With a little more than two weeks left in his presidency, Donald Trump suggested at a Monday night rally in Dalton, Georgia, that when the Department of Defense, against his wishes, eventually changes the name of a Georgia military base honoring a Confederate hero, the base should be renamed after him.
"Give me a couple of names," Trump asked the crowd, when fishing for a new name for Fort Benning. Someone volunteered "Fort Trump," an idea that the Polish government once proposed, apparently in earnest.
"Fort Trump! Yeah, how about that? I like that. Yeah, let's change the name. Let's change it. Kelly [Loeffler], let's change it," Trump said, calling out the embattled Republican senator who had joined him onstage ahead of her critical runoff election on Tuesday. "If they name it Trump, let's change it."
Twitter users had considerable fun with that moment, but former senior White House adviser Sebastian Gorka, whose Twitter bio says he is a "DoD presidential appointee," was quick to cheer for it: "Who wants there to be a 'Fort Trump?!'"
(In some distant, technical sense, Gorka's bio may be correct: Last July, Trump appointed him to the National Security Education Board, part of a scholarship and grant outreach program under the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.)
Perhaps the "Fort Trump" idea fits this president especially well. He has spent the last four years battling his own military, has repeatedly defended Confederate heroes since his first year in office, and whose defiance of the democratic process has sparked discussion about secession among his supporters.
Fort Benning, Georgia, roughly a three-hour drive south of the site of Monday night's rally, is one of 10 U.S. military installations that honor generals who fought for the Confederacy. Confederate Gen.Henry L. Benning was more than an armed steward of the rebel cause — he was also Georgia's commissioner to the Virginian secession convention, and argued for war specifically on the grounds that "a separation from the North was the only thing that could prevent the abolition of her slavery."
In a convention speech on the eve of the Civil War, Benning, apparently concerned that the Confederacy was insufficiently committed to slavery, urged the South toward violence, for fear that one day Georgia might be led by Black elected officials as a consequence of abolition.
"If things are allowed to go on as they are, it is certain that slavery is to be abolished," Benning said. "By the time the North shall have attained the power, the black race will be in a large majority, and then we will have black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything. Is it to be supposed that the white race will stand for that?"
Benning went on to say that if the South lost the war, white people would be "completely exterminated" and the land would revert to "wilderness" and "become another Africa." He would rather, he said, suffer "pestilence and famine" than see Frederick Douglass, a Black man and former slave, elected president.
Though it took more than 14 decades, Benning's final fear came to pass with the election of Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, in 2008. Georgia still has not seen a Black governor, although Stacey Abrams narrowly lost to Brian Kemp in 2018 in an election marred by evident vote suppression.
Such was the vision of one of the men whose memory Trump has defended, often by name, when he pushed back this year against the overwhelmingly bipartisan movement to rechristen the country's military installations that currently honor treasonous Rebel officers.
In June, the Republican-led Senate Armed Services Committee voted to rename the bases as part of the Pentagon's annual defense policy bill. Trump immediately vowed the administration would veto any such effort. The move "shocked" military leaders, after Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy expressed openness to the idea amid the nationwide reckoning on race sparked by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
"It has been suggested that we should rename as many as 10 of our Legendary Military Bases, such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Hood in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, etc," Trump tweeted at the time, employing his usual eccentric capitalization and referencing bases named for Confederate generals.
"These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom," the president wrote — describing military bases named for generals who fought and lost an immensely destructive war against their own country, in an effort to ensure that Black people remained enslaved.
"Therefore, my Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!" Trump concluded. By "our Military," the president presumably meant the U.S. Army, which won a conclusive victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War, albeit at the cost of more than 360,000 troops.
Trump's commitment to Benning's memory drew swift rebuke from retired Maj. Gen. Paul D. Eaton, former commanding officer at Fort Benning, who released a statement blasting Trump for standing "shoulder-to-shoulder" with "racist traitors" against the ideals of the Army.
Today, Donald Trump made it official. Rather than move this nation further away from institutionalized racism, he believes we should cling to it and its heritage, by keeping the names of racist traitors on the gates of our military bases. These bases were named long after the Civil War was over, by whites who wanted to fight back against progress towards racial equality. Donald Trump stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them, and against the ideals that the United States Army stands for.
The annual defense policy bill, officially known as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), has never presented a problem for any president: The broad popularity of the military along with the sheer scope of the annual legislation has helped ensure its passage for 59 straight years. Trump dug in on this issue, however, even firing Defense Secretary Esper for working with a bipartisan group of lawmakers to draft language stripping U.S. bases of their Confederate names.
By the time the bill arrived on Trump's desk last month, he had already lost re-election, but made good on his threat to veto the bill, daring Congress to override the veto — something that had not happened throughout his first term.
In Trump's veto statement on Dec. 11, he specifically singled out the base issue. "I have been clear in my opposition to politically motivated attempts like this to wash away history and to dishonor the immense progress our country has fought for in realizing our founding principles," said the president, even as he battled to overturn the result of a democratic election.
Georgia's two Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, facing tight runoff elections and trying to walk a fine line between Trump's whims and the need to be perceived as supporting the military in a red state, both voted to pass the NDAA, although Loeffler had previously spoken out against renaming the Confederate bases. ("I have been clear from the beginning that we do NOT need to rename our bases and I will work with [Trump] to remove this provision once and for all," she tweeted on July 21.)
On Dec. 11, the two Peach State multimillionaires issued a joint statement explaining their vote: "This critical defense bill fully funds our military, gives our troops a significant pay raise, prioritizes our military families, and continues to improve military housing. While there were several provisions we would have changed, our main mission is to support our military."
The Senate overrode Trump's veto on Jan. 1, but neither Georgia senators cast a vote. Perdue was in quarantine after contact with a COVID-positive staff member. Loeffler's absence from the Senate floor was unexplained, but three days later she was at Trump's rally in Dalton, getting called out to help the president rename Fort Benning in his honor.