Skip to content Skip to navigation

Doing Justice to the Classics

“America First Caucus” revives promotion of Classical Architecture

After a flier announcing the formation of an “America First Caucus” in Congress was leaked, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene first confirmed her involvement before abandoning the idea a few days later. Greene is known to Pharos readers for wearing a Molon Labe mask while defending the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol and to everyone in America for her promotion of racism and conspiracy theories. Thus it came as no surprise that the Caucus’ flier was brimming with racist and xenophobic dog-whistles. Of particular note to historians was her claim that America is “strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions,” since “Anglo-Saxon” is a historically incoherent term that originates in American nativism (which was also used as the name of a major scholarly society until 2019). What has not received as much attention is that the same flier invoked the Classical world as well.

This “policy platform” contains a section on “Immigration” that gestures toward antisemitic conspiracy theories that Jewish people (described as “certain economic and financial interest groups”) promote immigration to undermine “white” civilization, employs the same rhetoric about immigrants “refus[ing] to abandon their old loyalties” that was used to justify the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans, and euphemistically describes racist immigration laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Johnson-Reed Act as “pauses [that] have been absolutely essential in assimilating the new arrivals.” There is also a section on “Foreign Aid” that complains about support for “teaching gender studies in Pakistan.” In between these comes a section on “Infrastructure,” which the document calls “one of the few areas that the federal government should exercise its constitutional authority.” That section begins with a promise to promote “infrastructure…that befits the progeny of European architecture” and that will be “stunningly, classically beautiful.”

Greene’s explanation of the value of "Classically beautiful" architecture is that it "befit[s] a world power," thus acknowledging its imperial associations

This is, of course, a doubling down on former President Trump’s (now revoked) executive order mandating “Classical” architecture for federal buildings, an order that, as Pharos documented, was praised by white ethnonationalist groups that have long celebrated Classical architecture as an indicator of the historical significance of white identity in the places such architecture appears. Following the terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol, Elizabeth A. Thill pointed to ways that this racialized understanding of Classical architecture may have motivated the rioters, several of whom displayed Classical symbols: some may have felt “that they had greater claim to the building than the elected individuals within,” drawing on the long history in the United States of regarding votes by non-White people as being illegitimate. This investment in the symbolism of the architecture is consistent with the noose that rioters hung outside: the one a sanctuary in need of purging, the other the rioter’s preferred means of doing so.

Thill’s essay also draws attention to to the violence inherent in the Romans’ use of Greek columns in the monuments they erected throughout their empire as symbols of the permanence of their political and cultural dominance. The language of Trump’s executive order, which called Classical architecture “reflective of the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the American system of self-government,” is typical of attitudes toward the Classical that attempt to erase or ignore this violence. The former President, of course, is not the first person to enact this erasure; something similar may be observed in the evident admiration of the so-called founders of the United States for such architecture. But as Thill argues, those statesmen also “liked the Romans…because the Romans situated self-government within an oligarchic, plutocratic context,” like the one that they initially established in America, extending voting rights only to a tiny percentage of the population.

The promotion of "classically beautiful" architecture by white ethnonationalists will not go away because the "Classical" is so potent a source of the respectability they seek

This nexus of narrowly exclusive citizenship, imperial violence, and white supremacy may have been only implicit in the 2020 executive order, but the America First Caucus flyer, which promise to “follow in President Trump’s footsteps,” makes it more clear. Congresswoman Greene’s explanation of the value of “Classically beautiful” architecture is that it “befit[s] a world power,” thus acknowledging its imperial associations. The document goes on to justify this architectural style with reference to the Roman Empire itself: “As the Romans demonstrated with aqueducts, walls and roads, function and beauty are not at odds.” These features of Roman imperial expansion, no less than buildings with Greek columns, are the very ones that have been used to sanitize and justify Roman imperialism as a “civilizing” force.

For now, it looks like the American Freedom Caucus — at least in this form — is dead on arrival, as Republican lawmakers have tried to distance themselves from it. But Greene’s announcement and almost immediate disavowal should also be seen as the latest iteration of a strategy to raise the profile of white supremacist ideas as part of an overall program of increasing their acceptability and respectability. This is ultimately why Trump’s executive order came into being in the first place, and why the promotion of “classically beautiful” architecture by white ethnonationalists will not go away: because the “Classical” is so potent a source of the respectability they seek.

Sign up to be notified whenever
Pharos publishes a new article.

* indicates required