The intellectual dishonesty of Trumpists’ foreign, domestic culture wars

The president has talked about destroying Iranian cultural sites. His propagandists want us to believe that when others destroy culture, it’s bad, but when we do it, it’s good.

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One morning, back in August of 2017, the gang on “Fox & Friends,” President Trump’s favorite news program, was in the midst of a feverish MAGA panic over nothing less than “the eradication of history,” as Laura Ingraham called it.

It was just days after the Charlottesville, Virginia protests, a violent and, in one tragic case, fatal clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters in which many of the former chanted slogans like “white lives matter” and “Jews will not replace us.”

Nevertheless, Trump had insisted, “Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”

”When you see bands of criminals, which is what they were yesterday, ripping down public property and being celebrated in the American media for doing so, we have a real problem on our hands,” seethed Ingraham on Fox.

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”How long,” she continued, “before they show up at Monticello, where I spent three years in law school at Charlottesville in Virginia? How long before they show up at Mount Vernon?”

”Or Mount Rushmore,” added Pete Hegseth.

The left’s persistent efforts to supposedly rewrite America’s sometimes ugly history has become such a cornerstone of Fox’s culture war coverage that more than a year later, Ingraham was talking about the destruction of Confederate statues again, this time, using even stronger language. “This recalls the kind of destructive mindset of let’s say, ISIS,” she said in December 2018. “Think about ISIS, what they did, they pillaged and they wiped away irreplaceable historical and religious monuments. From Palmyra — remember, in Syria? —simply because they could.”

In the wake of the U.S. killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Iraq, President Trump has threatened to target 52 Iranian sites if that country retaliates, “some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” he tweeted. Even as administration officials distanced themselves from the threat, he then reiterated it.

Never mind that the intentional targeting of cultural sites is an unambiguous war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention — which is likely why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper have publicly attempted to rule that out. At least one Fox friend was suddenly unconcerned with this particular culture war.

”I don’t care about Iranian cultural sites, and I’ll tell you why,” Pete Hegseth said Monday night. “If you understand the Islamic Republic of Iran, of Islamists, if they could come, if they had the power, they would destroy every single one of our cultural sites and build a mosque on top of it.”

Trump’s propagandists are known for many things. Intellectual consistency is not one of them. (Just ask them what they now think of American intelligence now that Trump is using it to justify the drone strike.) What we are genuinely being asked to believe is that when the American left destroys cultural sites like Confederate monuments, it’s bad.

When ISIS destroys cultural sites in Syria, it’s really bad. When Iran might do it, it’s triple-dog bad. But when Trump proposes it, it is right and just.

There are many reasons why destroying a culture’s important and unique history is an abominable idea. For one, as the late British scholar Paul Connerton wrote in “How Societies Remember,” the erasure of cultural memory is a technique perfected by totalitarian regimes, an act of “mental enslavement” and “forced forgetting” perpetrated against myriad societies throughout history, from the Jews in Nazi Germany to the Caucasus in the 2000s. We should not align with this worldview.

For another, destroying the sites, some of which are revered by perhaps 1.9 billion Islamic people around the world — or 25% of the population — is not only illegal and undemocratic, but likely a very bad political idea. If the president claims to love the Iranian people, bombing their shrines and statues hardly conveys that to them, or other Iranians and Muslims around the world.

Finally, the Islamic extremism espoused by Soleimani, as well as any other kind of extremist ideology, is dangerous and odious not just because of its indiscriminate violence, but because it attempts to erode and erase entire cultures. Trump’s explicit interest in attacking Iranian culture reeks of the very same extremism he and his cohorts routinely and rightly denounce.

It’s also antithetical to his promise to end “forever wars” and reverse George W. Bush’s interventionism. The opposite of nation-building is leaving a nation to its own cultural, political and structural affinities, not obliterating the ones America deems irrelevant or inherently malignant.

Here at home, what Trump’s proposal reveals is just how disingenuous his domestic culture war is. Trump’s supposed belief in the importance of national identity is a self-serving racket, a cheap trick he plays on his voters, many of whom do actually believe the parts of American culture they care about are being diminished. Preying on those anxieties wins him fans and voters, and so he does it. But destroying culture can’t only be bad when it belongs to us. And anyone who believes that cares little for the intrinsic value of culture — America’s or anyone else’s.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.

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