Trump’s Garden of Heroes

Statues
Silent teachers in stone and metal: U.S. Capitol

W.J. Astore

While castigating the “radical left” in his latest vitriolic speech before Mount Rushmore, Trump proposed a new garden of heroes to celebrate meaningful Americans.  Naturally, that list has generated controversy.  As others have noted, Native Americans are absent from the list; so too are Hispanics; and so too are Democratic presidents.

Here’s a look at Trump’s “heroes”:

John Adams, Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Henry Clay, Davy Crockett, Frederick Douglass, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin, Billy Graham, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Douglas MacArthur, Dolley Madison, James Madison, Christa McAuliffe, Audie Murphy, George S. Patton, Jr., Ronald Reagan, Jackie Robinson, Betsy Ross, Antonin Scalia, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington, Orville and Wilbur Wright.

It’s easy to pick apart any list.  Why this person and not that one?  Or why not this person and that one?  For example, why not MLK Jr. and Malcolm X?  Why not Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali?  Is it because MLK Jr. and Jackie are considered safer, or less controversial, or more American because they were “less angry”?

Among other absences, there’s another I’d like to highlight: Any person dedicated to the cause of peace.*

Again, looking at Trump’s list, what struck me was the predictable worship of military men, not just Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain from the Civil War or Audie Murphy from World War II but the usual generals Trump professes to love, Patton and MacArthur.  Two vainglorious wannabe Caesars, the very opposite of America’s citizen-soldier ideal, are Trump’s idea of America’s noblest generals.  Not George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley, also of World War II fame, and both more deserving of acclaim, and more suited to America’s military traditions.  Or how about General Smedley Butler, twice awarded the Medal of Honor, who became an outspoken critic of war after his retirement?

What also struck me was the presence of “the usual suspects” in the list.  Do we really need yet another statue to George Washington?  Abraham Lincoln?  Benjamin Franklin?  Can’t we come up with some lesser known heroes worthy of acclaim, perhaps someone like Prudence Crandall, a schoolteacher who established the first school for African-American girls in New England, and who faced mob violence as she fought to keep her school open.  Or how about Elihu Burritt, the Learned Blacksmith, who fought so hard in antebellum America against war.  America has a wealth of unsung heroes; why not take this chance to celebrate “ordinary” Americans doing extraordinary things?

Notice, naturally, the deep bow to conservative icons such as Billy Graham, Ronald Reagan, and Antonin Scalia.  An evangelist, a president, and a Supreme Court Justice, respectively.  So how about Dorothy Day, Jimmy Carter, and Harry Blackmun to balance the partisan ledger?

Some science might be injected with Carl Sagan or James Watson.  Some environmentalism with Rachel Carson.  During a pandemic, why not Jonas Salk?  And why is America’s greatest inventor, Thomas Edison, not on this list?  Of course, you could go on almost endlessly here.

Perhaps what amused me most was the stipulation the statues have to be lifelike or realistic, not abstract or modernist representations.  They are to be “silent teachers in solid form of stone and metal,” per Trump’s executive order.  This rejection of abstract or modernist representation put me to mind of Nazi Germany’s rejection of so-called degenerate art.  The Nazis preferred art that celebrated uncontroversially the heroism of Germans and the human form: art that was open only to the most obvious interpretation.  As a good friend put it, “Combine Trump’s classical garden of heroes with his edict that public buildings be made ‘beautiful again’ in a neoclassical style and all he’s missing is a catchy antisemitic drinking song.”

In other words, Trump wants a garden of heroes in which we’re expected to bow our heads in awe, rather than hold our heads in thought.  Awe is befitting to a dictatorship, but thought is becoming to a democracy.

* I’ve applauded MLK Jr.’s efforts to end the Vietnam War; he deserves to be recognized as a peace activist, but of course he’s on Trump’s list for his civil rights record, not his critique of America as the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.  One name I’d love to see added to the list is Daniel Ellsberg, who risked everything to expose American lies with the release of the Pentagon Papers.

Trump’s Culture War

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Shameless, thy name be Trump

W.J. Astore

President Trump’s strategy for winning in 2020 is to fan the flames of culture war, including blatant references to white power.  Even some Republicans seem embarrassed, though not enough to make any difference in Trump’s reprehensible tactics.  Trump’s emptiness is incalculable — this and his cult-like “base” make him a dangerous man indeed.  He needs to be denounced and voted out of office; how disappointing is it that the Democratic alternative is Joe Biden, a man with his own record of lies, a man with little going for him except that he’s not Donald Trump.

Along with culture war, Republicans are also doing their best to discourage voting.  The tactics here are many: fewer polling stations, meaning longer lines and wait times; voter ID laws to counter non-existent voter fraud; disenfranchisement of voters through purges of rolls; opposition to mail-in ballots and other efforts to make voting easier and safer in the age of Covid-19; the presence of “monitors” at polling sites as a form of intimidation.

Rally the base while suppressing the overall vote: this, apparently, is what Trump is counting on this November.

Why?  Because Trump has nothing real to run on.  His biggest “accomplishment” was a tax break for corporations and for the richest Americans.  When asked by Fox News about what he wanted to accomplish in his second term, Trump had nothing specific to say.  No policy goals.  Nothing.  The one thing he seems determined to do, besides building his wall, is eliminating Obamacare, which would throw tens of millions off their health care plans during a pandemic.

If cynicism has a bottom, Trump hasn’t found it yet, though not for want of trying.

Of course, Trump’s culture war is as ugly as it is racist.  It’s also a distraction from rampant and blatant kleptocracy.  For example, the latest “defense” budget calls for $740 billion in spending, yet the key issue for Trump is to defend military posts that are named for Confederate officers.  Trump, a New York City trust fund baby, as Yankee as a Yankee can be, poses as a principled defender of Confederate leaders and the Confederate battle flag, in the name of “respecting our past.”  Consider him the quintessential con man as cultural carpetbagger, cynically adopting any position that he can use to inflame his base and drive them to the polls this November.

Truly, these are bizarre times.  Trump, the Vietnam draft dodger, the man of heel spurs infamy, celebrates Generals George Patton and Douglas MacArthur as his ideals.  As military leaders, both were deeply flawed; both were vainglorious; both were over-celebrated and overrated.  Small wonder that Trump sees something in them that he sees in himself: overweening egotism, the quest for victory at any cost, including the deaths of their own troops.

Trump wants America to turn on itself, to consume itself, and as long as he wins another term, he couldn’t care less about the cost.  Why?  Because he doesn’t see us as his fellow citizens — he sees us as his subjects.  And even if you count yourself in his “base,” he likely sees you as nothing more than a patsy.  A sucker.  And, based on his total lack of leadership when it comes to Covid-19, he literally doesn’t care if you live or die.

Trump is a wannabe king, and he will say or do most anything to keep his grip on power.  Having just marked another July 4th celebration of America’s independence from a capricious monarch, King George III, it doesn’t make any sense to re-empower another mad king.

Don’t be distracted by Trump’s culture wars and his incessant divisiveness, America.  Remember its intent: to divide is the way to conquer.  Trump doesn’t want “to keep America great.”  He wants to keep it servile to him.  He wants you under his spell, shouting his name, laughing at his cruel jokes.

Is that what you want for yourself and for our country?