The Mall is fundamentally a civic rather than a military space.
The grounds around the Lincoln Memorial have become cluttered with war memorials, but the best of those, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was also conceived as a place of reconciliation. It doesn’t celebrate the war whose fallen it honors. Rather, it focuses entirely on the pain of loss, and the memory of those who died. It is the opposite of bellicose, a place for national healing rather than a patriotic display, which is why it was so controversial when it was new.
The drama of Civil War reconciliation was often hollow, a whitewash of sentiment over the divisions of a country that was fully engaged in the racism of Jim Crow and segregation. But over the past century, the monumental central axis of the nation’s capital has evolved from a particular statement about post-Civil War reconciliation to a broader one about reconciling national ideals with national realities. The Lincoln Memorial, which has the words “to bind up the nation’s wounds” inscribed on its walls, isn’t just a grand edifice ideal for photo-ops and television spectacle. It exerts gravitational pull on people who sense a contradiction in what the nation claims to be and what it is in fact. A memorial to this country’s most thoughtful president is now the locus of a basic kind of civic thinking: How can we reconcile our treatment of African Americans, people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, women, the poor and the unemployed, and LGBT people with the basic thesis that “all men are created equal”?
The gravitas of this place also exerts a pull on politicians who want to lay claim to its emotional power and aspirational symbolism. The Mall is appropriate for the quasi-political pomp of inaugurations in part because most inaugurations include some kind of call for national unity. Donald Trump is not the first politician to attempt to intertwine his personal brand with the nation’s most revered brand, Lincoln, and Lincoln’s call for “a lasting peace among ourselves.”
But no president since the Civil War has been more uninterested in the rhetoric of healing and unity than Donald Trump. It is difficult to express how deeply repugnant his effort to politicize this space is to commonly held American ideals. The display of tanks near the Lincoln Memorial is just a bitter and expensive absurdity compared with the co-option of Lincoln’s temple for the personal aggrandizement of a man who celebrates political violence, who proudly calls himself a “counterpuncher,” and who regularly tweets insults calculated for maximum divisiveness. In the long arc of Trump’s public career, there isn’t a shred of evidence that he understands who Lincoln was, what he stood for and how he accomplished it.
And it isn’t just a matter of symbols or rhetoric. The aesthetics of Trump are the opposite of the aesthetics of the Mall, which took form during the progressive era, at a moment when many in public life were deeply concerned about the evolution of the country into a commercial leviathan. In cities such as New York and Chicago, great fortunes were being made building up into the sky, asserting the power and privilege of wealth. Markets were unstoppable, commercial development proceeded like a forest fire and the streetscapes of our great trading enclaves expressed the frenzied ambition of untrammeled capitalism.
Washington would not go in that direction. By design, it would remain a horizontal city, and it would be rich in public space. It would not have a skyline, and even today, Beaux-Arts palaces such as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and the Library of Congress’s Thomas Jefferson Building look a little out of place, a little too fancy, a little too sympathetic to Gilded Age ideas of luxury rather than classical ideals of openness and access.
Fundamentally, Washington is one of the few cities in this country that considers beauty to be integral to its identity. Other cities have beautiful things, beautiful buildings and beautiful parks, and many have more beautiful settings. But Washington came of age under the influence of the City Beautiful movement, which felt there was an essential connection between beautiful design and our higher political and civic ideals.
And that’s why Trump’s Fourth of July spectacle feels so wrong, why so many people who live in Washington feel that his use of the Mall for a personal political rally violates sacred space more egregiously than many previous efforts to trash democratic norms. Washington is not a perfect city any more than America is a perfect country. But if you live here, you quickly come to feel that the beauty of this city transcends the ugliness of politics, that there is something fine and lasting in the city’s design that can never be spoiled, no matter which party holds office and what administration is running things.
People will often ask you, has Trump changed the city? And when it comes to how Washingtonians feel about their homes, their neighbors, their colleagues and the splendor of the city itself, the answer has been no. But now he intends to lay hold of the best, most perfect part of the city, to claim for his own purposes a civic celebration that has long been a festival of diversity, inclusion and old-fashioned, mostly apolitical fun. The Fourth of July, in Washington, is beloved because for a moment, the city feels whole, and one can imagine that perhaps someday the country will feel whole, too. It is a fantasy, but a fantasy we abandon at our peril.
The president isn’t interested in wholeness, nor in Lincoln, nor healing of any sort. He has an unerring sense for what is ugly in our public life, and after exercising that strange talent on the national and international stage, he will make a show of it here, in our home. And that hurts.