Manufacturing Heritage: History-Making at Trump National
Last week a stirring Civil War memorial in Sterling, Virginia was ridiculed for its commemoration of a Potomac River engagement at a site known as “the river of blood.” The gorgeous riverside spot on the Trump National Golf Club was dramatically remodeled after Donald Trump purchased the former Lowes Island Club in 2009. Part of that remodeling included the placement of a war memorial between the 14th and 15th holes commemorating a slaughter of “many great Americans, both of the North and South” whose blood reputedly turned the Potomac crimson. The plaque at the bottom of a flagpole exclaims “It is my great honor to have preserved this important section of the Potomac River!–Donald John Trump.”
Northern Virginia has a rich landscape of Civil War sites, and the memorial to Civil War dead is perhaps earnest, but there is no evidence that such a battle occurred along the shores of the present-day Trump course. When Trump was challenged this month over the details of this otherwise undocumented battle, he replied with characteristic arrogance that the location “was a prime site for river crossings. So, if people are crossing the river, and you happen to be in a civil war, I would say that people were shot—a lot of them.” When pressed that he had manufactured a historical event, Trump dismissed demands for scholarly verification: “Write your story the way you want to write it. You don’t have to talk to anybody. It doesn’t make any difference. But many people were shot. It makes sense.” Faced with scholars’ challenges, Trump protested ““How would they know that? Were they there?”
Trump’s established disregard for fact makes his contrived battle memorial an easy target for ridicule, but it plays a well-received populist note. Trump appears to place little faith in scholarship and academic voices, instead privileging “common sense” sentiment and plausibility. Trump’s sentimental commitment to celebrate the Civil War manufactures a place-based historical narrative less as a “lie” than as a clumsy mechanism to commemorate the war and leverage the appeal of narrowly defined Civil War heritage. Trump’s memorial imagines a war without villains, celebrating the common soldiers’ experience and skirting all the Civil War’s ideological complications and historical realities. Trump National’s picture of the war is a shallow fantasy about noble battle spun in service to a very modest and exceptionally wealthy audience. Trump’s marker also historicizes a golf course, a manufactured ecological aberration torn from the rolling terrain and woods that are so closely associated with northern Virginia’s Civil War landscape.
Trump’s heritage simply seeks some measure of plausibility, presenting entertaining historical imagination valued for its appeal more than its claim on authenticity; in that sense, Trump’s heritage borrows from television’s tendency to value emotional imagination over memory and intellectual authority. Trump is by no means alone in his confident instinctual vision of the past or his rejection of historical memory and scholarly narrative, favoring pleasant imaginations of history that resonate with our own sentiments about human nature, community, and the nation. The Trump National’s misplaced monument and manufactured battle are perhaps nothing more than a contrived self-aggrandizing heritage for a handful of very wealthy golfers. However, Trump’s willingness to manufacture shallow historical events–and reject any scholarly interpretation that ruffles his position–simply sidesteps captivity, class, racism, and the host of issues that make the war fascinating and utterly alive today.