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.
When members of the National Council on the Arts met late last month, however, they got a surprise: They learned that Trump had made his picks, and the winners would be formally announced in a matter of weeks. In choosing the recipients, though, Trump had bypassed recommendations the council had previously put forward, several council members told me. The members said that was a break from past practice and that presidents normally give the council’s recommendations more credence. When they looked at the names, some members objected to what they saw as partisan political considerations or a lack of diversity.
The council members, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, said that in addition to Voight and the bands, Trump chose the bluegrass singer Alison Krauss and Sharon Percy Rockefeller, the president and chief executive officer of WETA, a public broadcasting station in the Washington, D.C., area. A president is allowed by law to give out 12 medals each year; Trump apparently stopped at these few. Efforts to reach Voight, Krauss, and Rockefeller were unsuccessful. The White House declined to comment.
An NEA representative told me in an email that Trump had indeed made his picks, but the names are “embargoed.” Asked whether Trump followed the council’s recommendations, the representative cited the federal law that established the National Medal of Arts, which states that the president shall award it “on the basis of recommendations” from the council to those he deems worthy based on their “outstanding contributions” to the arts. In the email, the representative said that “the process set forth [in the statute] was followed,” and that the winners all met the selection criteria under the law.
Yet “there was alarm, and some surprise” at the meeting last month, one council member told me. “This was the first time that we had heard that there was going to be a medal award, and the decisions did not match our recommendations. That in itself was a new experience. We all immediately recognized that not only were recommendations not followed, but the kind of diversity we had striven for in the past in the various [artistic] disciplines had not been followed.”
The intent behind the president’s selections is unclear. But Voight, at least, is an effusive Trump loyalist who endorsed the president in 2016. In May, he tweeted a video message in which he said: “Let us stand with our president. Let us stand up for this truth: that President Trump is the greatest president since Abraham Lincoln.” Trump noticed the adulation. “Thank you so much, @JonVoight!” he tweeted in July.
Honoring the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard bands would seem an innocuous gesture. But it fits a pattern of Trump trying to wrap himself in patriotic symbols and pageantry. At a conservative conference earlier this year, he literally hugged the American flag. On July 4, he staged an unusual spectacle on the National Mall, where he delivered a speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial and showcased military tanks and planes.
The problem with Trump’s picks isn’t that the recipients aren’t deserving, some of the council members said. Voight is an accomplished actor who won an Academy Award for his performance in the 1978 film Coming Home and now stars in the Showtime drama series Ray Donovan. Military bands perform concerts at home and abroad and act as goodwill ambassadors of sorts. Krauss, a Grammy Award winner many times over, “is one of my favorites,” the council member told me. “She has a great voice and she’s hardworking, with a significant body of work.” Rockefeller has had a decades-long career in media and was recently named one of the most powerful women in Washington. She is also the chair of the board of trustees of the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and serves on the board of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
What troubles some council members—apart from Trump’s unilateral decision making—is that the president has failed to honor people from a broad array of artistic backgrounds. “The traditional disciplines, such as dance, theater, or literature, weren’t represented in whatever capacity,” a second council member told me. “And it clearly seems to be a political agenda by the president.” A third faulted Trump for failing to identify a person of color deserving of an individual award. The message is that “there’s no person of color in the artistic ecosphere worthy of recognition by our nation,” this council member said. “We would rather not make an award than award someone of color. That’s deeply troubling and disturbing, especially given the current climate, when there are groups of people in this country who feel under duress.”
Past presidents, in many cases, handed out the maximum number of awards or close to it, honoring people in multiple fields. Bush gave medals to the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury, and the theatrical set designer Ming Cho Lee, among dozens of others. Obama’s medal recipients included Tony Kushner, whose play about the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America, won a Pulitzer Prize; Bob Dylan, the singer-songwriter; and Rita Moreno, the first Latina actor to win an Academy Award.
One of the winners selected by Obama was the acclaimed novelist and short-story writer Tobias Wolff. When I first emailed Wolff to talk with him about Trump’s picks, he replied, “What true artist would accept [the medal] from these hands?” When we spoke by phone later, he questioned whether Trump truly values the fields he’s purportedly trying to celebrate. “It’s kind of ridiculous for this particular president to be handing out awards for the arts,” Wolff said, “especially when he himself is so sublimely uninterested in them.”
Trump could smooth things over, if he were inclined to try. He could dust off the recommendations from the council and give out another medal or two or three. It would seem an easy, cost-free gesture if a celebration of the arts was foremost on his mind, a way to honor people toiling in creative fields that get little national recognition. But that doesn’t seem to be what’s driving him.