President Trump’s pick for a top national security advisor has a Ph.D. in art history. As the Washington Post reported , Victoria Coates, an art historian specializing in Italian Renaissance studies, is now the National Security Council’s Senior Director for Strategic Assessments.
Coates originally served as Senator Ted Cruz’s national security adviser during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination; prior to that, she worked as an editor for former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and advised former Texas governor Rick Perry during his 2012 presidential bid — a job that coincided with her time as a former consulting curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. She will now help Trump’s team “craft an aggressive response to the rise of Islamic terrorism and its threat against the American homeland,” as the Washington Free Beacon‘s Adam Kredo reported, speaking with Cruz.
As Hyperallergic previously reported, Coates received her Ph.D. in 1998 from the University of Pennsylvania, where she also co-taught an interdisciplinary course titled “The Self-Portrait.” Aside from publishing a vast number of essays, including ones on paintings by Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorraine‘s shaping of his public reputation — pretty fitting now, considering her new boss — she has also published three books. Two are centered on Pompeii; the most recent, David’s Sling, examines the history of democracy through 10 artworks. She also contributed articles to the Weekly Standard on Syria’s cultural heritage and on a memorial in Israel to Soviet soldiers (both headlines, unsurprisingly, give little indication of their arts-focused content). As for her experience in defense, it primarily centers around her articles about national security for the conservative blog RedState (penned under the username “Academic Elephant”). As army veteran Robert Bateman, writing for Esquire, put it last year:
She has never worked in the Pentagon; never worked in the State Department; never worked in the intelligence community; never served in any branch of the military; never lived overseas representing the United States in any way; never worked for the federal government; never had a security clearance. (Unless, perhaps, for editing. I’ll check that.); never written a book, or indeed any academic or professional article, on national security, any aspect of any of the branches of the military, or on modern international relations; never been in a combat zone, one of ours or anybody else’s.
One government building Coates does seem to frequent is the National Gallery of Art (NGA): her Twitter avatar once showed her admiring the museum’s portrait of the Florentine banker Bindo Altoviti by Raphael; it now features her looking at the NGA’s sole self-portrait by Rembrandt.
Conservative supporters, meanwhile, are lauding Coates for her liberal arts background and firm grasp of history. Conservative Review‘s correspondent Maria Jeffrey, writing in response to Bateman’s piece, said the advisor’s “strong speaking, writing, and critical-thinking skills” will only be a boon to the administration; Rumsfeld, speaking with Free Beacon, commended her for her “wide ranging intellect, deep understanding of history, and appreciation for strategic thought.”
Perhaps Coates herself sums up the situation best. In a tweet sent in response to news about her position, she wrote, “You never know when an art historian will come in handy.”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.