I never thought I’d hear this argument from the President of the United States, much less from a Republican whose fans fancy themselves hardcore patriots, but Donald Trump compared George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson yesterday.
The moment came during his off-the-rails press conference in which he doubled down on his “many sides” take on the violence in Charlottesville.
TRUMP: Those people — all of those people –excuse me, I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
Q Should that statue be taken down?
TRUMP: Excuse me. If you take a look at some of the groups, and you see — and you’d know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you’re not — but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.
So this week it’s Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?
There are only two groups of people who compare Washington to Lee: those who want to take Washington’s statue down by attaching to it the baggage of Lee, and those who want to keep Lee’s statue up by painting on the varnish of Washington. Trump either thinks Washington is just as bad as Lee or Lee is just as great as Washington.
It appears he thinks the later–he is arguing for keeping Lee’s statue up. The debate now isn’t about taking down George Washington’s statue. The fringe nut jobs who vandalize Washington’s statue represent a tiny minority. In Charlottesville, it was the elected mayor who chose to remove Lee’s statue, and the neo-Confederates came to protest for Lee, not for Washington. The question is easy enough to answer for any individual citizen: “I think we should remove Lee’s statue but keep Washington’s,” (or, “We should keep both,” or whatever your opinion is). For the President, someone who has a bully pulpit, it ought not be a challenge to make a case for the country rather than reacting to the false narratives of others.
It should be obvious to any rational person that Lee is no Washington, and this is a fallacious argument. The only comparison between the two Virginians is that both were top generals and both owned slaves. That’s where the similarities essentially end.
Washington won the independence of his country and then served as its first president, establishing democratic norms that persist to this day. Lee joined in the effort to tear the country apart, took up arms against his country, and contributed greatly to a tragedy that continues to divide the nation.
Washington was remembered and celebrated as America’s First President. Lee was remembered and is celebrated by those who celebrate him as the Commanding General of the Confederacy. That Washington owned slaves is incidental to what he is remembered for–a blotch on his record, as we now see it, not the defining factor. That Lee fought for the cause of defending slavery is inherent–it’s the reason he’s remembered.
Only someone whose moral or intellectual framework is broken could fail distinguish them.
Feature images from Wikipedia.