On Monday, as his presidency finally lurched towards its end, Donald Trump got two more embarrassing disasters in just under the wire: the release of the 1776 Report, an outrageous whitewashing of American history, and an executive order calling for the construction of the National Garden of American Heroes, an outdoor statue gallery of historically significant Americans, an idea conceived in response to the nationwide movement to remove monuments to the Confederacy. The Biden administration has already quietly removed both the 1776 Report and Trump’s executive order from the White House web site, making it unlikely even a single statue will ever be built, but as one of the final official expressions of Trump’s rancid view of the world, his proposal is a pretty interesting document.
When Trump announced the idea last summer, he included an initial list of 31 statue-worthy Americans, ranging from evergreen favorites like Jackie Robinson and the Wright brothers to less defensible choices like Antonin Scalia. This week’s executive order adds another 213 people, for a total of 244 American Heroes, and the final list is, for want of a better word, weird. Some of the names are uncontroversial choices: great artists like Bessie Smith and Dr. Seuss, great athletes like Jesse Owens and Roberto Clemente, great scientists like Albert Einstein and Jonas Salk, and war heroes of all sorts except, thankfully, Confederate. Some of the names are the familiar rogues’ gallery of Americans whose legacies have been contested for years because of the terrible things they did: slaveowners, rapists, genocidal maniacs, and so on. In a few cases, attempts to be ecumenical made for strange bedfellows: Honoring people famous for opposing the House Un-American Activities Committee like Edward R. Murrow and Margaret Chase Smith ought to preclude a statue of Whittaker Chambers, and Mark Twain would have been horrified to share a distinction with James Fenimore Cooper. There are a few crowd-pleasing-but-unusual choices like recently-deceased Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek. And then there are several names that seem to have been included solely to own the libs. Many people in Trump’s Garden of National Heroes probably don’t deserve to be commemorated with a statue, but a few of his choices shouldn’t have their name in the same sentence as the word “hero.” Here are the worst of the worst.
William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review, used his magazine to endorse Jim Crow, Franco, Apartheid, and Pinochet, before arguing in the New York Times that HIV positive people should have their status tattooed on their upper arms and buttocks. The American pantheon already has plenty of people whose accomplishments we honor despite their loathsome personal views. In Buckley’s case, however, his accomplishments were inseparable from his loathsome personal views, which he devoted his life to energetically spreading. It doesn’t matter how big your vocabulary is if you only use it for evil.
Samuel Colt was a gifted inventor and a marketing wizard, but he used those talents to first design a more reliable revolver, then to sell those revolvers in a way that helped embed gun culture deeply into the fabric of American life. We’ve all been paying the price ever since. Colt managed to make his guns synonymous with the American frontier, using product placement and celebrity endorsements to get thousands of revolvers into the hands of ordinary Americans. He also systematized their manufacture, paving the way for our era of cheap, deadly handguns. If that weren’t enough to rule out a statue, Colt was a war profiteer who routinely sold weapons to both sides in European conflicts, but also to Union and Confederacy alike early in the Civil War.
Herbert Henry Dow founded Dow Chemical, a company whose noxious legacy includes a radioactive disaster in Colorado, napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam, dodgy tax strategies, and an astonishing amount of toxic waste and environmental destruction. In his lifetime, Dow was a notable chemist, but not, like, a one-of-the-244-greatest-American-heroes class chemist. He’s most likely on this list to troll environmentalists and Vietnam war protesters, which is a terrible reason to commission a statue.
The other directors in Trump’s garden are Alfred Hitchcock and Frank Capra, which, fair enough. Orson Welles didn’t rate a statue, though, and neither did Dorothy Arzner or Preston Sturges or Ida Lupino or Buster Keaton or any of the other quintessentially American directors who helped build Hollywood. But then, none of those other people named names for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan was a brilliant director, even when he was trying to rationalize his own betrayal, but the only conceivable reason to recognize him before so many other people who contributed as much or more to cinema is because of the part he played in one of the most shameful witch hunts in American history.
George P. Mitchell figured out how to make fracking economically feasible, a development that helped humanity get even more fossil fuels out of the ground and into the atmosphere, to say nothing about what it did for the people who lived near fracking wells. After making his fortune, Mitchell became a notable philanthropist, but when the harm you caused is on a planetary scale, you can’t fix everything simply by writing a check to Texas A&M. Don’t get me wrong: George P. Mitchell does deserve a statue, but it shouldn’t be in the National Garden of American Heroes. It should be in Miami, where it can be slowly engulfed by the ocean as the cumulation of his life’s work.
Jesus H. Christ, Sam Walton? Sam Walton? The guy whose main accomplishments were running small retailers out of business all over America and optimizing his supply chain until it stretched from the American workers his company routinely stole from all the way to literal slaves in Thailand? That Sam Walton? I’m sorry, I can’t think about this stupid garden anymore; I have to go knock over some statues.