In his press conference on Tuesday, President Donald Trump asked whether the push to take down Confederate monuments would lead to the removal of statues for George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. On Wednesday’s Trumpcast, Jamelle Bouie addressed the comparison. You can also read Bouie’s longer response to Trump’s Tuesday remarks. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Jamelle Bouie: I’ve spent entirely too much time of my life reading neo-Confederate apology, and that comparison—if Robert E. Lee now, what about George Washington next?—is sort of typical of those arguments. Elevating Lee, and Trump also mentioned Stonewall Jackson (and there’s also a Stonewall Jackson statue in Charlottesville), elevating those two figures with men like Washington and Jefferson—even among mainstream conservatives you see statements like, “Oh there’s a slippery slope between taking the Lee statues and taking down someone like Jefferson.”
Jacob Weisberg: First they came for the Confederate generals. Then they came for the ordinary Confederate soldiers. Then the came for the Founding Fathers. Then they came for me.
Bouie: So if I’m reading that stuff in good faith then I think they error they’re making is that they’re saying, “OK, Lee was a slaveholder. Jefferson was a slaveholder. So what distinguishes the two? Why not take Jefferson down along with Lee?”
The answer is that, yes, Jefferson was a slaveholder, Washington was a slaveholder, but the reason we memorialize them is not because of their slaveholding. We memorialize them because one wrote the Declaration of Independence, and one led the Continental Armies and basically formed the model for the presidency. And while their public memories should include the fact that they owned slaves—I think it should be pretty central to how we remember them—in terms of memorializing there is material for creating a broad narrative that everyone can buy into. That was basically the whole project of the musical Hamilton.
Lee is only famous because he led Confederate armies. If secession had never happened and the Confederacy had never come into existence, Lee would have lived his live and died as an obscure member of the United States military. You can’t untangle him from the Confederacy. And if you look at even a cursory history of the memorialization of the Confederacy, it all pops up in the 1890s and 1900s and 1910s, as Jim Crow was being codified. These statues were explicitly raised as symbols of Jim Crow and of white supremacy.
So 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.