President Trump Is Gutting Arts Programs That Aren’t Causing the Deficit
According to The Independent, “It emerged over the weekend that Donald Trump is moving forward with his plans to axe the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.” This would be Trump’s first budget cut, but as The New York Times identifies, “Most of [these] programs cost under $500 million annually, a pittance for a government that is projected to spend about $4 trillion this year.” This move isn’t just fiscal bogus, as it would only save 0.0625% of the budget. It’s also deep reaffirmation of this presidency’s supposed core values: the arts have little — if any — place in contemporary America. They don’t seem fiscally profitable, so why not eliminate them?
What this proposed cut really represents, though, is a new crisis that affects all Americans — a crisis of culture. Our new president is fiscally arguing for the elimination of mainstream cultural voices: PBS, which currently receives $445.5 million from the government, will face a crippling loss if the cut passes. The NEA, “whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities” isn’t just a supposedly expensive target; it’s a vital part of a community that’s continually attacked, of a community, really, that’s always had to fight for its existence. A clear political agenda seems to be motivating this cut, one predicated on stifling the media and the press, those epitomes of culture, to start. What’s left, then, isn’t to defend the arts and humanities, to write about their place in American culture, and to celebrate just how critical they are in everyone’s life. It’s much too late for that. What’s left is to give this fiscal argument right back to Washington, not with the goal of making it understand or even of persuading it, but of making it appreciate how absurd its own argument is. Identifying and calling out the absurdity, cliché, and hypocrisy of American politics has become a goal we should all embrace.
The fiscal claim underlying this cut is an exercise in misleading economics that’s bound to convince even more Americans to stand against the arts. Comparatively, of 2015’s $1.11 trillion in discretionary spending, 53.71% went to the military, a fundamental aspect of any constitutional democracy. To be clear, I’m not making the economic argument against the military and for the arts. I am, however, raising the point of priorities. If money speaks anything of priorities in today’s America, a good indication of where we stand becomes obvious.
The cut is founded on the assumption that culture, quantitatively, isn’t worth saving: once again, the bank account over the library. Once again, the dollar over the critical thought. But that critical thought is what’s needed to defend any beliefs, regardless of partisanship. This move represents a renewal of American anti-intellectualism. It represents a new wave of hypocrisy against those learned (and sometimes misguided) ideals America was founded on. It represents an infinitude of claims to be made against it, but at its core, it represents bad fiscal policy. And if it’s anything of an indication of this president’s future stance toward the arts, the humanities, and culture by extension, then these communities have much to fear. But I’d urge anyone who believes they aren’t a part of these communities, who believes the arts and humanities are outdated, and that science and technology are money much better spent, to consider the misinformed, conspiratorial argument behind this cut: cut an inexpensive program and convince the people that the pursuit of culture is inherently conspiratorial.
Just what do I mean? For a while now, the president has argued against one of the strongest elements of cultural pursuit: the press. He’s called them “FAKE NEWS” and “an enemy of the American people,” which, he reminds, is “SICK.” Throughout, he’s done whatever possible to speak against those who prefer rhetoric over shouting. I am fortunate enough to work among individuals who see past this attack. At the same time, this is an incredible privilege, which all Americans don’t share. But this administration maintains that the only reason the press is arguing against conservative decisions is that we dislike conservatism. That we’re hurt over the election results. That we can’t give up eight years of previous power. Our real aim, however, is to argue about America, as each of us sees it. That isn’t just a goal of the press; it’s a goal of the people.
The president is working to disrupt that definition of journalism. For him, journalism seems an inherent exercise in contradiction. He says one thing and we seem to say the opposite. It happens too often, too pointedly. Thus, there’s some political agenda to blame. I won’t speak about how damaging this particular exchange is to American consciousness, but I will maintain that this exchange can (and maybe will) convince others to buy into this conspiratorial rhetoric. By pitting the presidency against the press, Trump is building a conspiracy of culture — that its pursuit is inherently useless because it’s already failing today, as supposedly evidenced by our press.
The cut argues that culture isn’t worth saving because it’s already failing. And it’s “failing” because Trump is trying to convince us of that. This seems like one part conspiracy, one part truth. And as The New York Times identifies, this is a recent, partisan phenomenon:
Even as Democrats decry the false claims streaming regularly from the White House, they appear to have become more vulnerable to unsupported claims and conspiracy theories that flatter their own political prejudices.
But most conspiracies are founded on some assumption of truth — however small, or of twisted opinion. Isn’t that, exactly, what Trump’s conception of the press is founded on?
We can debate the merits of saving the humanities all day. In fact, many lives are defined this way. But we should acknowledge, first and foremost, how this debate is colored by Trump’s fight against the press. The press is worth defending because culture is worth defending, and vice versa is also true. Slashing the NEA is just a misguided way of arguing against that. Lest we forget, and for all the wrong reasons, it’s also an incredibly convincing way of doing it.
George Goga is a writer and teacher from Buffalo, NY. Currently, he’s writing a book on the American life well–lived, and how it’s become harder to define than ever before. Twitter @GeorgeOGoga