Trump's unhinged, tone-deaf list of "American heroes" is a fitting emblem of his presidency

From Muhammad Ali and Dr. Seuss to Columbus and Edward R. Murrow, the list of names is baffling & poorly researched

By Ashlie D. Stevens
January 19, 2021 10:38PM (UTC)
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US President Donald Trump gestures as he arrives for the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

On Monday afternoon the White House released an executive order detailing the figures that Trump wants represented in his National Garden of American Heroes.

Trump originally pitched the idea during a July 2020 speech at Mount Rushmore, amid nationwide protests that again brought questions of who should be memorialized through monuments into focus; across the country, statues of slave owners and Confederate officers were vandalized and removed. 

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In his speech, Trump said that these actions constituted a branch of "cancel culture." 

"This movement is openly attacking the legacies of every person on Mount Rushmore," he said."They defile the memory of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt."

He continued: "I am announcing the creation of a new monument to the giants of our past. I am signing an executive order to establish the National Garden of American Heroes, a vast outdoor park that will feature the statues of the greatest Americans to ever live." 

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In the seven months since, there has been no movement on creating the statue park. No Congressional funding was secured for the proposed project and, despite the executive order, it's unlikely to be picked up by the next administration. Regardless, two days before leaving office, Trump released the list of figures he'd like to see memorialized — and it is completely unhinged. 

The list is a bizarro grab bag of 244 individuals, defined simultaneously by its randomness and tone-deafness. Logistics aside (How large would the park be? How close will the insane amount of statuary be to each other? Will it be like a Madame Tussauds cast in stone?), Trump's definition of "hero" is muddled. 

You'd have Grover Cleveland, Walt Disney, Whitney Houston and Dolley Madison all next to each other, flanked by Kobe Bryant, Louis Armstrong, Neil Armstrong and Theodor Geisel aka "Dr. Seuss." There are civil rights champions and abolitionists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and Harriet Beecher Stowe, alongside slave-owning presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. More members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West show are present on the list than Asian Americans. 

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In many ways, however, Trump's list of "American Heroes" — which can be viewed in its entirety here — is emblematic of his presidency. It's riddled with choices that will make readers pause due to their obvious lack of research, regard for the truth and sensitivity. Here are some of the most weirdest missteps on the list (there are many more), starting with the demographic breakdown:

Demographic Breakdown 

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While the list is overwhelmingly random, it's also overwhelmingly male. As Axios' Danielle Alberti reported, Trump's "American Heroes" are 73% men. Additionally, 86 of the nominees, nearly a third, were born between 1900 and 1950. 

When asked in that same article by Axios about his views on the list, historian Michael Beschloss, who specializes in the United States presidency, said, "Any American who loves democracy should make sure there is never some official, totalitarian-sounding 'National Garden of American Heroes,' with names forced upon us by the federal government." 

"The glory of American democracy is that every one of our citizens decides who his or her personal heroes are," Beschloss said. "That is not the prerogative of any president, especially one rejected by American voters and who is on his way out the door. Many of the people on this list of 'heroes' would be embarrassed to be singled out by someone like Donald Trump." 

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Additionally, as the Associated Press reported, when Trump first proposed the list in 2020, there were no Native American, Hispanic or Asian American individuals. The list has been diversified some, but it's obviously an afterthought. 

Christopher Columbus 

One of the most incendiary names on the list was Christopher Columbus — who was neither American, nor did he ever actually set foot in North America. He did, however, initiate the Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of thousands of indigenous people. His cruelties are difficult to fully quantify, ranging from allowing the settlers under him to sell 9- and 10-year-old girls into sexual slavery, to forcing indigenous people to collect gold for him. 

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In June 2020, three statues of Columbus were damaged or pulled down in as many days. 

"In St. Paul, demonstrators toppled a ten-foot-tall statue that stood in front of the Minnesota state capitol," wrote Theresa Machemer for Smithsonian Magazine. "In Richmond, protesters pulled down an eight-foot-tall statue in Byrd Park, carrying it about 200 yards before setting it on fire and throwing it into the nearby Fountain Lake. And, around 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, police in Boston received a report that a marble statue of the Italian explorer and colonizer had lost its head."

