Last May, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, delivered one of the most stirring and important speeches of the Trump era without once deigning to mention the president’s name. He spoke after New Orleans pulled down four Confederate monuments, the culmination of a ferocious two-year political fight that included threats, armed right-wing protesters and a car being firebombed.
All around the country, there was a bitter debate about what to do with monuments to slavery and treason, most erected by white supremacists decades after the Civil War. Much of this debate, like our politics in general since November 2016, focused on the feelings of white voters who feared their history was being taken from them. So it was moving to hear a white Southern politician – a bluff, broad-shouldered guy who looks like a football coach in an inspirational Hollywood movie – try to see the statues from the perspective of his city’s African-American majority.
In the second decade of the 21st century, Landrieu said, “asking African-Americans – or anyone else for that matter – to drive by property that they own occupied by reverential statues of men who fought to destroy the country and deny that person’s humanity seems perverse. It seems absurd.” He argued that a city is entitled to choose whom it venerates. “Unlike when these Confederate monuments were erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people,” he said.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
It may be a sign of how starved we are for eloquent leadership that this speech led to talk of Landrieu as a potential presidential contender. That chatter has only picked up with the publication of Landrieu’s new book, “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History.” In Politico, Donna Brazile and James Carville were recently quoted cheering him on; Carville described him as a talent on the scale of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.
When I spoke to Landrieu in New York recently, he insisted he wasn’t laying the groundwork for a campaign and didn’t see a niche for himself in what will likely be a crowded field. Of course, that’s not quite a denial. I have no idea if he’d have a chance; I suspect he’s far too much of a centrist for most Democratic primary voters. (He certainly is for me.)
Still, I’m glad to see him celebrated, because he’s done something, in his speech and his book, that other politicians should emulate. He’s tried to reckon with America’s sins while offering an optimistic, big-hearted and deeply patriotic defense of cosmopolitanism as the source of American greatness.
American identity has always been contested, but for several decades before Donald Trump became president, there were areas of broad concord, ideas so widely accepted they were either invisible or cliché. Politicians from both parties called America a nation of immigrants. The Latin phrase “E pluribus unum” – out of many, one – was treated as a de facto national motto. Almost everyone in public life spoke of the Emma Lazarus poem mounted inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” – with reverence. Racist demagoguery obviously existed in our politics, but overt white nationalism was confined to the fringes.
Drawing on darker, older strains of U.S. history, Trump has systematically attacked this post-civil-rights-era consensus. It’s one reason his presidency feels to many of us like such an existential assault. In defending Confederate statutes, Trump has inveighed against removing historical symbols. Yet his administration is promiscuous in trashing the symbols of diversity. Indeed, for all his buffoonish ignorance, the power of symbols is something Trump understands far better than most politicians.
Under Trump, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has removed language from its mission statement about securing “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.” On the presidential coin – which presidents hand out as mementos – “E pluribus unum” has been replaced by “Make America Great Again.” Stephen Miller, an influential Trump adviser, dismissed Lazarus’ poem as something that “was added later and was not part of the original Statue of Liberty.”
The changes in American life under Trump, of course, aren’t just symbolic. Several metrics show increases in hate crimes. (Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, told me there were more hate crimes in November 2016 than in any November since federal record-keeping began in 1992.) White supremacy has become both more open and more mainstream: Fox News host Tucker Carlson does segments decrying demographic change and warning about an influx of unhygienic “Gypsies.”
Landrieu, the mayor of a city beloved for its hybrid, polyglot culture, is pushing back against this tide. In his book, he writes about serving in the state Legislature alongside David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, whom he sees as a predecessor to Trump. He describes the way many Louisiana Republicans, aware of Duke’s popularity with their own voters, failed to take him on, leaving a “sinister spectacle” in which truth was lost. It taught him, he writes, about the need to confront bigotry and pull it up from the root: “There is no other way forward.”
Trying to move forward and honor the diverse history of his city has cost Landrieu. Though people float his name for president, his stance on the Confederate monuments has probably made him unelectable to any statewide office. (One 2016 poll showed that 88 percent of white Louisianians opposed the monuments’ removal). “I’m not a hero, and I’m not particularly a courageous person,” he told me. “But at some point you have to be willing to lose your job to do the right thing. That’s the only time you really find freedom.”
In these bleak times, it’s a lesson many others in public life should heed.