The Fourth of July — with tanks, fighter jets and some extraordinary historical mumbo jumbo

The US Independence Day celebrations at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC on 4 July 2019, addressed by President Donald Trump. (Phtoto: EPA-EFE / Erik S Lesser)

By the time the charade was over, it was pretty clear to everyone that the whole thing had been staged to generate some faux-inspiring, taxpayer-funded footage for US President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign ads.

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.”

From the American Declaration of Independence

Those are the words that electrified a new nation and entered the global language about the nature, purpose and meaning of government. In this writer’s memories, those annual American celebrations of the Fourth of July during his childhood had an innocent, apolitical quality to them that kept debates about the government or any of its policies at bay, at least for that holiday. Perhaps it was the times, perhaps it was the place. The writer grew up during the ostensibly placid, calm days of the Eisenhower era, in a decidedly working-class suburb of a small industrial city near Philadelphia.

The Fourth of July was almost entirely given over to a town celebration. There was a parade of school marching bands, boy scout troops, firemen, maybe social groups like the Elks Clubs and the Knights of Columbus, a few modest floats pulled by automobiles provided by a local car dealer and swarms of children on bicycles decorated with red, white and blue streamers and bunting.

Inevitably, too, there was a trio of men dressed to serve as a living embodiment of that famous, even hackneyed, painting — “The Spirit of ’76” — with the two drummers and a fife player who marched ahead of a school band playing patriotic airs.

Following the parade, there were, inevitably, portable grills selling hot dogs and hamburgers, lemonade and soft drinks, ice cream. Then it was on to a swimming gala at the local pool — actually a small lake dammed at the downstream end of a stream that flowed through the town — before there were mainstream concerns about water pollution.

By sunset, the town, just like every other one of the surrounding communities, had a traditional fireworks display in the small park adjacent to the pool.

With modest variations, this was the scene duplicated across the country, with politics put on hold for a day, even as the struggles of the civil rights revolution and the baby boom’s enormous impact on popular culture were already coming into focus — and the conflicts of the Cold War — and the possibility of nuclear annihilation (as with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) remained a constant fear for many. Through the social disruptions of the 1960s and 70s, the Fourth of July largely seemed to get a pass from those who might otherwise have protested against, say, America’s hopeless adventure in Southeast Asia or domestic issues.

Perhaps this was because the holiday and the ideas behind it seemed to ennoble thinking about the impact of those ideals on the country. Its injunction to the powerful as well as to the weak and heretofore dispossessed — “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” — has deeply affected Americans in this embodiment of Enlightenment ideals. Moreover, it has served as an inspiration to many others throughout the world, including a revolutionary like Ho Chi Minh, across the nations of Asia, Africa and Latin America, in their own declarations of independence and public rhetoric about the necessity for freedom.

Simultaneously, of course, these ideas of the declaration have also served to remind many Americans of those promises first made in the heat of the year 1776 — but that remained unfulfilled for women, for those without wealth and property and for the country’s black and brown residents for so many years later.

As Frederick Douglass would write in an 1852 address commemorating the 76th anniversary of the declaration’s public release: “Citizens, your fathers made good that resolution. They succeeded; today you reap the fruits of their success. What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: A day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Despite the country’s obvious imperfections, the nation and its ideals have also represented a magnet for many millions to come to America in order to seek better lives for themselves in the new nation.

This sense of the Fourth of July and the Declaration as the apotheosis of America’s civic culture and religion comes finely balanced with the simple pleasure of sharing that appreciation. Or as the late Erma Bombeck, the chronicler of the joys of simple home virtues had written: “You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4, not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers who file by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw Frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy and the flies die from happiness. You may think you have overeaten, but it is patriotism.”

But now, of course, this understanding of this holiday has been stood on its head by Donald Trump. After falling in love with France’s Bastille Day parade with its vast military drive past and march-by, a now-sturdy tradition that dates back to 1880; in showing obvious envy of those massive North Korean parades with hundreds of thousands of marchers and immense waves of military hardware and those old Russian May Day efforts; and more than likely a glimpse of Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will — once he became president, he kept trying to figure out how to hold a grand military parade in Washington to, well, celebrate himself.

His first push was for a Veterans Day which he could review, Benito Mussolini-like, from a special reviewing stand in front of the White House. The combined reluctance by the military to go through all hoops needed to make this childlike desire come to life; some serious disagreement by Washington city officials over the inevitable damage that would come from driving a battalion of 70-ton Abrams tanks through the city’s streets; and growing public unease over the outrageous cost of salving one man’s tender ego, together, ultimately put paid to this plan. However, the urge for a self-aggrandizing, self-congratulatory parade never faded.

Washington, DC has been holding an annual Independence Day celebration, regardless of president or party, for many years. This “Capital Fourth” event begins with a lively concert and there are fireworks framing the obelisk that is the Washington Monument, with the entire evening being broadcast nationally by PBS, the non-profit public television network.

Thousands of people traditionally have come down to the Mall with lawn chairs, beach blankets (and, in previous years, even old sofas they ended up leaving behind) to enjoy an evening under the stars. This evening usually marked the end of the National Folklife Festival on the Mall as well.

