Why does Donald Trump have such a loyal base? He fights, his supporters will say, which is a good quality — most of the time. It depends on the fights he picks, however, and the battle to salvage Confederate history might end up being his Pickett’s Charge. Trump tweeted out a veto threat overnight about the new defense authorization bill, specifically objecting to a provision with bipartisan support that would require renaming military bases for people other than those who took up arms against the United States.
In fact, Trump feels so strongly about this fight that he retweeted it seven hours later:
I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill if the Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren (of all people!) Amendment, which will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars, is in the Bill!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 1, 2020
CNN picked up on this threat this morning, casting it as one would expect:
President Donald Trump in a late Tuesday night tweet issued his strongest veto threat yet on a must-pass defense spending bill should lawmakers not strip language requiring bases named after Confederate leaders be rechristened.
Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts proposed requiring the bases be renamed as a part of the annual defense authorization bill. The legislation funds the Pentagon and is often one of the few pieces of legislation that Congress can be counted on to pass each year in order to fund the country’s military operations.
However, Trump — using an offensive nickname for Warren — has now made the bill the latest flashpoint in his defense of monuments to the Confederacy and other racist leaders from the country’s past as he attempts to distract from a new nationwide peak in coronavirus cases and his own plummeting poll numbers.
It seems unlikely that Trump is using his defense of Confederate iconography as a distraction from anything. In fact, it’d be more likely that his team would use those issues to distract from the weird fight Trump has picked in this case. He’s going to wind up fighting alone, or nearly so, because the bill he’s threatening has significant Republican support. It never would have made it out of Senate committee without it, in fact, and the military leadership Trump himself appointed are supporting it as well:
Nonetheless, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to its version of the National Defense Authorization Act proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would force the Pentagon to remove names, monuments and paraphernalia honoring the Confederacy from military bases over the next three years.
Senior military leaders including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy also expressed openness to renaming the 10 Army bases and facilities named after Confederate leaders, but encountered opposition from the president, who tweeted that his administration “will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
What exactly is Trump defending here? He’s correct in pushing back against mob actions to tear down statues from public squares, even those of Confederate figures. We have democratic and representative processes in place to deal with those public-policy issues. The placement and maintenance of statues and monuments are matters of public policy, not just the whims of mobs who express arbitrary offense.
But that’s precisely what has happened with the NDAA. The public policy of maintaining places of honor for men who took up arms against the US — at military bases, no less — has been considered by Congress, the representation of American voters. A bipartisan coalition would like to rename those bases rather than continue to honor a rebellion that was motivated by the desire to maintain and expand slavery as a grotesque agricultural product. It’s worth asking why those bases got those names in the first place, given that history, but at least the decision to rename them followed the right process and promotes the rule of law.
Trump is offering the defense of tradition rather than attempting to defend the Confederacy itself. He also objects to the erasing of history. However, renaming Forts Benning and Lee wouldn’t erase anything except their names from places of honor their rebellion didn’t earn. It doesn’t matter whether decades of men and women trained from those bases; renaming them won’t change that either anyway. Tradition is not always good or healthy, and the tolerance of Lost Cause nonsense about the Confederacy is one of our country’s unhealthiest traditions.
Politically, this is about as dumb as it gets, too. A defense of Confederate symbology will always have emotional baggage of racism and oppression, because that’s what the Confederacy was and what its symbology represented — and not just during the Civil War, but for a century afterward too. That’s not exactly a great look in an election year, not for Trump and not for his Republican allies. One can blame the media for hyping that aspect of it, but the media-bias argument only goes so far in explaining it. Trump seems almost deliberate in his choice to take the losing end of this battle.
It’s great to have a fighter in the White House. It would be much better if Trump chose his fights more wisely.