President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Monday that lists more than 200 historical figures he would like to include in his “National Garden of American Heroes,” which is in response to what he views as an attack on “belief in the greatness and goodness of America.”
“Across this Nation, belief in the greatness and goodness of America has come under attack in recent months and years by a dangerous anti-American extremism that seeks to dismantle our country’s history, institutions, and very identity,” Trump wrote in the order. “The heroes of 1776 have been desecrated, with statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin vandalized and toppled.”
“The National Garden is America’s answer to this reckless attempt to erase our heroes, values, and entire way of life,” the president continued.
Setting aside the argument Trump is making, the president’s list of 244 American heroes has “perplexed commentators with its contradictions and randomness,” Forbes noted.
Among them is philosopher Hannah Arendt, who famously used the phrase “banality of evil” to characterize the bureaucratic machinery that allowed the Holocaust to happen.
Via Foreign Policy:
The German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt offers a useful reference point for thinking about issues of complicity, resistance, and “just following orders” under corrupt regimes. She argues that the erosion of democratic institutions and criminal acts at the state level are made possible by a combination of fanatical leaders, mass consent, and bureaucratic apparatuses that deflect responsibility. In the interest of justice, government officials must be judged and held accountable—not as symbolic representatives of a regime but for their particular roles in abuses of power and state crimes.
Arendt’s focus on the individual actions of bureaucrats (most infamously those of Adolf Eichmann during the Holocaust) is relevant in light of both the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine democracy and its attempts to suppress and distort information about public health. How should Americans treat appointees who were serving in their positions in violation of the law because they were never approved by Congress? Or immigration officers who disregarded a federal judge’s order to restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and enforced family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border? Or members of the Republican Party who have weaponized conspiracy theories about voter fraud in order to intimidate officials into denying the results of free and fair elections?
In her 1967 essay “Truth and Politics,” Arendt noted that organized lying can serve as a kind of political violence that completely reshapes “the whole factual texture” of society. She wrote that one key symptom of a broken democracy is “a peculiar kind of cynicism—an absolute refusal to believe in the truth of anything, no matter how well this truth may be established.” For her, the survival of democracy depends in part on the independence of the judiciary and other public institutions whose mission it is to seek information with some degree of freedom from political pressure. Paradoxically, it is always a political decision to support such institutions. Thus, the boundary between partisanship, the law, and disinterested research for the public good is fragile and subject to contestation. But that boundary can’t be dissolved totally without destroying the formal basis for democracy, be it liberal democracy or a more robust social democracy.
Organized lying, cynicism, and a total dissolution of the fluid boundary between partisanship and disinterested government: These are clear and present dangers to democracy, Arendt warned. Today, Trump and the Republican Party’s refusal to recognize the validity of the election results as well as the horrific toll of COVID-19 (not to mention the existential threat of climate change) have threatened to make party loyalty the arbiter of reality itself.
Despite what Arendt would have to say about his own administration, Trump intends to honor her in his “National Garden of American Heroes” — where Arendt would be part of an eclectic assortment of individuals, including Christopher Columbus, former President Andrew Jackson, Sitting Bull, Sacagawea, Presidents Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft, Walt Disney, Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Johnny Appleseed.
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