Andrew Jackson

This choice is very much in the same vein as Columbus. Jackson, who was the seventh president of the United States, was one of the primary supporters of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which authorized the government to extinguish any Indian title to land claims in the Southeast.

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"The result was the Trail of Tears, in which Cherokee and other native peoples of the Southeast were forced at gunpoint to march 1,200 miles to 'Indian territory,'" Billy J. Stratton wrote for Salon in 2017. "Thousands of Cherokee died during the passage, while many who survived the trek lost their homes and most of their property. Ironically, much of the land on which the Cherokee and other removed tribes were settled was opened to homesteading and became the state of Oklahoma some 60 years later."

Because of this, it seems deeply tone-deaf to include Jackson next to Native American icons like Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull and Tecumseh. 

Muhammad Ali

So, admittedly, this name stuck out to me because I live in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali's hometown, and have reported previously on why there are no full-body statues of the boxing legend. According to Jeannie Kahnke of the Muhammad Ali Center — whom I interviewed in 2018 — they receive a lot of requests to use Ali's likeness.

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"Over the years, I cannot tell you how many times people have come to us, saying 'I want to do a Muhammad Ali statue,'" she said. "It has probably been at least 15."

However, Ali was a devout Muslim, and he felt his faith would prohibit full-body statues being erected of him — which, Kahnke said, would prevent Ali's family from giving their blessing for a life-size statue of him. Some sculptors have done so without his family's permission, but many have found other, more creative, ways to honor the boxer. 

Including his name on the list demonstrates either an obvious lack of research or a willingness to dishonor Ali's wishes and religious beliefs. 

Ingrid Bergman

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In Trump's executive order, he stated that the park's goal is to honor those believed to be "historically significant," and "individual[s] who made substantive contributions to America's public life or otherwise had a substantive effect on America's history." 

To that end, one of the defining characteristics of Trump's list is the mishmash of political and pop culture, but Swedish actress Ingrid Bermgan stands out because she . . . wasn't American. And unlike Alfred Hitchcock and Alex Trebek (who were born in the U.K. and Canada, respectively), she never became an American citizen. 

It really raises the question of what qualifies as a "substantive contribution to America's public life" in Trump's mind. Was he just a big "Casablanca" fan? Perhaps, because Humphrey Bogart is on the list, too. 

Woody Guthrie and Hannah Arendt

As New York Daily News reporter Chris Sommerfield tweeted yesterday, there are several "incredible self-owns" found on Trump's list, like the inclusion of Woody Guthrie, "who wrote 'Old Man Trump,' a blistering 1950s tune about the Trump family's racist housing practices in Brooklyn." 

Additionally, Trump included the German-born American political theorist Hannah Arendt, who was perhaps best known for her book "The Origins of Totalitarianism." Her writings on "the banality of evil" have been repeatedly invoked to describe Trump's apparent and growing desire for autocratic rule. 

"I think she would be appalled," Roger Berkowitz, who directs the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College — on whose campus Arendt is buried and where she taught for many years — told Jewish Insider on Monday evening. "I think Arendt would find it ridiculous that Trump nominated her. I think she would find Trump ridiculous, and I think she'd find him dangerous insofar as he undermines the basic idea of truthfulness and truth in the country. His attack on the election she would have found abhorrent and dangerous."

Edward R. Murrow 

Finally, Trump's disdain for legitimate, objective reporting is no secret. He has called the media the "enemy of the people," and as such, it was no surprise to see the phrase "Murder the media" scrawled on a door of the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

That's why it was kind of a shock to see Edward R. Murrow, the broadcaster and war correspondent who had a deep impact on journalistic ethics, included on Trump's list. If Murrow were still alive and writing, I have no doubt that he would have reported truthfully on Trump — just as he reported critically on Senator Joseph McCarthy — and been decried as another "enemy of the people." 

For what it's worth, Trump's executive order directed the secretary of the interior to identify a site and provide funding and said a taskforce would "publish an annual public report describing progress on establishing the National Garden and on building statues." 

Joe Biden has nominated Deb Haaland for the position, and neither she nor Biden's transition team have issued a comment on the garden, making it unlikely that it will ever actually take root.


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture and food.

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