In his late may commencement address at the Naval Academy, President Trump chose to remind the graduating cadets and their families of a particular aspect of American history. “Our ancestors conquered a continent,” he said. This point is part of a larger attack on “cynics and critics” who “denigrate America’s incredible heritage.” Like many of Trump’s actions as president, the speech was a reminder that his particular brand of nationalism takes a keen interest in the meaning of the American land.
Even among its other scandals, the Trump administration has drawn attention for its anti-environmental initiatives: withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, ending the Clean Power Plan, and pressing for more drilling offshore and on public land, among many others. These policies cater to the administration’s economic constituencies, to be sure. But they are also about how Trumpian nationalism lays claim to American nature.
Nature comes from the Latin root for birth, as in natal, the common origin of everyone. It shares that root with native, as in native land—where a person was born—and so it’s also aligned with nativism, the doctrine that ties political identity and membership to someone’s land of birth, and with nationalism, the myth that defines a people by their birth from a certain land. For centuries this myth has claimed blood and soil as identity, sovereignty, and passport. Trump’s nationalism, too, is bound up in American landscapes, in fights over what makes this place precious and who really belongs here.
Last December, Trump issued two orders that removed more than a million acres of federal land from Bears Ears National Monument and more than 800,000 acres from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, both in southern Utah. The immediate effect was to open much of the declassified land to mining for coal and uranium and drilling for oil and gas. This was also a dramatic assertion of presidential power, marking the first time national monuments have been shrunk in more than half a century. With suits underway before a federal judge in Washington, D.C., it will be the first time the president’s power to shrink or eliminate monuments has been tested in court. But it is also a first look at how Trumpian nationalism could shape the American landscape.
These monument lands were in the administration’s sights because a network of right-wing Western activists were fixated on them. In their description, the West is a colony of Washington, the federal government is an imperial power, and the public land in their counties should belong to the local public, the people who ride and hunt on it year-round and would like to have work mining and timbering it. [Continue reading…]