President Trump was roundly mocked and derided for worrying in August 2017 that statue destroyers would move on from statues of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to statues of former presidents and founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Major media accused Trump of making inappropriate and even ridiculous comments.
Fewer than three years later, precisely as President Trump predicted, iconoclastic mobs have moved on from toppling Confederate statues to deface, damage, and destroy statues of and memorials to Admiral David Farragut, abolitionist Matthias Baldwin, American Revolutionary War Gen. Philip Schuyler, a Texas ranger, Commanding Gen. of the Union Army Ulysses S. Grant, Frances Scott Key, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. A statue of former President Theodore Roosevelt is facing imminent removal in New York City.
“So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?” President Trump asked on August 15, 2017.
Removing Confederate memorials doesn’t mean Washington and Jefferson are next, assured Jamelle Bouie of Slate at the time. “Trump’s comparison there is dumb. It doesn’t really even make any sense. And the notion that there’s some slippery slope is dumb,” he said.
HBO’s John Oliver vehemently agreed (language warning):
2017: So-called comedian John Oliver mocks President @realDonaldTrump for suggesting statues of Washington and Jefferson would be next. Trump was right. pic.twitter.com/wV5SkslFMw
— Yaakov Pollak (@Yanky_Pollak) June 21, 2020
The New York Times ran an article headlined “Historians Question Trump’s Comments on Confederate Monuments,” quoting a historian calling Trump’s query a “red herring.” Another historian said “the answer to Mr. Trump’s hypothetical question about whether getting rid of Lee and Jackson also meant junking Washington and Jefferson was a simple ‘no.'”
NPR’s Steve Inskeep purported to do a “fact” “check” on President Trump’s statement, opining that Trump “used one of his standard rhetorical techniques, ‘whataboutism.'” His “fact” “check” concluded: “To have the president of the United States compare Lee to Washington is simply, factually wrong.”
“Trump equates Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with George Washington in bizarre press conference,” opined Business Insider’s Sonam Sheth. “Lee and Jackson were the leaders of the US’ secessionist movement that was organized to preserve the institution of slavery. Washington and Jefferson are two of the country’s most notable founders, as well as the first and third presidents,” wrote Sheth, wrongly suggesting that mobs would never come for the latters’ statues.
The Washington Post’s Kristine Phillips wrote a piece smugly headlined, “Historians: No, Mr. President, Washington and Jefferson are not the same as Confederate generals.” Not a single one of the historians Phillips chose to interview in her critique of the president could even imagine a world where mobs might tear down statues of slaveholding Founding Fathers, much less where organized protesters would secure their removal. Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, called the suggestion “absurd” and “unacceptable for the president of the United States.”
Douglas Blackmon, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, said President Trump either does not understand history or was racist for worrying about the removal of Founding Father statues. “It’s the difference between a monument to the founder of our nation, and a monument to a key figure in an effort to break apart the nation,” Blackmon said. “The most kind explanation of that can only be ignorance, and I don’t say that to insult the president.”
Denver Brunsman, a history professor at George Washington University — which this week removed busts of George Washington, apparently to protect them from mobs decrying the first president as beneath contempt — was quoted saying that Washington and Jefferson should not be in any way equated with those who seceded from the union.
NBC News assured people that Trump was wrong: “Is the president right about the impending threat to the founders? Historians who spoke to NBC News said such fears are slightly misplaced and that Trump is championing a murky interpretation of history.” The article quoted Kevin Levin, a Boston-based historian, saying “The president can raise the slippery slope, but it’s a false slippery slope.”
The article ended, however, with an admission that some groups want statues of any U.S. presidents who were slave owners also removed. One man specifically cited Washington and President Andrew Jackson as candidates for statue removal, just as President Trump accurately predicted.
During President Trump’s press conference in August 2017, a reporter immediately pushed back on his concern that statues of the first president might not be safe:
Q: George Washington and Robert E. Lee are not the same.
THE PRESIDENT: George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down —
Excuse me, are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him?
Q I do love Thomas Jefferson.
THE PRESIDENT: Okay, good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue?
What media figures assured the public was absurd is now coming to fruition in cities across the country, including New York City:
Here’s their letter to Mayor de Blasio.
President Trump worried that statue removers wouldn’t stop with Confederate figures. The media roundly mocked and derided him. Yet all their experts, fact checks, and smug assurances were completely wrong and Trump was right. It will be interesting to note whether any of these media outlets acknowledge that they were wrong.