When James Clapper, Obama’s former director of national security, said last night that he questions President Donald Trump’s “fitness to be in this office,” he was referring to the president’s mental faculties. The longtime national security analyst was being coy; in blunter terms, he appears increasingly convinced that the president is mad and “could be” a threat to his country’s national security.
This is an unforgiving assessment of a typically abrasive performance by the president on one of his mock campaign rallies—a confection whipped up by the president’s image-makers to indulge his egomaniacal belief that his volatility won him the White House. Clapper’s assessment is a little excessive considering what an obvious contrivance these exhibitions of presidential pique have become. The scene-chewing displays of grave offense taken on the president’s behalf by his supporters betray the validity of Clapper’s concerns.
“Nice try,” wrote radio host Laura Ingraham. “Crazy thing would be if @realDonaldTrump mimicked failed policies of the bipartisan Establ[ishment].” “Trump’s Crazy?” she continued. “No. THIS is crazy.” She provided a link to a story about the state of Connecticut struggling to pass a budget that reduces the state’s debt burden by cutting education and municipal aid grants. Truly bonkers stuff. Try to stay awake until you get to the part about median net tax-supported state debt per capita.
Partisan bickering over the president’s mental capacity is not new. It’s as American as apple pie, in fact, and a subject of more urgency only as a function of the phenomenal powers invested in that office. It’s one thing to concern ourselves with the unknowable mind of this president, but it’s something else entirely to obsess over the minds of the masses. Those are the thoughts with which so many seem preoccupied. Those thoughts might be wicked thoughts. And since wicked thoughts cannot be proscribed, their very inception must be interdicted. Down that road lies its own sort of madness.
The iconoclasm that seems to have consumed the Western world is a testament to this impulse. The terroristic attack on churchgoers in South Carolina in 2015 prompted Americans to engage in a wild, directionless lashing out at the symbols of the antebellum South. The Confederate battle flag that had flown over so many public spaces for decades came down. Statues that commemorated Confederate figures were vandalized. Many were removed (a purge that has been ongoing for two years and at a remarkable pace). Bubba Watson, the owner of the old Dodge Charger from the sitcom “Dukes of Hazzard,” had the Confederate flag that graced its roof removed as an act of penance. Oddly enough, these efforts did not eradicate violent racism.
Today, in the wake of another racist atrocity, we are taking our vengeance out on symbols. The scope of this backlash is, however, broader now. In New York City, the statue of J. Marion Sims, a 19th Century doctor who has been dubbed the “father of modern gynecology,” will come down. Sims conducted extraordinarily unethical experiments on African-Americans in his time, and his likeness is genuine effrontery. A 1931 sidewalk engraving honoring Philippe Pétain in the Canyon of Heroes will also be removed. Marshal Pétain was the hero of the Battle of Verdun, a hero of France in the interregnum period, and the head of the Vichy French government amid Nazi occupation. That last accommodation with evil is the man’s most enduring legacy.
Conservatives argue, though, that this retroactive application of modern ethical standards has no limiting principle. The iconoclasts are making their arguments for them.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 90-day review of “all symbols of hate on city property” allegedly now includes the famous monument to Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle. Officially, the reason for such a drastic move is that these statues offend indigenous people or those whose family roots are embedded in Caribbean soil. Unofficially, and more likely, is the activist’s claim that these statues “glorify racism.” Which is to say, they rehabilitate prejudice in the minds of… well, others.
Many an icon seems destined for the chopping block. “The propagation of racist monuments of settlers, like that of T.R., that glorify white supremacy is a message that we will not tolerate,” declared activist Claudia Palacios at a 2016 protest outside the American Museum of Natural History, where a statue of Teddy Roosevelt stands. In London, Admiral Horatio Nelson, a man his critics allege was a white supremacist, might have to go; Battle of Trafalgar be damned. The New York Post observed that the number of monuments to figures with racially questionable views is virtually innumerable. Benjamin Franklin, Fiorello La Guardia, Peter Stuyvesant, Philip Sheridan, Daniel Webster, and many others may have to come down. Identity-based movements that organize around the victimization of forebearers might find these monuments discomfiting, but they also could be putting the wrong ideas in the heads of… others.
The absurdity of this impulse was helpfully exemplified most recently by ESPN executives’ decision to sideline an Asian-American reporter by the name of Robert Lee. You see, his name is just too similar to that of Robert E. Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia, and people may get the wrong idea. That idea is, I suppose, that the reporters’ parents had posthumously honored this hero of the Old South by naming their son after him. Even General Lee’s old horse isn’t safe. The late general’s horse was named Traveller, which is much too close to Traveler, the white Arabian horse that is the University of Southern California’s mascot. ESPN’s executives aren’t confused about their reporter’s lineage. USC’s administrators know their school’s mascot isn’t a sop to racists. But other people might not.
The fear of what the presumably unenlightened multitudes might think is as much a preventative measure as it is a display of vanity. Rescuing others from the prospect of encountering deviant thoughts and, perhaps, agreeing with them is the act of the savior. Combating the stereotype of the Western redeemer who valiantly liberates the natives from their uncivilized conditions is a specter that haunts identity-based studies. You’d think the left would recognize that, but it seems they can only see this unlovely trait when it’s evinced in… others.