So, it was a perfect setting for the speech Trump gave there Friday, full of bland generalizations about the greatness of American culture, punctuated by dark declarations of a fundamental rift in American society. This was a speech loaded with references to scale, in all four dimensions, to things that are vast and great and immortal. And it was an effort to scale up particular grievances into broad national rifts, to claim that protesters who seek equal treatment and dignity for African Americans are not protesting against police violence, but rather seek to dismantle America and western culture.
Mount Rushmore was conceived as a tourist attraction in the early 1920s, and carving of the four faces — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt — began in 1927. This is the same period John D. Rockefeller began gathering property in Williamsburg, Va., in an effort to preserve the town and with it a fantasy history of America’s colonial period. The perceived need for a collective history, for monuments at the national scale, was particularly strong in this period, and in the years after, as the United States suffered a deep and lasting Depression, and as totalitarian ideologies gained ground and conquered almost all of Europe. Democracy, it seemed, demanded its own brand of unifying kitsch, something as powerful and effective as the enticing, mass-media lies that demagogues in Germany, Italy and Spain were selling.
The psychology of giant art parallels the psychology of giant, ideological political systems. It is not meant to be looked at closely and only “reads” if the viewer is kept at a certain distance. It dwarfs those who view it, which not only inflates the power of the thing represented but also demotes the individual power of the spectator. It makes our agency seem irrelevant and meaningless.
It also implicates the viewer in the illusion far more intricately than other kinds of art. It must be seen from one perspective, from a certain distance, and if you violate those demands — if say, you get close enough to look up Jefferson’s nostrils — you see just how contrived and blunt the work is.
Alfred Hitchcock gave us a view of presidential nostrils in “North by Northwest,” with its thrilling, absurdist chase scene in which Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint descend the colossal faces in a frantic effort to escape their mysterious and shady pursuers. The film used a stage set of the sculpture along with footage shot on site. Whether Hitchcock intended any particular allegory in that scene — he claimed the film was intended purely as an entertainment — it effectively dramatizes the idea that national myths are not to be looked at too closely.
Mount Rushmore may be a gigantic piece of sculpture, but it functions more like popular film, though not at the level of Hitchcock. It demands we acquiesce passively to its power rather than explore it from all sides, critically and over an extended period of time. Like a lot of popular entertainment, its effect is mostly spent in the audience’s first encounter with it. Once you’ve seen Mount Rushmore, you don’t really need to go back, unless you have children and you want them to mythologize the past.
Trump’s rhetoric is to ordinary political discourse what Mount Rushmore is to sculpture. It only functions at the macroscopic level, eliding detail and nuance. Trump generalizes because generalization is a way of scaling up every claim such that it can no longer be measured against actual experience. Even people who might be susceptible to his most racist claims — that, for example, Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists — will likely number among their general acquaintance immigrant friends, neighbors, colleagues and fellow parishioners who do not embody any of the slanderous generalizations the president has leveled at them. For Trump’s rhetoric to be effective, we must always keep real people at a distance and think only in the generalizations of caricature and stereotype.
One passage from Trump’s speech makes this explicit. In an effort to equate critical assessment of American history with anti-Americanism, Trump focused on the idea of scale, arguing implicitly that Americans are looking at their history too closely. When you begin to understand men such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as mortal and flawed figures, you lose what Trump sees as the grand narrative arc of America. Seen up close, history becomes “a web of lies” and “every flaw is magnified until the history is purged and the record is disfigured beyond all recognition.”
The only way to increase the power of monumental sculpture is to increase the size. And yet with each effort to outdo the last attempt at gigantism, the whole game begins to feel a little silly, and sad. Even the pyramids in Egypt, impressive as they are, seem to hector us across the ages, with Ozymandian futility. After you’ve enjoyed the awe and spectacle of the Great Pyramid, outside of Cairo, you may think: What a terrified little man the pharaoh Khufu must have been.
The power of Trump’s rhetoric can only be increased by scaling up the grievance he is selling, making it seem all-encompassing, heightening the supposed conflict between us and them. On Friday, Trump also used Mount Rushmore to make cultural conflict seem an ineradicable part of American life. With frequent reference to things that are immortal, permanent, ancient and lasting, Trump offered a grim view of the American future, with his supporters always angry, always wary, always at war with people who look too closely, who scrutinize too critically the giant myths embodied behind him.
Giant sculpture implies permanence. What is huge is not easily torn down or dismantled. It doesn’t just represent the idea of bigness — that, say, Lincoln’s legacy is vast and lasting — it tries to ensure the supposed truth of its message by making it too big to be effaced or toppled.
Yet giant things falter and fail all the time. Trump accidentally alluded to that in his telling choice of the word titan. “Uplifted by the titans of Mount Rushmore, we will find unity that no one expected,” he said, which is to say, inspirited by nationalist kitsch, we will whitewash history.
The titans, of course, were a race of gods that preceded the Greek gods of Olympus. They were defeated, captured, bound and imprisoned in Tartarus by the gods we all learned about in grade school: Zeus and his rapacious clan of divine grifters. Whoever wrote the speech seems ignorant of one of the great themes of western culture, the Titanomachy, or war between the Olympian and Titanic deities, carved and painted for centuries longer than the United States has existed.
So, one race of gods succeeds another, and impermanence is the only permanent thing. Perhaps Mount Rushmore will still be there, “centuries from now,” as the president promised. But it won’t mean what Trump tried to make it mean on Friday. Rather, we will say of this giant, overzealous effort to create a national pantheon of great men, what we say of the old Olympian deities whose power was founded on crime and whose survival depended on the imprisonment of their predecessors: It is strange, but people once believed in them.