A Fourth of July Thought
Ideas, not tanks.
There are so many things to say about Trump’s hijacking of the National Mall on the Fourth of July, that I will just start with this laudable piece from Jonathan Bernstein: How Is Trump’s Parade Offensive? Let Me Count the Ways.
What’s worse than the partisanship is the central place of Trump in the celebration. The national holidays of the U.S. simply aren’t about the aggrandizement of the president, and it’s an excellent tradition that presidents typically haven’t taken part at all in the Washington Fourth of July events, much less hijacked them for their own use. It would be bad enough if Trump could be trusted to deliver a bunch of bland patriotic clichés in his planned address to the nation – even if all he did was read the Declaration of Independence – but the record is pretty clear that he isn’t capable of speaking to the nation’s democratic heritage, or in fact giving any kind of speech without his usual bluster and braggadocio. At any rate, the great leader presiding over a militaristic celebration of himself and the nation is what happens in authoritarian regimes, not in democracies.
Which gets to the very worst part of Trump’s Independence Day travesty: putting the military front and center in his vision of the United States. We’ve had altogether too much of this in every context over the last few years, which is pretty much what one would expect from a nation that has been at war for so long. But it’s just wrong for the Fourth of July, which has always been about freedom and democracy and which should be about politics at its best.
Nations that have nothing but military hardware to brag about center their celebrations on tanks and warplanes. The U.S. traditionally celebrates what Jefferson called “the pursuit of happiness” — both the private happiness of personal enjoyment and the public happiness of a shared political culture and a tradition of civic, including political, participation. Trump doesn’t seem to understand any of that as central to the U.S. That he’s inflicting his politics on the military is dangerous; that he’s inflicting his vision of the U.S. as a military nation above all else is dangerous, too.
For those of us who appreciate the real spirit of the Fourth, the whole thing is just indescribably sad.
Bernstein is correct: the focus should not be on military power. The focus should be on ideas. Indeed, this idea:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Yes, America was flawed at the founding. Yes, America is flawed now. Progress has been made, however, and more progress can come.
The fundamental notion, however, of the equality of human beings needs defending and nurturing.
But the current president think that tanks and flyovers are the real representation of America, not to mention he doesn’t understand what “Western liberalism” is (which is embodied in the quote from the Declaration):
NEW YORK TIMES’S PETER BAKER: [Putin’s] comments to the Financial Times right before arriving here was that Western-style liberalism is obsolete. I know you probably —
TRUMP: Well, I mean he may feel that way. He’s sees what’s going on, I guess, if you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look, and what’s happening in San Francisco and a couple of other cities, which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people. I don’t know what they’re thinking, but he does see things that are happening in the United States that would probably preclude him from saying how wonderful it is….Source: Trump’s apparent ignorance of basic political terms is on full display overseas
I mean, what can you say to that?*
Update: I would also recommend Phillip Kennicott’s essay in WaPo: Forget the tanks. Trump’s violation of the Lincoln Memorial is the real offense.
The Mall is fundamentally a civic rather than a military space.
And, to the point I made above:
over the past century, the monumental central axis of the nation’s capital has evolved from a particular statement about post-Civil War reconciliation to a broader one about reconciling national ideals with national realities. The Lincoln Memorial, which has the words “to bind up the nation’s wounds” inscribed on its walls, isn’t just a grand edifice ideal for photo-ops and television spectacle. It exerts gravitational pull on people who sense a contradiction in what the nation claims to be and what it is in fact. A memorial to this country’s most thoughtful president is now the locus of a basic kind of civic thinking: How can we reconcile our treatment of African Americans, people of color, ethnic and religious minorities, women, the poor and the unemployed, and LGBT people with the basic thesis that “all men are created equal”?
I recommend the entire piece.
*When I first heard someone say that Trump thought “Western liberalism” had to do with SF Democrats, I thought they were joking.