A Trump executive order that includes erecting a statue for Hannah Arendt, the political thinker who dedicated her scholarship to understanding the roots of totalitarianism, struck many as a new height of irony.
The executive order, signed on January 18, decrees the establishment of a statue park named the National Garden of American Heroes with dozens of new monuments honoring figures ranging from George Washington to the late Jeopardy host, Alex Trebek.
Trump first introduced the initiative in his speech at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota on July 4, 2020, as a response to the toppling and removal of racist monuments across the country during the mass protests against racism and police brutality last summer.
“The National Garden is America’s answer to this reckless attempt to erase our heroes, values, and entire way of life,” the executive order reads, continuing to compare the defacement of monuments during the Black Lives Matter protest to the burning of the White House by the British in 1814, the assassinations of Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., and the September 11 attacks. “On its grounds, the devastation and discord of the moment will be overcome with abiding love of country and lasting patriotism,” it says about the planned park.
The list of proposed monuments is extensive (244 in total), and it includes historical figures with contrasting legacies: Muhammad Ali next to William F. Buckley; Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman next to Christopher Columbus; Andrew Jackson next to Martin Luther King Jr.; Susan B. Anthony next to Sojourner Truth.
The list continues with a collection of notables: Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Emily Dickinson, Walt Disney, Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Milton Friedman, Alfred Hitchcock, Billie Holiday, Bob Hope, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Edison, Edgar Allan Poe, Elvis Presley, and Norman Rockwell. The late Los Angeles Lakers player Kobe Bryant and singer Whitney Houston are also included in the list.
“The National Garden will be built to reflect the awesome splendor of our country’s timeless exceptionalism,” the executive order continues in Trump’s words. “It will be a place where citizens, young and old, can renew their vision of greatness and take up the challenge that I gave every American in my first address to Congress, to ‘[b]elieve in yourselves, believe in your future, and believe, once more, in America.’”
The inclusion of Arendt in Trump’s sculpture park drew bewildered reactions. The renowned political theorist, known for works like The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), The Human Condition (1958), and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), fled Germany to Paris during Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. Her work, which includes a critique of war monuments, has been frequently cited in the context of the Trump-era neofascism.
“I think [Arendt] would be appalled,” Roger Berkowitz, director of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, told Jewish Insider. Arendt is buried on the center’s campus, where she taught for many years. “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,” Berkowitz continued. “His attack on the election she would have found abhorrent and dangerous.”
The incoming president, Joe Biden, announced that he will sign dozens of executive orders on his first 10 days in office to reverse many of his predecessor’s policies. While he still hasn’t responded to Trump’s last-minute executive order, it’s unlikely that he will pursue its fulfillment.
The Secretary of the Interior is charged with identifying a site for the park. Biden’s pick for the role is Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. If confirmed, she will be the first Native American to hold a cabinet position.
A special task force, working with the secretary, will publish an annual report on its progress. Funding will come from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Councils on the Arts and Humanities, which are decreed to allocate one-twelfth of their discretionary funds to commissioning statues for the park.