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    Reflecting on Trump's Infrastructure Agendas and Cultural Projects, Part 1

    Patrick McAndrews
    May 21, '22 6:55 PM EST

    Reflecting on Trump's Infrastructure Agenda and Cultural Projects
    Part 1: 'Infrastructure Weak'

    As I write this, news of Trump backed US House and Senate candidates winning Republican primaries across the country has been sweeping the headlines and are leading stories on our TVs, radios, phones, and computers. As such, I thought it was worth revisiting some of the architecture and infrastructure related policies that the Trump Administration pushed during its  short but impactful tenure in the White House. I think this reminder of how the architecture and construction industry was effectively co-opted by the Trump political agenda is important to keep with us as we move forward.

    In the wake of the novel Coronavirus pandemic, the Trump White House announced an ‘Infrastructure Week’ with talk of combating both the pandemic and an aging infrastructure in the United States. This infrastructure media blitz never fully materialized but Trump’s supporters drafted and pushed proposals that would go well beyond rudimentary transportation improvements. In early 2020, a draft executive order circulated that would mandate the use of European Neoclassical architecture styles in federal construction.  Near the end of his term, Trump signed this executive order with the expressed intent of making new federal infrastructure distinctly more European looking again.

    Democrats introduced  plans of their own, including infrastructure spending on provisions for community health centers, federal grants for water and wastewater utilities, and other measures intended to improve critical infrastructure related to a “Green New Deal”.  But Republicans insisted that these measures were political and beyond the scope of infrastructure and the pandemic, arguing in more abstract terms about upgrading roads and bridges. Meanwhile, Trump and his supporters were drafting infrastructure proposals well beyond their stated scopes. 

    It is an all too obvious and tired refrain; core infrastructure in the United States needs to be dramatically improved. Yet infrastructure investments in affordable housing, improving our energy grid, lowering our carbon footprint, improving our communications infrastructure, and protecting our national preserves and parks were demonized. Programs that didn’t fit into Trumpism’s cultural values were dismissed as political and incongruous. Republicans defined infrastructure firmly within their own Trumpian cultural aesthetics and thrust this one-sided onerous on their opponents. 

    All too often infrastructure is perceived to be an empty container that can be filled with different meanings for different people. This diagnosis neatly obscures the substantial effects that larger cultural and economic projects have on our infrastructure plans and allocations. In fact, infrastructure isn’t a container at all, it is the skeletal structure of any number of ideological bodies built from culture and politics. These structures become the foundation by which we live and interact in our daily lives. We can see quite clearly that the great infrastructure plans of the past century are structured with political and cultural significance from the onset.  Roosevelt’s New Deal programs including rural electrification and subsidized housing were examples of social welfare infrastructure. Robert Moses’ New York City urban planning legacies are rife with discrimination as his frameworks of segregation and impoverishment are still operating today. The post-war interstate system significantly subsidized white flight to the suburbs and in conjunction with federal redlining and racially restrictive covenants, was infrastructure upholding white supremacy. Political and cultural ideologies were the basis of each of these infrastructure icons. In their fruition, those ideologies are defended, fostered, and expanded.

    The Trumpian “Infrastructure Week”, even if it may have seemed devoid of political underpinnings, was an aesthetic camouflage. It was also a peak under the curtain of the Trumpian cultural agenda. The policies to realize politically and culturally Trumpian infrastructure were coherent and included: whitewashing the federal Design Excellence program into a monolithic MAGAtecture apparatus, outspoken protection and support of confederate monuments and statues, and construction of the massive yet dysfunctional southern border wall. Each of these policy points occupied a significant niche in the ‘MAGA’ infrastructure ecosystem and they haven’t disappeared after Trump’s defeat in 2020.

    The vague ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan resonated with those who saw the U.S. in a dark era sandwiched between an ambiguously triumphant past and the potential future of rebirth and reenactment of those abstract achievements under a Trump aligned administration. Such tones of restorative nostalgia were the hallmarks of the wide Trumpian lens of American exceptionalism. The broad strokes of this nostalgia established two dominant sub-narratives of the administration’s progress towards greatness thus far: Trump vanquishing the evil liberal agenda to save the American right from such horrors and Trump razing the establishment to the ground with anger, vengeance, and fire. In reality, these narratives that pervade many subreddits and other dark corners of cyberspace are a singular perspective. Trumpism seeks a controlled burn- at once lighting the fire to raze a supposed establishment politics and culture (presumably Democrats and more centrist Republicans) to the ground while saving the parts of the country that support him from the same fire. Thus, Trumpian cultural criticism stands as a binary; all cultural elements must be patrolled to remove the immoral and corrupt. Cultural touchstones that directly or indirectly back a ‘MAGA’ perspective are maintained while those that contradict such narratives are condemned and discarded. The nostalgic arbiters of these aesthetics see artifacts such as historical white hegemony - in westward expansion, southern plantation hospitality, and the Eurocentric foundation of the constitution and construction of the U.S. capital- as culturally good and politically neutral. All other perspectives and narratives are judged as culturally corrosive and politically fraught. These cultural aesthetic evaluations extend from paintings, literature, music, and movies to statues, monuments, architecture, and other infrastructural elements.

    In the coming weeks, I intend to lay out some of the above arguments in a more granular form. For now, please feel free to let me know what you think;  how does your architecture and construction background inform your political views? How about the other way around?

    I'll be releasing new posts each weekend ahead of the 2022 midterm elections this fall.

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off-NARRATIVES: is a space for the exploration of detours in architecture and design discourse. The blog's inception is in alignment with the "off-modern" perspective; drawing from the works and teachings of the Svetlana Boym among other writers and thinkers in the 20th and 21st centuries. off-NARRATIVES: seeks to contribute to contemporary architectural discourse through observations, essays, book reviews, serial narratives, and other works of original research and theory.

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