Alaska's Great White Mountain

In renaming a peak that honored a Republican hero, President Obama stepped into the center of a fray over political correctness, American culture, and partisanship.

Dan Joling / AP

There are many disorienting things about traveling to Alaska in the summer; the long daylight hours are only the most obvious. But during a vacation to the land of the midnight sun, I also found myself perplexed: Why did people keep pointing at Mount McKinley and calling it “Denali”? Wasn’t that just the name of the national park where it was located?

As of today, the name of the mountain and of the park will be the same. For all the ruckus aroused by President Obama’s decision to rename the nation’s tallest peak, the name change may mean the least for Alaskans, the people who most frequently discuss it. The greatest outcry against the name change, as my colleague Krishandev Calamur notes, is coming from two groups: Ohioans and Republicans, William McKinley’s two leading constituencies. Ohio Republicans, members of both groups, are particularly apoplectic. Here’s Speaker John Boehner:

There is a reason President McKinley’s name has served atop the highest peak in North America for more than 100 years, and that is because it is a testament to his great legacy.  McKinley served our country with distinction during the Civil War as a member of the Army.  He made a difference for his constituents and his state as a member of the House of Representatives and as Governor of the great state of Ohio.  And he led this nation to prosperity and victory in the Spanish-American War as the 25th President of the United States.  I’m deeply disappointed in this decision.

Representative Bob Gibbs, whose constituency includes McKinley’s adopted hometown of Canton, called the change a “political stunt ... insulting to all Ohioans” and an act of “constitutional overreach.” (Democratic Representative Tim Ryan, who like McKinley was born in Niles, is also unhappy.)

On the surface, these claims seem obviously overheated. McKinley never set foot in Alaska, and it wasn’t a state at the time he was president. Yoni Appelbaum notes that the christening, originally said to be a tribute to McKinley’s presidential nomination, was actually nothing more than an epic troll of bimetallism. There’s also been a congressional push to change the name led by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, and backed by her Ohio-born junior colleague Dan Sullivan, also a member of the GOP.

But the backlash is also utterly predictable, viewed from the perspective of two interrelated political currents. The first is a recent resurgence of nostalgia for the McKinley presidency among Republicans, and the second is a general feeling among many conservatives that the America they know and love is changing, with symbols of history being swept away in favor of—they say—politically correct replacements.

No modern-day Republican is as big a McKinley booster as Karl Rove, who has long been obsessed with the election of 1896—while engineering George W. Bush’s election in 2000, he saw parallels to that earlier fight—and who has a book due out in November about McKinley. Other writers have taken up the cause, too. The argument is that the 1896 election changed everything: It introduced new methods of campaigning (including massive corporate fundraising), set up a period of Republican dominance, and broke a Washington deadlock.

Trumpeting McKinley has other political benefits, too: Cut down by an assassin’s bullet, he shares some of the heroic glow of Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy. His leadership through the Spanish-American War provides a beacon to those who want a hawkish, expansionist, muscular American foreign policy that exports U.S. power from the muzzle of a gun. And when Democrats—not least Barack Obama—try to claim progressive Teddy Roosevelt as a “good” Republican who wouldn’t find a place in today’s GOP, Republicans can point to Roosevelt’s immediate predecessor as an alternative model.

For non-Rovians, what makes Obama’s “Denali” decision sting is the symbolism. One of the key stories of the Obama presidency is the sense among white, conservative Americans that their country is disappearing. Though seldom couched in directly racial terms, the issue of racial identity always lurks beneath the surface. The sense that white America is fading is not irrational, and it’s not just about the black president in the White House. Census projections have Caucasians becoming not a majority, but merely a plurality, of the population within a couple decades.

The reaction to Dylann Roof's massacre in Charleston is an example of how this plays out. Even some people who were horrified by the shooting and supported South Carolina’s decision to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state-capitol grounds felt uncomfortable with the sudden rise of demands to erase other symbols of the Confederacy or of white-supremacist leaders of yore—statues of Jefferson Davis, college buildings named for racists, and the like. These changes are just and overdue, but they’re also understandably disorienting, and for people who already feel their heritage and way of life are under siege, they seem a step (or several) too far. Conservatives complain, using a phrase Obama himself employed in October 2008, that the president is in the process of “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”

Still, much of the reaction to Obama’s decision is almost comic. “Mt. McKinley is still there,” Erick Erickson proclaims, vowing to keep calling it by that name. “I will still call the mountain Mt. McKinley in the same way I will call Turin, Turin, instead of Turino like the idiots at NBC decided to do during that city’s time hosting the Olympics,” he writes.

The “Turin” comparison is instructive—after all, just as with Denali, the people who actually live there call it “Torino.” More generally, the thrust of the reaction seems to be, You can’t rename Mount McKinley! It’s had that name for a very long time. This argument might seem more than a bit ironic to Athabascans, in whose tongue “Denali” means “the Great One,” and who called it by that name for far longer than the “McKinley” label has stuck. Alaska Natives have been pushing to rename the mountain for years, saying that the official name, among other things, conveyed a “fundamental disrespect” for their culture.

Obama’s decision does look like something of a pander—a symbolic move to gain favor with Alaska Natives, acceding to their longstanding request. Ohioans will move on and get angry about something else soon enough (the Browns season begins September 13!), but the gesture will remain meaningful for Alaskans.

But just as the renaming of Confederate monuments has prompted worries that it will distract from the need for material changes to improve the life of black Americans, Obama’s gesture brings concerns that he has prioritized political symbolism over addressing the many challenges facing Alaska Natives. Native villages are on the front lines of climate change, already being forced to relocate as waters rise and permafrost melts. The state government is currently battling with the federal government over the right to take land into trust for native tribes. The state has unique laws for native peoples, including an unusual system of “Alaska native corporations” designed to grant them an advantage in development. But as a Washington Post series several years ago documented, the ANCs have failed to bring much prosperity even as they have enriched non-native government contractors.

These are problems that will remain relevant long after Obama’s three-day trip has concluded. As for President McKinley, he’ll at least have his breathtaking monument in Canton to fall back on.