A president can abuse power by pressuring a foreign government to help his campaign. A president also can exploit power by making the cultural world a political prop. This is a story about the latter.
Until Donald Trump entered office, not much drama surrounded the prestigious National Medal of Arts. President Ronald Reagan signed legislation creating the award in 1984, and every president since has given it out, honoring the work of painters, writers, actors, architects, dancers, and musicians.
Under Trump, the awards stopped: He passed up chances to hand out the medals in 2017 and 2018—the longest drought in the past 35 years. But now, I’m told, he’s poised to announce his first slate of winners later this month. It not only includes names that seem, in part, to be tailored to the president’s personal preferences—namely, the actor and MAGA enthusiast Jon Voight and all five U.S. military bands. But in choosing the winners, Trump appears to have ignored input from the committee that typically recommends artistic luminaries as candidates for the award.
Until this point, Trump has shown little enthusiasm for the arts world. For three years running, he’s proposed budgets attempting to zero out federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. The administration has argued that the NEA’s activities—including promoting the arts through financial grants—are not “core Federal responsibilities.” The NEA works with a body called the National Council on the Arts to offer recommendations for the national award. (The council’s rank and file are holdovers from the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations; Trump has nominated four people for seats, but the Senate has yet to confirm them.) Look at the NEA’s webpage devoted to the medal, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Obama never left office.