Is nothing sacred? Now Trump’s White House is targeting the Statue of Liberty

Stephen Miller’s tirade over the famous poem inscribed on the statue’s base makes it clear: the huddled masses can no longer breathe free in America

The Statue of Liberty: its meaning is entirely a matter of the angle of perception. Photograph: Mike Segar/Reuters

The surest mark of regime change is when they start attacking the statues.

Americans appreciate this as well as anyone – hence the carefully stage-manged toppling of Saddam Hussein in Firdos square in Baghdad in 2003. Stephen Miller, one of the key ideologues of the Trump regime, surely knew what he was doing when he took a symbolic axe to the Statue of Liberty in a heated argument with CNN’s Jim Acosta over the president’s proposals to drastically limit legal immigration.

In fairness, Miller did not attack the statue itself. A horde of boat-trip owners and Liberty impersonators would have lynched him if he did. But he did attack its meaning, and in particular the meaning ascribed to it when Emma Lazarus’s famous poem was added to its base in 1903, 17 years after the monument itself was completed. As Miller scolded Acosta: “I don’t want to get off into a whole thing about history here, but the Statue of Liberty is … a symbol of American liberty lighting the world. The poem that you’re referring to, that was added later and is not part of the original Statue of Liberty.”

Miller is factually correct, but as he put it himself, this is not really about history. It is about the contemporary resonance of Lazarus’s startling words, the only ones in which a state has appeared to invite not just any old immigrants, but the poorest of the poor: “Your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” There has never been a time when the “wretched refuse” has been more visible on our screens. Miller was not engaging in literary criticism – he was making it clear that these people are not welcome in Trump’s USA.

This conflict about the meaning of a statue is part of a wider political and cultural war: it is really a conflict about the meaning of America. Lazarus – and her friends who campaigned to place her words at the base after her death – knew very well that they were engaging in a highly political act. The sculpture was intended to mark the connections between French and American republicanism by representing in a well-worn classical trope, the female embodiment of Liberty. Lazarus changed that meaning:…

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