In the days following the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, President Trump mourned Confederate monuments being removed from public lands.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump said in a series of tweets. “You can't change history, but you can learn from it.”
“Who's next, Washington, Jefferson?” he questioned.
But changing history is what some critics say the president did by scaling back significant parts of a national monument honoring Native Americans, who say the move erases their contributions to the American story.
Trump announced Monday that his administration is greatly reducing acreage of two national monuments in Utah, removing about 85 percent of the designation of Bears Ears National Monument and nearly 46 percent of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. In December of last year, President Barack Obama, through the Antiquities Act, created Bears Ears. It is the only monument designated at the request of a coalition of Native American tribes: Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Ute.
There are obvious differences between monuments honoring Confederates and Native Americans. One set honors rebel politicians and military members who fought to keep slavery. The other is a vast swath of federally protected land that is home to Native American petroglyphs recording 2,000 years of history.
Trump argues that reducing the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was designated by Bill Clinton, when he was president, aims to “reverse federal overreach.” He said during a Salt Lake City rally that he took dramatic action “because some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of very distant bureaucrats located in Washington. And guess what? They’re wrong.”
But the reduction of monuments honoring one group, but defense for keeping another, raises the question: What parts of history does the president value? And how could Americans' view of history shift under his presidency?
Trump’s view of history is political, Princeton University presidential historian, Julian Zelizer argues.
“The defense of Confederate monuments aims to appeal to groups who are sympathetic to the conservative, and often white nationalist, nostalgia tied to a defense of these,” said Zeiler. “Defending these monuments is a defense against liberalism. The attack on the Bear monuments is an attack against conservation and the notion that the government should do anything to protect lands.”
What the two types of monuments do have in common is how they lay bare questions about the president's willingness to recognize the histories of American minority groups. While some question the breadth of Trump's knowledge of American history, few question his knowledge of his base. To his supporters, the monuments he scaled back this week, designated by his Democratic predecessors, symbolize government overreach. The Confederate monuments represent Southern pride.
One could also argue that Trump may not know that his comments or decisions on U.S. monuments could be interpreted as disrespectful to some black and Native American people. But it's more likely that the president understands that his view of history is most supported by his base.