, the foursome on my Mount Rushmore 2.0 would be lined up in a pillory stockade, each with his downcast face bracketed by similarly yoked hands. (The encasing yoke-planks would be meticulously carved into that granite cliff as well.) These would be the four men (and yes, of course, they would all be white men) from our era who, perhaps more than any others, could be deemed responsible for the dire endgame into which the world by that time might well have plunged: Four men who had the resources and intelligence to have known better but instead chose to swap out the long-term fate of their grandchildren (and the rest of the human progeny) in relentless pursuit of short-term profit and power.
The way I envision it, the first slot on that mountain would be reserved for media baron Rupert Murdoch who, by way of his News Corp empire, so single-handedly poisoned the well of public discourse with denial and obfuscation, not only in the United States but in Britain as well as in his native Australia (where he controls 60% of all daily newspaper sales). For that matter, his damage extends globally, thanks to Fox News, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the Sun, the News of the World, and their ilk (and recently, he even chose to solidify his malign record by installing his ideologically matched son Lachlan atop the firm’s line of succession in conspicuous stead of his more circumspect and reportedly reform-minded son James).
The next slot over should surely go to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. After all, across a single crucial decade -- and how long can scientists and others keep insisting that we only have 10 or 12 years left to avert planetary ecological calamity before those years run out? -- he managed to upend virtually every effort of the Obama administration, no matter how deeply inadequate, to deal with the burning of fossil fuels. Then he abetted every anti-ecological, anti-climate-change initiative of the Trump administration, with immediate short-term benefits to his billionaire (often fossil-fueled) donors. Meanwhile, he succeeded in packing the courts with similarly blinkered reactionaries as a way of forestalling future efforts to reverse any of this.
And no, Donald J. Trump wouldn’t even come close to qualifying for the third spot on that cliffside commemorative relief. The candidates, after all, would have to demonstrate enough intellectual bandwidth to grasp, however faintly, the stakes involved, and Trump demonstrably lacks any grasp whatsoever of the future he’s leaving our children and their children. In any case, his hands are way too small. They’d keep slipping out of the stockade’s granite boreholes and, as for his hair, how could any sculptor, no matter how gifted, be expected to reproduce such a mare’s nest? Moreover, merely excluding him from such dubious company should be enough to provoke a veritable tweet storm of umbrage, which could, at least, provide the rest of us with a tad of dark entertainment across these dismal times, even if the project itself never advanced to the chiseling stage.
So what of slot three? On that one, I’m of at least two minds and, in any case, why should I be the only one who gets to decide? Shouldn’t these choices be a matter for public conversation and deliberation? Still, for my money, one-time Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Vice President Dick Cheney would definitely be in the running, given their formative roles in fomenting the sort of dyspeptic politics that made the current Trumpian moment possible.
And don’t forget Bill Clinton either. (No reason not to be bipartisan on such a monument.) Too clever by half in his zeal to be loved by those at the top of the financial pyramid, President Clinton didn’t even begin to rebalance the neoliberal excesses of President Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Given the craven surrender of Gingrich, Cheney, and Clinton to the short-term needs and dictates of financial and technological monopolies at the expense of longer-term environmental initiatives, all three would surely merit consideration.
The Fourth Slot for the Fifth Vote?
Which brings me to that fourth slot, one that could well be determined in the next six months and, at least to my mind, is Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts's to lose.
Yes, the current administration botched its response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented financial collapse that resulted, and yes, Trump and his minions have appallingly racist instincts in their treatment of immigration, police violence, systemic discrimination, and the widening chasms of economic inequality. Still, the single most crucial issue in the upcoming November election should surely be the environmental future of our planet and, let’s face it, in that regard the United States remains the decisive battleground in determining all humanity’s collective fate. (And it’s hard to overstate the terminal devastation four more years of Trumpian governance could wreak in this regard.)
Of course, with each passing week, Trump’s defeat in any sort of fairly conducted election seems ever more assured (though no thanks to the issue of climate change, which is still being widely ignored). Still, whether the coming election will, in fact, be fairly conducted, with widespread access to the ballot guaranteed, is fast becoming the defining question of this electoral season.
From President Trump and Mitch McConnell to local operatives in key swing states, the Republicans have made no secret of their determination to shrink suffrage through voter suppression tactics like mass purges of voting lists; arbitrary registration requirements blatantly tilted against people of color and young people generally; flagrant efforts to prevent mail-in balloting (even in the face of a likely autumn upsurge of the Covid-19 pandemic and even if it takes bankrupting the Postal Service in order to do so); the conspicuously uneven distribution of polling places on Election Day, along with the assignment of more breakdown-prone polling machines to key opposition districts; all of that to be supplemented by massive, secretly funded efforts at voter intimidation -- and that’s not even to mention complications that might arise in the subsequent counting of the ballots. Most of these gambits will provoke urgent legal challenges that will undoubtedly quickly wend their way to an already highly politicized Supreme Court. There, Trump and his fellow Republicans can count on at least four stalwart votes (that being in large part why those judges, most recently Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were put there in the first place).
