Why is heritage a dirty word? Trump, Robert E. Lee, and the global rise of the right

In his speech in Pheonix, Arizona on August 22nd, President Trump invoked an ideological trope typical of protectionist and nationalist rhetoric – heritage; “they are trying to take away our history and our heritage. You see that.” In doing so, he joined the current shift in the US and Europe towards protectionist, populist, and even openly right-wing political rhetoric and policies. With the prosperity of the early-2000s gone and global migration, in particular from the Global South, at a record high, messages about a threatened identity and culture are gaining traction, from dog whistles to outright propaganda.

Much like terms such as “homeland,” “fatherland,” or even “identity,” “our heritage” is a clever semantic creation and self-identification with a particular in-group. Whereas terms like homeland or fatherland create a specific geographic reach where these traits are shared, common, or prevalent, “heritage” provides us with a much more amorphous wink and nod, a secret handshake of cultural belonging predicated on shared cultural characteristics and a shared historical narrative. But this is far from just an American issue.

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Welcome refugees. Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse.

Shortly after Brexit, worries began to grow in Europe about a political shift to the right. Protectionist, populist, and openly right-wing political parties were on the rise. Their rhetoric was only too similar to Trump’s today, invoking ideas of a shared, traditional, national heritage that looks back on centuries of rich history and is now under attack from outside forces which want to dilute or even destroy it. Heritage and national identity were tied to ethnic and cultural characteristics such as language, social norms, values, and history, which were threatened by outside groups.

It’s a clever tactic, and one that resonates in particular with groups who feel that they have been “done wrong.” Through its emotional overtones, heritage is intended to stir up feelings of patriotism and togetherness in the intended in-group, thus psychologically binding them together into an entity (and, in turn, motivating them to (political) action). Heritage invokes a great past, a history to be proud of, but, for these groups, also the intervening lack of prosperity and sources of pride. These concepts of heritage dovetail neatly with an America that is not great, but needs to be “made great again.” A closer look reveals for whom America has lost its luster, and the autopsy of the 2016 election indicates exactly which groups responded to this rhetoric then and are responding to it now.

But heritage also contains a historical component; it invokes a particular historiography or historical narrative. The heritage that Trump invoked in his speech is not a common American heritage, but one codified in formalized memory in the form of monuments – monuments primarily to white males, erected to create territorial dominance and establish a formalized political and historical status quo. This heritage is not one of a melting pot, not the heritage of first generation Americans, not the heritage of minorities, but “our heritage,” the heritage of the culturally-dominant in-group to which Trump himself belongs. Even that is not a purely American phenomenon.

In places with contested historical narrative like former Yugoslavia, the states of the former Soviet Union, or the former German Democratic Republic, claims about heritage, memory, and identity aren’t a dog whistle; they’re an outright war cry. More than just the simple negation of individual biographical memory, the invocation of heritage implies a single legitimate heritage – one which delegitimizes all others. The invocation of ‘the’ heritage establishes a form of cultural identity dominance which, with its tautological implicit meaning and the in-group backing it, kicks the knees out from any other possible legitimate heritage. Monuments, street names, and significant buildings simply underline this legitimacy, giving it literal concrete form – history written in stone.

Trump’s use of the term “heritage” is not just indicative of the deep racial and cultural divides that exist in the Unites States today. What’s more disturbing is the active promulgation of an “us-versus-them” thinking from the highest levels of our government. And even more worrying – it’s nothing new. The rhetorical patterns are things we’ve seen before from other populist and nationalist leaders. Incendiary rhetoric about shared heritage creates groups whose protectionist stances lead them, as we saw in Charlottesville as in countless other examples, to the point of violence. When this position is condoned by the highest levels of government, and the pluralization of the built symbols of the formal national narrative are called into question, the rhetoric of the right gains a dangerous level of legitimacy.

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Nationalist election posters from 2016 in Berlin. “For our language, culture, identity.” Photo: Dellenbaugh-Losse

Which brings us back to Robert E. Lee. Memorials do not remind us of history in a neutral way, but rather highlight particular events or people as worthy of special honor and remembrance. Memorialization helps to codify and solidify a common social and political identity by presenting and representing a formally-accepted version of history. It presents avatars for the characteristics and qualities that we as a society stand for. In memorialization, as with the invocation of “heritage,” history gains a strong ideological component, in part based on the countless other historical figures or events which could have been memorialized, but weren’t. We react against the presence of memorials to Confederate generals as not representative of today’s American society, but even more glaring is the absence of a memorial anywhere in the United States to honor and remember the slaves themselves. Where are the memorials to abolitionists and the slaves brave enough to rise up against a system of hatred and debasement? Why, instead of openly including slavery into the formal history codified by monuments, did Congress instead opt for a more neutral National Museum of African American History and Culture, which only opened last year?

Heritage has the potential to include, but only if the historical narrative that we’re drawing on includes more than just the heroes and avatars of the culturally-dominant group. Our modern, globalized world is one of plural identities – multiple nationalities, multiple belongings, multiple homes, and multiple histories. Official history may be written by the victors, but it can’t erase the memories of the masses. Thus it remains to us, the public, to establish and re-establish the existence of the historiography that’s not included in history books or codified in the urban landscape. It’s up to us to remember, and to give voice and form to those memories, even when our political leaders don’t.

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