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.