The U.S. Army began to strip its bases of their old Confederate names last week, as Donald Trump faced a possible criminal indictment. The timing was hardly a coincidence.
Neither reckoning would have been possible if Trump were still president. Both have been winding their way through the government bureaucracy for the past two years since Trump left office and are now happening at the same time as part of a growing repudiation of Trump and Trumpism.
The big question is whether Trump, who held a surreal rally in Waco on Saturday, can stage a comeback and halt the nation’s efforts to move on, or whether he will finally be thrown into history’s dustbin.
Trump’s Waco event, the first rally of his 2024 presidential campaign, where thousands of MAGA zealots cheered as the ex-president raged, came one day after a much smaller but more significant event on an Army base in Virginia.
At a modest ceremony on Friday, Fort Pickett, named for Confederate Gen. George Pickett, remembered as the losing commander of “Pickett’s Charge,” the doomed Confederate assault on Union lines at the battle of Gettysburg, was officially renamed Fort Barfoot, in honor of Col. Van T. Barfoot, who won the Medal of Honor in Italy during World War II. Barfoot received the medal for his actions on May 23, 1944, when he single-handedly took out three German machine gun nests, capturing 17 German soldiers, and then blew up a German tank with a bazooka.
It was the first time a U.S. Army base named for a Confederate had been renamed, marking an official repudiation of white supremacy by the U.S. military. Fort Pickett, now Fort Barfoot, is the first of nine Army bases scheduled to be renamed this year, as the Pentagon moves to purge the military of its tradition of commemorating Confederate fighters. The bases were originally named when they were built in the South in the first half of the 20th century. At the time, the Army agreed to name them after Confederates to satisfy white Southern leaders, whose demands were part of a broader reassertion of Southern white supremacy during the Jim Crow era.
The Pentagon resisted calls to change the base names for years. They refused to do so after a 2015 shooting by a white supremacist at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, killed nine people, and again after the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Pressure grew more intense following the social protest movement sparked by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, but Trump, then president, fiercely opposed the idea. Claiming that the Confederate names were part of the nation’s heritage, he attacked the Pentagon for even considering any changes. In June 2020, Trump tweeted: “These Monumental and very Powerful Bases have become part of a Great American Heritage, and a history of Winning, Victory, and Freedom.” In an interview with Fox News at the time, he said: “We won two world wars, two world wars, beautiful world wars that were vicious and horrible, and we won them out of Fort Bragg, we won them out of all of these forts. And now they want to throw those names away.”
After Trump was defeated in 2020, he vetoed legislation creating a commission to rename the bases, but Congress was finally able to override it. If Trump had been reelected, he almost certainly would have continued trying to obstruct the renaming efforts.
With Trump gone, the commission completed its work, and many of the nation’s largest and most prominent military bases will get new names this year; Fort Bragg in North Carolina, the base Trump talked about in 2020, will be renamed Fort Liberty at an event tentatively scheduled for June.
The renaming of Fort Pickett last week prompted no protests and hardly a murmur of criticism, apart from a few nasty comments on the Facebook page of the Virginia National Guard, which uses the base. Indeed, the lack of outrage seems to be one more small sign that Trump’s power, and his ability to generate anger outside of his devoted base, are waning.
Trump’s mounting legal problems pose a more direct threat to his power and are a more personal form of reckoning. Although some Republican pundits and political figures have claimed that Trump will regain political strength by being indicted, the ex-president’s own fury at the prospect, which was on full display in Waco, reveals the truth: Trump is deeply afraid of ending up in prison.
He has spent his life exploiting legal loopholes and has often succeeded by outlasting his opponents. But his victories have mostly come in civil lawsuits when he was in business or while he was president and controlled the Justice Department. He has never faced the kind of legal peril that he does now.
The threat seems to be driving him even further around the bend than ever before. He now openly engages in full-throated conspiracy theories while inciting violence against his opponents; he held his rally in Waco knowing that it was scheduled in the middle of the 30th anniversary of the federal siege of the Branch Davidian compound there, which ended with a deadly government raid and fire that has taken on deep symbolism among violent, far-right extremists.
Trump is so obsessed with the criminal investigations against him — there are now at least four underway — that he talks about little else in public. Last week, he viciously attacked Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who seems likely to seek an indictment of Trump in connection with an alleged $130,000 hush money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump’s rhetoric is once again inciting his rabid supporters, just as it did during the January 6 insurrection. After Trump publicly attacked Bragg last week, calling him, among many other things, a “degenerate psychopath,” Bragg’s office received an envelope containing white powder and a typewritten death threat that stated “ALVIN: I AM GOING TO KILL YOU,” followed by 13 exclamation points, according to The New York Times.
Trump’s public descent into vengeful fury plays well with his rage-fueled base. Other Republican politicians — even his likely GOP opponents in the 2024 presidential race, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — are still so intimidated by Trump’s hold on the MAGA crowd that they refuse to confront him, so he may yet win the Republican presidential nomination.
But this time, he may be forced to campaign from a prison cell.