Donald Trump's plan to de-fund the arts is a win for conservatives – but the disadvantaged will be the ones who suffer

David Usborne
The Old Post Office Building - also the Nancy Hanks Centre - is now a Trump hotel: Reuters

Guests at the Old Post Office Building in Washington DC that is now a luxury Trump hotel have not, best I know, had any complaints about ghosts springing from the closets or unexplained bangs in the night. But it may only be a question of time.

It’s not just that the building’s Romanesque architecture, a few doors from Donald Trump’s new billet on Pennsylvania Avenue, gives it a perfect haunted house aura. It can look positively spooky on a misty, moonless night. Rather, it is about one deceased woman who right now is surely tempted more than ever to rise from the grave and wander its corridors in rage.

I refer to Nancy Hanks, by all accounts a formidable force who died prematurely from cancer in 1983 when she was just 55 years old. A distant cousin of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, she was the first female chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). She was appointed to the post in 1969 by President Nixon and held it for eight years.

It was during that tenure that Hanks spearheaded a campaign to block plans for the demolition of the building, an ultimately successful crusade that earned her a special posthumous honour; the year of her passing, the whole splendid pile was renamed the Nancy Hanks Center.

That it has now become a jewel in the crown of the Trump hotel chain would surely be injurious enough. But now a far greater insult has been added. The organisation that Hanks headed so zealously – before she was done she had persuaded the federal government to increase its annual budget from just $8m to $114m (£91m) – has now been slated for extinction by Trump.

Mike Huckabee is bucking fellow conservatives to defend the National Endowment of the Arts

“America First" seemingly means ditching all things “common good” in favour of fattening the military and cutting taxes on the rich. Trump’s draft spending plan submitted to Congress includes slashing the budgets of places like the Environmental Protection Agency (down 31.4 per cent) and the overseas development arm of the State Department, USAID (28.7 per cent). It would also signal the end of the road for the NEA and its two sister agencies, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

Oh, the joy of the conservative movement, for who the NEA, which sprang from Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”, has long been its bugbear number one. If the CPB, which sustains public radio and television stations across the land, especially in rural areas, and the NEH, provider of grants for projects aiming to maintain the country’s grasp of its own history – such as the Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, a staple of classrooms for 30 years – are slain also, then so much the better.

Why such animus? One way to explain is to reach back to the late Eighties when conservatives accused the NEA of providing funding for exhibitions featuring works they condemned as pornographic or blasphemous. Exhibit A was “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano, a photo image of Jesus on the crucifix soaking in the artist’s urine. From there, move right along to the seven pieces in the late Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio”, including images of a finger inserted in a penis and a bull-whip being similarly positioned into the photographer’s rear end.

For better or worse, the NEA has been extremely careful ever since to avoid giving its dollars to projects likely to draw fresh conservative fire. Yet, some on the right still haven’t recovered. George Will, the syndicated columnist, couldn’t help evoking the Mapplethorpe/Serrano brouhaha writing in support of Trump’s euthanasia instincts. He also resurrected the old chestnut that the arts are a hobby for, and benefiting, the elite. “The NEA’s effects are regressive, funding programmes that are, as Paul Ryan’s House Budget Committee said, ‘generally enjoyed by people of higher income levels, making them a wealth transfer from poorer to wealthier’”, he wrote, citing the budget preferences of the House speaker.

This also has to do with the debate over what is the proper scope of federal government. No one doubts the military falls within its spending ambit, but doling out taxpayer dollars for arty-farty endeavours is altogether more iffy to conservatives. Let the states fund these things if they want to. Beyond that, leave support of the arts to philanthropic organisations. Philanthropy, including giving by churches, is the fall-back for conservatives whenever they move to cut social spending. And in their minds, of course, the best art is art that is financially self-supporting.

That’s nice. But there are only so many philanthropic dollars, even in America. And does anyone believe that the NEA could have brought professional Shakespeare productions to more than 2,000, mostly small, communities in all 50 states if they had to turn a box-office profit? Or that any of the recent Illinois-based NEA programmes recently highlighted by the Chicago Tribune would have happened without federal help, including mentoring of at-risk teens through folk music, or the recent staging of a Latino Film Festival by the International Latino Cultural Center?

Oddly, one of the more eloquent defences of the NEA has been offered by one of the country’s most committed conservative voices. Writing in the Washington Post, former Arkansas Governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, a bass guitar fiend in an earlier life, took the opportunity to slam celebrities who, he says, are professional anti-Trump “whiners” (you listening, Meryl?), but then fiercely rebutted the for-the-elites argument made by Will.

“I do care greatly about the real recipients of endowment funds: the kids in poverty for whom NEA programmes may be their only chance to learn to play an instrument, test-drive their God-given creativity and develop a passion for those things that civilise and humanise us all,” Huckabee wrote. “They’re the reason we should stop and recognise that this line item accounting for just 0.004 per cent of the federal budget is not what’s breaking the bank.”

The money point is apt. These dollars are vital for these agencies and recipients of their grants, but piddling in the greater scheme of things. Trump wants to eliminate the NEA’s $148m budget, the NEH’s $148m and the CPB’s $445m, as well as $230m for the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which supports America’s libraries and museums. That’s less than $1bn or about one deck of the yet-to-be commissioned aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R Ford, visited by Trump recently. It’s currently budgeted to cost $13bn.

All is not yet lost. The budget that eventually emerges from Congress will not be the same as the one proposed. But the risk is that, after decades of trying, conservatives on the Hill may finally have the clout to sink these arts agencies. My guess is that more living Americans will mourn them than they realise. That will include inner city kids who like their poetry slams and residents of rural areas that otherwise won’t see Shakespeare or have a local public radio station updating them on pork belly futures and other doings of their communities.

And there will be one dead American for whom the demise of the NEA, in particular, would be the final insult sufficient, perhaps, to stir her from eternal rest.