Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, he has already attempted to go forward with some of the promises he made while campaigning. There has already been an executive order to bar people from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, an order to build a wall along the Mexican border and a threat to cut funds to the National Endowment of the Arts.
The policy to cut funds from the NEA has flown under the radar when compared with Trump's grandiose clawing for power, but it is nonetheless an attack on cultural institutions that keep authoritarians like Trump in check.
Public funding for the NEA, along with public funding for the National Endowment of the Humanities, would be completely eliminated. On the other hand, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be privatized. These organizations make up less than 0.02 percent of all annual federal spending.
The elimination of these three programs would hardly be a cost-effective measure for an administration that proudly claims to be fiscally wise. However, it is a powerful and symbolic threat against institutions that critique people like Trump who, ever since the announcement of his candidacy, has faced humiliation in the art world.
By eliminating public funding for such organizations, a clear statement gets sent out to those working in that sector. The public receives the message that Trump’s administration has no tolerance for cultural critiques of its head. It is also a blatantly dictatorial and stupid move.
Firstly, the arts sector in the United States is already a mostly privately funded affair, having long been abandoned by the government and left to its own devices. Cutting such a tiny portion of the federal budget—in what can be conjectured as an attempt to silence potential critics—would only cause an unnecessary uproar.
Secondly, one of the first attempts of an authoritarian regime to gain control is to regulate and influence the art world. It brings to mind the U.S. government’s relationship with the movie industry in the 1940s and 1950s, constantly mandating that certain subjects be shown in a new light. Only this time, the government is not asking for movies showing Nazis or communists in a bad light. Rather, it is asking for full allegiance no matter what policies are implemented.
The move to potentially defund the NEA also has smatterings of The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has been assisting the new administration with potential budget plans. The organization has long derided the NEA as “welfare for cultural elitists,” as per its website, and deemed it a waste in federal spending.
The call for privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would also lead to an uncertain future for outlets such as PBS and NPR, both of which have provided free news and television services for decades. It is also telling that the administration has gone to a think tank that was initially set up to counter the “left-leaning” academia rather than act as an accredited or academic source to study potential ways to improve the budget.
The Trump administration has begun to display what it wants as its new status quo, a vision of a nation trying to assimilate to an uncomfortable reality. Unfortunately, instead of working to change reality, Trump and his team have taken steps to create alternate ones that apply only to them.
The potential defunding of the NEA is a clear sign of such thinking, where illusory threats are dealt with in the most minimalistic way while still retaining their symbolism. Trump has chosen to place himself against everyone else, allowing hyper-conservative think tanks to help make economic decisions and engage in acts of childish pettiness unbecoming of a man who is, to everyone’s bafflement, the president of the United States.
This is, more worryingly, only the beginning. It is a sign of a country that looks only inwardly when it begins to assume art is somehow a level of cultural elitism.
It would have been hardly a cause for concern if not for the larger things happening around it. Trump’s actions need to be seen less as important policy decisions for a nation and more as attacks on people, not just on big initialisms that his administration can claim are credible threats in ways they can barely surmise. It is a disgusting attack on the democratic principles of the nation he claims to represent.
Reuven Glezer is a sophomore studying Literary Form and Writing. He is a frequent contributor to The Ticker and an editor for Refract Magazine.