Trump Appoints Art Historian Victoria Coates to National Security Council
An art historian now holds one of the most important national security jobs in the country. Dr. Victoria Coates, who received her Ph.D. in Art History from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, was tapped in late January to serve as President Trump’s senior director for strategic assessments on the National Security Council. The news was first reported by the Washington Post.
Coates began her professional pivot from the arts to defense in the mid-2000s while blogging about national security for the conservative website RedState. At the time, she was also teaching art history at the University of Pennsylvania. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told Business Insider he saw “smart analysis and sharp writing” in her blog posts, and reached out for help researching his book after he left office. After assisting Rumsfeld, who oversaw invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan during his tenure as Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, Coates continued to burnish her national security credentials while pursuing her career in art history.
She later assisted former Texas governor Rick Perry during his short-lived campaign for president in 2012. That time overlapped with her tenure as a consulting curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), a position she held from 2010 to 2013. Coates, whose specialty is Italian Renaissance art, curated the CMA’s exhibition “The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection.”
More recently, she worked as a national security advisor to Texas senator Ted Cruz, helping him craft his defense policy during his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination last year. Cruz advocated for escalating violence against ISIS in the Middle East. During a December speech, he said the U.S. under his leadership would “utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
The political viewpoint Coates will bring to the National Security Council represent a break with the prior administration. She has voiced strong opposition to the nuclear deal with Iran, a key policy initiative of former U.S. President Barack Obama. She also has been fiercely critical of the Obama administration’s position on Israel, forcefully arguing against a two-state solution based on the country’s 1967 borders. During her tenure with the Cruz campaign, Coates reportedly made interns read Ronald Reagan advisor Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships And Double Standards,” a 1979 essay in which Kirkpatrick argues dealing with anti-communist authoritarian regimes is actually good for human rights on the whole, since it prevents the rise of communism.
Though she has never published a book about national security, she released David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art last year. In a February 2016 review in the Washington Post, the Post’s non-fiction book critic Carlos Lozada said, “Coates reconsiders art, artists and their patrons through their relationships to freedom and democracy, writing with equal conviction whether those ties are strong or ambiguous.” Lozada also urged Cruz, then Coates’s boss, to read the book if partly to “reverse his plan to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts.” Some are worried that the NEA still faces existential threats under a Trump presidency.
In the book, Coates said her time working with Cruz influenced her art history research. She has linked those studies to her belief that the United States should not become entangled with long-term nation-building efforts overseas. “That is also one of the great lessons of my new book, David’s Sling. Liberty is hard to both achieve and preserve. Liberty is very difficult to impose. It can be encouraged, but it’s very, very hard to impose,” Coates told the alt-right website Breitbart in an interview.
Her background in art history has provoked criticism in past. Writing in Esquire when Coates was still an advisor to Cruz, writer and former soldier Robert Bateman charged her with having “zero national security experience” and not understanding the high stakes reality of military conflict. He noted that Coates has never served in the Pentagon, the military, the State Department, or the intelligence community.
A spokesman for the National Security Council did not return a request for comment.
The appointment of Coates to the NSC came weeks before a report by the New York Times which described the council in turmoil. Perhaps her art history background will help them adjust to the new boss’s pivot away from text and towards visuals. Among the details reported by the New York Times was that briefing memos for President Trump must now be kept to one page, “with lots of graphics and maps.”
“The president likes maps,” one official told the New York Times.
Coates’s appointment has put conservatives in the rare position of defending the value of a liberal arts degree. “The point of a liberal arts degree is to learn how to think critically, so that a person can discern truth. The intensive reading, writing, and thinking involved translates into lifelong skills,” writes Maria Jeffrey at the partisan website the Conservative Review. “Victoria Coates’s strong speaking, writing, and critical-thinking skills will only serve to benefit her on Trump’s National Security Council.”
Such sentiments conflict with the feelings of some other Republicans who have trumpeted the benefits of vocational training over a liberal arts degree. Florida Senator Marco Rubio famously said that “we need more welders and less philosophers.” But the sentiment can occasionally cross the aisle: In January 2014, Barack Obama made an off-the-cuff flippant remark questioning the utility of an art history degree. Though he quickly apologized, the words sparked a much-needed conversation about the importance of the major. And Coates is not the only member of her party to have a background in art history. Meghan McCain, daughter of Senator John McCain, studied the subject as an undergrad at Columbia University. Her critical thinking skills, though, may have led her in a different direction. She’s been known to spar with President Trump over issues of foreign policy.
Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.