During the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, he was frequently (and often fairly) criticized for trampling norms and undermining the process of governance.
But the tendency for occupants of the Oval Office to misuse their power and violate norms in the process doesn’t simply disappear when the presidency transfers from one party’s control to another.
Biden’s excessive use of executive orders on issues about which Americans remain deeply divided, for example, was enough to prompt a scolding from even the Biden-friendly New York Times. And what about the promise that Biden would restore norms of governance, which we were told would present a stark contrast with the Trump administration’s flouting of them? Though nowhere near Trump’s record, the early picture is not entirely flattering for Biden.
Recently, Biden abruptly fired four members of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, including the commission’s chair and three other members who were only months into their four-year terms. The stated reason had nothing to do with their performance or any fireable offense they committed. Biden said he wanted to get rid of them so he could replace them with others who bring “a diversity of background and experience, as well as a range of aesthetic viewpoints.” Or, as the Washington Post put it, with a bit more honesty, “Spandle, Guillot and Fagan were appointed in January to four-year terms by President Donald Trump and made the CFA all White and all male.”
In other words, Biden’s anodyne statement about “diversity” and “range of aesthetic viewpoints” masks what was, in effect, a purge of Trump-era appointees; even NPR described it thus.
This is a departure from the media’s usual approach to Democratic presidents violating norms: When Republican presidents fire U.S. Attorneys from a Democratic president’s administration, for example, as George W. Bush and Trump both did, it is described as unprecedented and dangerous by the press; when a Democrat does it, as Biden recently did, it is described as “not uncommon.”
The Commission of Fine Arts is an independent federal agency that “reviews designs proposed for memorials, coins, medals, and new or renovated government buildings.” The CFA has a great deal of power over what Washington, D.C. looks like. Its reach extends beyond federal buildings and on to private property in historic sections of the city. It is considered a prestige appointment in the design world, but its decisions about what to approve are sometimes controversial.
None of the former commissioners fired by Biden wanted to leave, but they were given no choice: “The Biden administration sent letters to architect Steven Spandle, landscape architect Perry Guillot, sculptor Chas Fagan and commission chairman Justin Shubow asking that they resign by 6 p.m. that day or face termination,” the Post reported. Shubow was outspoken about what he perceived to be the reason. He “called the move unprecedented in the commission’s 110-year history and said the commissioners were targeted for their views on classical architecture.”
Indeed, they were. In a story about the Trump-era Commission written by the Washington Post’s art and architecture critic, Philip Kennicott, denounced what he described as the appointees’ “ideological conformity to a rigid doctrine of architectural classicism.” He also complained that “Trump made an arts commission all white, all male, and almost entirely mediocre”—as if the mere presence of white males created an intolerable situation that must be remedied (a strange line of reasoning from Mr. Kennicott, who is himself white and male). “Many of these men are partial to suit jackets and bow ties, a sartorial throwback to the imaginary age when America was ‘great,’ when White men like French, Gilbert, and Olmsted ran things without women or people of color being allowed to express an opinion,” Kennicott wrote.
The men he refers to—Daniel Chester French, who sculpted the large statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial; Cass Gilbert, who designed the U.S. Supreme Court; and Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the country’s most enduring public parks, including Central Park in New York—were among our nation’s finest designers and artists. But to Kennicott and his ideological companions, they are now reduced to caricatures in a woke drama, merely “white men.”
Kennicott urged Biden to fire the Trump appointees and replace them with “a diverse body of professionals, including women and people of color, who bring a wide and spirited range of aesthetic viewpoints to the commission’s monthly meetings.” And so, he has. Biden also revoked a Trump executive order to keep federal architecture classical (that is, to build federal buildings in more traditional styles such as Georgian, Greek Revival, Gothic, and Neoclassical).
Not mentioned by critics like Kennicott or the Biden administration is this salient fact: the overwhelming majority of Americans prefer classical architecture for their federal buildings, especially compared to the modernist alternatives. Elite designers might like the many Brutalist monstrosities that dot the landscape, including in Washington, D.C., where several such eyesores dominate L’Enfant Plaza and where the hideous concrete building that serves as the F.B.I. headquarters squats downtown. But when Trump called these buildings “undistinguished,” “uninspiring” and “just plain ugly” he wasn’t wrong—and most Americans agree with him.
It would be a shame if the Biden administration, which shares the cultural elite’s disdain for Trump, misdirected its hostility toward its predecessor by lashing out at the traditional architecture most Americans enjoy.
What a strange irony that the former president, who was an outsider to Washington and whose personal style leans towards the garish and gold-plated, actually did understand the need to preserve the classically beautiful, while the current president, who has spent most of his life working beneath the beautiful neoclassical dome of the Capitol, seems not to.