It was all lots of fun, even with Washington’s Durbanesque summer weather and, thankfully, politicians usually were pretty scarce on the ground. (In recent years, for example, presidents have taken to showing up at the naturalization of new citizens ceremonies around the country, rather than attempt to politicize this “Capital Fourth” party.)

But enjoying this traditional event — or joining in the moment of joy for new citizens, something that seems to run counter to the administration’s strident anti-immigrant stance, was clearly not for the Trumpians. Instead, transposing his earlier lust for tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, the president pushed hard for a second event in Washington on the Fourth that would be all about him and at which he could use the military to feed his narcissism.

As plans evolved, the president decided to give a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This was the same spot where renowned African American singer Marian Anderson had performed with the intercession of then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, when the originally booked concert hall a few blocks away had not been available for an African American singer in 1939 and where Rev Martin Luther King Jr had delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963.

The army, its arms twisted, dutifully brought in a few Abrams tanks and some armoured personnel carriers for a static display on the Mall and an air display was choreographed to bring aircraft — from helicopters to B-2s and F-35s, to the Blue Angels precision flying team, to Air Force One — screeching overhead on cue to whatever the president said. It was just like reality TV, only bigger. Naturally. This time, it was with the best props money can buy.

This writer asked a friend back in Washington to take a look at the Trumpian party on the Mall and he sent this rather irreverent report of the proceedings:

Trump spoke from the Lincoln Memorial. The crowd was small, perhaps because of the light drizzle. People with tickets (largely Republican donors and Trump partisans, according to press reports) lined up on both sides of the reflecting pool. The general admission crowd — which was pushed to the sides and kept behind fences — barely reached the Vietnam War memorial. It was weird to see how ticket holders got better treatment than everyone else. I saw no protesters, though there must have been some somewhere. The left is really lame.

The people in the crowd were normal-looking white people, the kind you’d see at a baseball game. There were parents with little kids. There were hot teenage girls in short shorts. There were fat old women who got around on mobility scooters. There were biker types (beards and bellies) and Joe College types (U of Virginia shirts). A grizzled old guy standing next to me had a hat that said “Korean War Veteran”. Everyone kept shaking his hand and thanking him for his service. I thought that he looked like a wino and almost asked him if he had really fought in Korea.

The crowd was normal-looking — except that almost everyone was white. It was a good reminder that Trump won a majority of white votes in 2016. The crowd was pro-Trump but not inflamed. MAGA hats were relatively few in number and more people wore Rolling Stone T-shirts than Trump/Pence T-shirts. Of the political T-shirts I saw, the best were: “ISIS Lives Splatter”, “Porn Kills Love” and “Faith Flag Family Friends Firearms”. I had the feeling that many in the crowd were in DC on holiday and regarded the speech as a tourist attraction.

The first half of Trump’s speech was patriotic, inclusive and dignified. He praised soldiers, astronauts, and policemen. He praised Lincoln. He even praised Martin Luther King and the Women’s Suffrage movement. He should have stopped there, because the second half was weird and militaristic. Basically, it was made up of story after story of American military heroism, from the Halls of Montezuma to the deserts of Afghanistan, punctuated by flyovers of Blackhawk helicopters, fighter jets, and even a stealth bomber. It started to feel as if DC were under aerial attack.”

Ah, the president’s speech — especially those military heroism riffs. Former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote of it:

Trump wanted pictures and video of his big day: Trump standing in the place where Martin Luther King Jr once stood, the podium swathed in flags and bunting, bordered by tanks, adoring audience in front, screeching fighter jets overhead… Strong! Proud! The speech existed only to provide a reason why he needed to stand in one place long enough for five waves of warplanes to cross the sky.”

The Trumpian celebration seemed a far cry from what founding father John Adams had written in a letter to his wife, Abigail, from Philadelphia where the Continental Congress had just voted for a declaration of independence on 2 July (final acceptance of the actual document and the decision to print the document came two days later). In that famous letter, Adams, one of the co-drafters of the Declaration, had written to his wife:

The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.”

Instead, Trump delivered a strange mashup of history presented as a kind of eighth-grade military history lesson, including the exceptionally startling fact that the American revolutionary forces in that 18th-century war for independence had captured airports from the British forces 240-some years ago.

Along the way, among other garbles, he jumbled the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 together and then, true to form, blamed the autocue for all his mistakes. Call it “the presidential dog ate my homework” defence, perhaps, but then he has no dog. The Trumpians never admit to their own mistakes. But the writer of this farango of a speech should be tarred and feathered, run out of town on a rail and have his membership in the speechwriters guild revoked forthwith.

By the time the charade was over, it was pretty clear to everyone that the whole thing had been staged to generate some faux-inspiring, taxpayer-funded footage for Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign ads: Trump standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as the Blue Angel jets fly overhead in tight formation. The man in charge of “his” military and “his” generals and admirals, and of the strongest, best, most powerful military money can buy to protect the nation — and he did it all by himself, just ask him. In fact, the GOP is already doing it. The Republican National Committee should be billed for the full, entire cost of this show and appropriate congressional committees should investigate who — and how — this whole farce came to be approved in the first place. DM


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