Donald Trump announced a “National Garden of American Heroes” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents on July 3 2020, using the backdrop of Mount Rushmore long planned as a setting to address the nation as a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments–in a manner that was more divisive, if more eloquently divisive than in the past. Calling for a new set of heroic monuments in a divided time attempted to call for the honoring of authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined. Mt. Rushmore–four faces that are the primary national shrine of white, male authority–became the place to do so, beneath those impassive faces hewn into granite on Black Elk Peak that stare forward with timelessness eery in their unwavering gaze.
The effigies before which Trump proclaimed his image of a united honoring of past heroes was well-planned, but the statuary complex was hardly a planned event. The monumental sculpture staring roughly southeast was intended to include effigies of Lewis were hardly a planned event. The monumental sculpture staring roughly southeast was intended to include effigies of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawe, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–in an attempt at a show of amity similar to the Garden of Heroes Trump proposed–but the anti-indigenous sculptor, also a klansman, altered his plans to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, were shown as heads emerging from the rock.
Intended as a tourist attraction of boosterish proportions, the colossal complex became a backdrop for announcing celebratory achievements of “giants in full flesh and blood” calling for honor due “great, great men” who “will never be forgotten,” and precedent for the reality park of “historically significant Americans”–over two-thirds male, if several blacks, ran against an apparently non-partisan speech. Indeed, by foregrounding Republican Presidents, free spirits like Wild Bill Hickok, Antonin Scalia, Billy Graham, and Ronald Reagan, and juxtaposing Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas with southern separatist Henry Clay, the monument imagined a united front of American greatness could be created of mostly men.
The call that came during the dismantling of many statues, effigies, and honoring of Confederates and slave-owners alike raised questions of belonging, and national memory fit for the unwinding of his Presidency–and his attachments to colossal monuments and monument-making. The executive order for building more statues responded not only to the toppling of statues of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, as well as Presidents as Thomas Jefferson who owned slaves, but the deep uneasiness he revealed at the toppling of long-iconic statues of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, after Charlottesville confrontations of white supremacists.
Trump revealed a love of monument-building and monumental totems—doing double duty as signs of authority and belonging that conceal their immobility–as if a sign of eternity. His call for a national exercise in monument building and restoration of national ideals recalled for me the graveyard of the past of Budapest’s Memento Park, opened in 1993 collecting displaced statues of the Communist era, serving as a theater of dictatorship preserving the false future they once sought to create, their forms drained of modern relevance, but providing a receptacle for the statues removed from the city in 1989, removed from the capital city to brick platforms off nondescript highways. By underscoring both the emptiness of their rhetorical gestures and the poetics of the passage of time, the transposition of dictatorial figures to a democratic space doing double duty as an injunction to remember the past as a period–as much as to negate the emptiness of their very assertions of timelessness.
Seeking to foreclose debates about public memorialization by announcing a Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes a park of “historically significant Americans,” Trump affirmed the relevance of statues as “silent teachers in solid form of stone or metal” as if to create a sense of collective unity as COVID-19 pandemic revealed inequities across the nation, and as the need to contain the virus prevented in-person instruction at schools for the foreseeable future. In asking “gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow-citizens . . . despite their flaws” Trump emphasized the didactic and educational ends of the theme part, not to affirm a direct relation between the spectator of a statue and the state, but that oddly circumscribe agency of many, given who is absent or excluded from the Garden set to open to the public on the 2026 anniversary of Independence Day.
If widely interpreted as a response to the removal of statues of Columbus and the changing of military bases that honored confederate generals, in its call to prevent the overthrow of monuments as an attempt to “desecrate our common inheritance” and common culture–even to “overthrow the American revolution”–the thirst for building monuments reflects Trump’s search for self-memorialization–a taste already hinted at in his discussion of the Border Wall as a monument–and DHS to tweet out with pride a commemorative plaque of Trump’s name on the first completed section of Border Wall in October, 2018.
The call for building more statues responded to those “determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage” was an exaggeration, but men like Confederate General Albert Pike, Presidents who owned slaves like Ulysses Grant and Thomas Jefferson, and even the composer Francis Scott Key, or Daughters of the Confederacy was a reckoning of the monumental inheritance of America, as much as a blanket rebuke of the past. But in affirming the need to build more statues, rather than to assess the objections to honoring men who owned slaves, or fought to enslave others, Trump promoted a cult of statuary, criminalizing their vandalism as federal property, as if to resolve a sense of purpose including those who fought to restrict the franchise or were associated with white supremacy he had nourished.
Trump’s deep attachment to monumentalization led him to select to address the nation beneath the colossal visages of past Presidents, more than the relation of the statues to civic or state values; his attempt to burnish the notion of a monument to his own accomplishments seemed evident, but the promotion of more statues in such a “Garden of Heroes” took spin from promoting a massive bronze of Christopher Columbus in 1997, hoped to be erected as rising in the Hudson estuary, not long before he entered politics, beside a skyscraper developing in West Side Yards, greater by several feet from the more distant Statue of Liberty. The proposal of a monument taller that the Liberty icon was an almost Icaran gesture to redefine the New York skyline around his own development, and to create am image that would be too costly to dismantle by the local government, once erected on the landfill he built; the monument’s arrival was brokered from Russia in attempts to broker a deal with Moscow’s mayor–betraying the very inseparable relations of personal interest and public symbolism that has haunted Trump’s Presidency, but which the Garden of Heroes might seem to purify.
One wonders if Trump remembered his plans for the massive statue as he spoke below granite faces of four white male Presidents on Independence Day, commemorating a declaration that only white men had signed, and creating a tableau of a reduced image of inclusivity that demanded consent. The Garden that he conjured on July 3, 2020 included police killed in the line of duty beside a list of male childhood heroes–Daniel Boone, Douglas McArthur, George S. Patton, and figures who accommodated slavery to American values, and slave-owning Presidents, beside Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman, and Abraham Lincoln, in a pastiche of history that has no central narrative save to mainstream history to partisan terms in a restrictive model of exemplarity: the absence of latinos, migrants, or feminist figures underscores these are men used to being monumentalized, and now non-threatening to a status quo–or a “Dead White Male” history that Trump adores.
Embracing the heroism of the built spectacle, Trump returned to his roots in real estate promotion, embodied in his grandiose 1997 plans to erect–although never constructed–a colossal bronze statue of Christopher Columbus, fabricated in Moscow foundries dating from Catherine the Great, betraying more than a touch of Disney-esque kitsch, of an effigy of a robed royal emissary, greeting the New World, that the Soviets Union had long tried to present as a gift to American Presidents?Columbus was, thankfully, absent from the reality park he described below the backdrop of sixty foot-high granite faces of past United States Presidents–George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln–the carving of this earlier shrine to whiteness on land sacred to native Americans provided the basis of to attacked “deface[ment] of our most sacred memorials” including Columbus, secessionists, and slave-holding presidents, as a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history”–a possessive perhaps restricted to his audience.
In conjuring an array of a virtual army of statues of assorted generals, frontier figures, and further Presidents, that he hoped might transcend 2020, the President betrayed deeper ties to monuments than virtues, and revealed a keen interest in replacing a personal relation to national history with empty symbols. One could only remember the eagerness with which he had promoted a massive monument to Christopher Columbus, forged in Moscow, that the city’s mayor had in 1997 promised him as a gift, in what seems one of the earliest cases of Trump comparing himself to the nation.Continue reading