Since President Donald Trump announced his proposal for a military display and presidential speech on the National Mall, Trump’s critics across the political spectrum, have reached a consensus: The president’s intrusion into Independence Day is a hijacking. New York Times columnist Michelle Cottle complains that Trump is “trampling a longstanding tradition of keeping these events nonpartisan — apolitical even — and focused on bringing the nation together.” The same sentiment came from the Washington Post’s editorial page, and from conservative Trump skeptics like radio host Charlie Sykes and former GOP Congressman David Jolly.
It’s true that the president has upended many of the traditions of the celebration; the location of the fireworks have been moved; the president has demanded a heavy military presence, including tanks in the streets of Washington, and he plans to deliver a speech in front of a crowd where the choicest locations will be reserved for ticket holders, a feature somewhat at odds with Trump’s rhetorical scorn for the elites and D.C. insiders.
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By one measure, the criticism is overwrought. There have been presidents who’ve appeared during celebrations at the Capitol, most recently Harry Truman in 1951. President Richard Nixon offered up a videotaped speech aired on the Mall in 1970; other presidents, including Calvin Coolidge and John Kennedy, traveled to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to mark the occasion. (If you want one measure of how far we have traveled since JFK’s time, note that he devoted much of his speech to celebrating the emerging European Union: “The United States looks on this vast new enterprise with hope and admiration,” JFK said “We do not regard a strong and united Europe as a rival but as a partner.”)
As for the parade—well, if Trump wants military armored vehicles to accompany the flyover by the Navy’s Blue Angels, stealth fighters and Air Force One, maybe he’s just trying to emulate Thomas Jefferson, who watched a military parade from the White House back in 1801, rather than the celebrations of military might more common to Moscow and Pyongyang.
And if Trump takes the opportunity to play politics with the speech, something he can rarely resist, it’s worth keeping in mind that political parties have been using the Fourth of July celebrations as platforms ever since our first parties, the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, began holding separate Independence Day events in several locations back in the 1790s.
Celebrations of the Fourth do not tend to benefit both parties equally, and here, Trump may well be demonstrating his instinctive grasp of which way a big event tends to nudge the populace. In 2011, two academics who studied the political effect of Fourth of July festivities concluded that: “Fourth of July celebrations in the United States shape the nation’s political landscape by forming beliefs and increasing participation, primarily in favor of the Republican Party. … The political right has been more successful in appropriating American patriotism and its symbols during the 20th century, [so] there is a political congruence between the patriotism promoted on Fourth of July and the values associated with the Republican Party.”
So, yes, there’s been plenty of ground laid for the kind of thing Trump plans to do.
For all that, history also suggests there’s good reason that his plan is rubbing people the wrong way. For one, it really is rare; it’s far more common for presidents to vacate Washington on the Fourth of July, or to remain at the White House, than to insert themselves into the proceedings.
And on a more troubling level, what Trump is doing is wreathing himself in the most potent symbols of American history—delivering a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, site of the 1963 March on Washington, looking across at a landscape of monuments—without any appreciation for the history that made that whole landscape possible. Perhaps uniquely among American presidents, he sees himself without any connection to the American story, any link to presidents past, other than his manifest superiority to any of them.
Someone who can say of himself that he has been treated worse than any president in history—four of whom were assassinated—has an impressively unique understanding of his own role in the American story, to say the least. He has rarely if ever reached back to his predecessors to find any kind of meaningful historical connection, especially the kind that would reach across lines of party and ideology to find common national ground on a day like the Fourth. Kennedy often reached back to the first generation of American political leaders; Ronald Reagan quoted FDR and JFK in many of his addresses.
Trump prefers to think of himself as the lone, overarching figure who can bend history to his will. “I alone can fix it,” he said in his 2016 acceptance speech. Neither that speech, nor his inaugural, invoked the name of any past leader. He appears to believe that the American economy turned 180 degrees on the day of his inauguration, rather than moving on the same upward trajectory it had been on for the better part of a decade. Nor is he bound by the restraints that have guided his predecessors in understanding when partisan politics ought to give way to more unifying themes.
This is, after all, a president who went to a CIA commemoration of its fallen agents and bragged (falsely) about the size of his inaugural audience and the number of times he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. This is the president who has repeatedly made blatantly political arguments in speeches to different branches of the military, when his long line of predecessors as commander in chief all somehow managed to observe the bright line between national leadership and partisan brawling.
There’s also a more personal dimension to the Trumpification of the Fourth. Throughout his presidency, he has taken outsize delight in over-the-top celebrations and honors given him by foreign governments, a delight that seems to translate into bizarre foreign policies. Receive the Gold Medallion from Saudi Arabia, and you brush aside the kingdom’s murder and dismemberment of an American resident. Enjoy lavish banquets in China, and the brutal crackdown on a million Uighurs goes unmentioned. Get a “beautiful letter” from Kim Jong Un and maybe North Korea can keep its nukes. (And would you really be totally shocked if Kim showed up at the White House to help Trump celebrate the Fourth?)
Trump has been obsessed by the idea of a massive military parade ever since attending the Bastille Day celebration in Paris two years ago, first ordering up a Veterans Day parade for 2018 that was canceled only after the price tag proved embarrassingly high. For someone who literally cannot grasp the possibility that more people voted for his opponent than him, or that fewer people came to his inaugural than his predecessor’s, it is not much of a reach to imagine that in the president’s mind he will see the flyovers and the fireworks as a nation paying tribute to the greatness of a man, rather than the other way around.
It is true that, on some public occasions, Trump has been able to subordinate this vanity to a sense of occasion, at least in his literal words. His speech in Normandy at the 75th anniversary of D-Day was an unexceptionable tribute to the men who stormed the beaches, although a different White House might have thought better of staging an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham in front of a graveyard filled with the bodies of those men. He has delivered State of the Union speeches without describing Democrats in the House chamber as treasonous, or the media in the press sections as enemies of the people.
What remains unsettling, however, is the thoroughly reasonable conviction that when the president delivers such homilies, he has no real connection to those words. At any moment, it’s plausible to expect that the id will drive the superego from the podium, and the explosion of grievance, self-pity and rage will erupt—dominating a day that has in recent times been free of political division.
To be fair, however, that would not be the worst result of a presidential Fourth. Back in 1845, President James Polk presided over a fireworks display at the White House. During the festivities, 12 rockets were accidentally fired into the crowd, and two people were killed. If the worst thing that happens tomorrow is just a speech, we can be thankful for small favors.