“This monument will never be desecrated. These heroes will never be disfigured!” thundered Donald Trump in the telegenic setting of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota to an audience of his supporters, all white and without masks, which have also became a symbol of the ongoing culture war around the original sin of the United States: slavery. Trump did not mention the coronavirus, which has killed more than 132,000 Americans and is infecting many thousands more every day—but the crowd did not seem to care about that at all.
The four immense faces carved on the side of the mountain, made by the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, represent George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, Trump knows very well that no one to this day has proposed to erase the memory of these four presidents from American history, although the first two were slave owners (Washington had no particular compunction, while Jefferson was conflicted).
However, Trump’s event offers us the opportunity to reflect on what happened after the Civil War and on how the South lost the war, but won not only the peace (the racist elites returned to power for a hundred years after Robert Lee’s surrender) but also the battle over memory: the two most famous and successful films of the first half of the 20th century were Birth of a Nation, by David W. Griffith (a paean to the Ku Klux Klan) and Gone with the Wind by Victor Fleming, the famous love and war story that created the myth of the “noble cause” of the South.
The battle over memory is not at all merely a matter of folklore: in Richmond, the statue of the rebel general Robert Lee remains in place (defended by neighborhood property owners who fear that their homes will lose value if it is removed), while hundreds of other monuments to Southern generals remain in place. On Wednesday, 155 years after the end of the war, did the state of Mississippi decide to finally remove the symbols of the Confederacy from its flag.
The history of Mount Rushmore (familiar to Italian moviegoers from the scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest) is particularly instructive. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, an association founded to celebrate the “values” of the South, had hired the sculptor Gutzon Borglum to create a monument to Confederate generals on Stone Mountain in Georgia in 1915. That gigantic bas-relief, almost 600 meters high, is still there today, just a few miles from Atlanta.
Immediately afterwards, Borglum—himself with strong ties to the racist and anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan—received the commission for the monument on Mount Rushmore, on which he worked from 1927 until 1941.
Since then, the four presidents carved in stone have become a fetish for white nationalism, despite the protests by Native Americans about the theft of their lands in South Dakota: the Black Hills had been granted “in perpetuity” to the Sioux by a treaty from 1868, a treaty that was violated just a few years later when gold was discovered in the area. Therefore, Mount Rushmore is not only offensive to African Americans, but also a symbol of the extermination of Native Americans.
Trump didn’t organize his second campaign event there to defend the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt, who don’t need his help in this regard. His arrogant statements—“the American people are strong and proud, and they will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them”—had the sole purpose of rallying his electoral base of white males, who, after four years of failures and broken promises, are beginning to doubt him.
It is a matter of exploiting the cultural war that started after the repeated episodes of police violence, racism, injustice and inequality, trying to make people forget his disastrous management of the epidemic and, above all, the incredible levels that unemployment has reached, with more than 40 million Americans losing their jobs in just 3 months.
As Enzo Traverso wrote, many Americans (and many Italians) “are quite proud of the statues of Confederate generals, slave traders, genocidal kings, the legal architects of white supremacy and the propagandists of fascist colonialism that constitute the patrimonial heritage of Western societies.”
Taking advantage of the distorted and undemocratic electoral system of the United States, Trump hopes for a mobilization of Republican voters that would be just enough to snatch another minority victory like the one in 2016.
For the time being, the polls show him losing against Democratic candidate Joe Biden by a large margin, the latter at 50% against Trump’s 36%—however, presidential elections in this country are open to all sorts of surprises until the last ballot has been counted—and even afterwards, if we look at the counting in Florida in 2000 that gave the presidency to George W. Bush.
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