This, in turn, means that the fate of both the republic and the human future could come down to the jurisprudence of just one man: Chief Justice John Roberts, the fifth vote (and the only one that may matter in the end). In this context, much is made of the chief justice’s supposedly overriding concern for the historical reputation of the institution he presides over, its nonpartisan majesty, and its abiding place in the constitutional firmament. After all, wasn’t he the one who found a way to salvage the Affordable Care Act, secure the employment rights of LGBTQ workers, and forestall both the deportation of the DACA Dreamers and the obliteration of abortion, at least for the time being?
It’s worth noting, however, that the absolute right of states and localities to control access to voting in any way they see fit (without regard to gerrymandering or ongoing racial discrimination) has been a fundamentally unswerving feature of Roberts’s legal philosophy since long before he was on the Supreme Court. After all, from July 1980 through August 1981, he clerked for Justice William Rehnquist, who’d made it his own life's work to roll back much of the liberal Supreme Court’s jurisprudence of the previous three decades, particularly with regard to voting rights. On leaving that clerkship, Roberts joined the Justice Department’s civil rights division where he served under Kenneth Starr in the newly installed administration of President Ronald Reagan. There, his portfolio was particularly focused on undercutting the 1975 Voting Rights Act, even if to only limited effect, owing to congressional opposition at the time. In 1986, he left government to enter private practice.
But after the November 2000 Florida presidential election debacle (remember those “hanging chads”?), Roberts was one of the first outside lawyers selected by 29-year old Republican campaign adviser Ted Cruz (another onetime Rehnquist clerk) to fashion a legal strategy for a preemptive appeal to the Supreme Court. Thereafter, working behind the scenes on behalf of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the brother of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, Roberts fashioned a gambit designed to force the suspension of any recount in that state. He would thereby award the narrowest possible electoral college victory to the younger Bush over Democratic candidate Al Gore (who had actually won the national popular vote by more than 500,000 votes).
Roberts’s strategy proved entirely successful -- in partial appreciation for which, as one of his first acts, the newly installed president nominated Roberts to a seat on the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court of Appeals (a nomination that languished for two years until the Republicans secured control of the Senate). Then, in 2005, Bush nominated him to succeed the recently deceased Rehnquist as chief justice of the Supreme Court in which capacity Roberts promptly resumed his lifelong focus on systematically eviscerating most forms of federal electoral supervision.
In 2010, Roberts was the fifth vote in the notorious Citizens United decision that effectively equated money with speech and opened the floodgates to unprecedented private spending in election campaigns, virtually without regulatory oversight. Three years later, he was the fifth vote in Shelby County v. Holder, a case that gutted major provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the crown jewel of the Civil Rights Movement, radically undercutting the federal government’s capacity to address clearly documented discriminatory practices at the state and local level.
At the end of the 2019 term, Roberts provided the fifth vote in a case ensuring that federal courts couldn’t review even the most egregiously partisan gerrymanders by state legislatures. On the eve of the recent Wisconsin primary, his was the fifth vote overturning the ability of that state’s governor, acting at the behest of his health commissioner, to suspend or extend primary voting thanks to the rampaging coronavirus. Roberts and crew thereby sentenced tens of thousands of voters to wait in dangerous lines for hours on end at polling places, especially in urban districts like Milwaukee, where a total of only five polling stations were able to open to service the entire city.
In the Balance
So, we’ll see. In the wake of the November 3rd election, will yet another set of fifth votes, this time in defense of a slew of Trumpian election outrages, net him that fourth slot on Rushmore 2.0, or might some sudden, otherwise unaccountable about-face on his part spare us the need even to erect such a monument?
If, however, Roberts does provide those deciding votes for the Republican side, will democracy as we know it even survive a second Trump term, so that anyone might ever again even be allowed to muse over and plan, let alone erect, a Rushmore 2.0 monument? On the other hand, were Roberts to demur, who knows whether achingly conventional Joe Biden will be able to rise to the historic occasion of his own election or might he, in the fullness of time, yet find himself becoming worthy of insertion into the fourth slot in that stockade?
History will tell: some of us may even live to see it.
Lawrence Weschler was a staff writer at the New Yorker for 20 years and then the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU. He has authored more than 20 books, the latest of which, in collaboration with the artist David Opdyke, is This Land: An Epic Postcard Mural on the Future of a Country in Ecological Peril (due out in September from Monacelli/Phaedon). His website is lawrenceweschler.com.
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Copyright 2020 Lawrence Weschler