When the story broke that Donald Trump intended to refashion the Fourth of July celebration in the nation’s capital into a partisan display of American military might, there was widespread concern. But the dismay was undoubtedly strongest among past and current residents of the Washington D.C. area who had participated in previous years’ festivities. How dare he break with tradition in order to promote his political agenda? To some, it almost felt as if he had made it his personal mission to sully the happy memories of millions.
Truth be told, while liberals and moderate pundits were complaining about the fact that tanks and warplanes would be shown off for the holiday, most current and former locals were more upset about the fact that the Trump Administration was going to cordon off some of the best territory for VIP supporters, so that the president could hold one of his distinctive rallies in front of a properly appreciative audience. Despite the mainstream media’s relentless handwringing about the ways in which Trump has politicized everything in sight, people who know the city well know that it has always been fuelled by partisanship. The difference is that he makes no effort to pretend that it isn’t.
But the Fourth of July celebration has traditionally been one of the rare occasions when residents of the D.C. metropolitan area come together in a way that minimizes differences of race, class, and religion, not to mention nationality, since a sizeable percentage of the region’s population consists of recent immigrants and foreigners who are there for professional reasons. The sheer number of people who stretch out along the Mall and adjacent waterfront for the fireworks display makes trying to find parking nearby a source of endless frustration, leading the vast majority to commute on Metro trains and buses, which are invariably packed to the limit. And there isn’t much more elbow room for the event itself. Like it or not, you will probably find yourself pressed up against individuals who are very different from you for a significant period of time.
Given how hot and humid the city is in July, the experience is one which Americans accustomed to lots of personal space might find hard to bear. Yet there is a vibe to the proceedings that makes attendees forego the comforts they normally demand in order to feel part of a collective. The area’s most privileged residents, used to getting access to the best tables, tee times, and schools for their children, have to compete with everyone else for the best vantage points. Unlike just about everything else in the city, it’s a first-come, first-served affair. Because government workers have the day off and most people who do have to clock in get off early, the systematic disadvantaging that characterizes life in the neoliberal United States is temporarily suspended. The people of early modern Europe had their religious holidays and fairs in which to experience the carnivalesque; Greater D.C. has the Fourth of July.
Or at least it used to. Outrage over Trump’s plans was amplified by fears that this year would establish a disturbing precedent, ensuring that future celebrations would further erode the democratic spirit that had made them so meaningful. That’s certainly how I responded to the news. Although I haven’t lived in the D.C. area since the mid-1980s, I still feel somehow that the Fourth belongs to me, like the monuments and Smithsonian museums. I remember vividly the excitement I experienced when I first attended the display as a twelve-year-old who had recently moved there from rural Pennsylvania. Perched on the Capitol steps with Perrier-sipping lobbyists on my right and a sanitation worker’s family on my left, I believed with all my heart that the promise of the United States was shadowed forth by this study in contrast. We might have little to nothing in common the rest of the year, but knew how important it was to share our American-ness on this special day.
The more I’ve thought about the fracas concerning Trump’s plans for this year, though, the more I have been led to question that youthful conviction. As painful as losing a temporary sense of solidarity might be to those of us who remembered past Fourth of Julys fondly, might it not be better, in the end, to dispense with this collective exercise in self-deception? Pretending for one day that we are all in this together, when most people spend the rest of the year staying in their lane certainly feels good in the moment. But the “high” it produces can have pernicious long-term effects.
It’s instructive to consider this collective self-delusion in relation to Trump’s insistence that there be a large military presence at this year’s celebration. Although supposedly inspired by a parade he witnessed in France, critics of his authoritarian tendencies were quick to draw parallels between that kind of showing off and the sort that is de rigeur in totalitarian states like the People’s Republic of China and North Korea. Whether regarded as vulgar or terrifying, this posturing was presented as a refutation of peacetime American values. Yet it is clearly the case that, however, Americans like to think of themselves, they live in a society that the rest of the world has long seen as a reckless purveyor of war.
As Trump himself made painfully clear when he explained why he refuses to take a harder line on the misdeeds of Saudia Arabia, the economy of the United States benefits hugely from both the threat of military conflict around the world and the reality, when other nations use up the armaments they have purchased from American firms and return to secure replacements. While it might make the people who attend the Fourth of July celebration in Washington D.C. feel better to temporarily forget this crucial fact, it is almost certainly better to remember that American freedom depends upon the bondage, both political or economic, that we lure other nations into buying from us.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that Trump truly is a fan of authoritarian leaders and would gladly undermine our democracy to imbue himself with more of their aura. Whatever truths he makes us confront, he does not do so because he is personally invested in combating the ideology that convinces so many Americans that we come from a peaceful nation doing its best to make the rest of the world a better place. But the very qualities that make him so execrable to people who were raised the way I was, believing in a JFK-style vision of the United States as a force for good, help us to see things about ourselves that we would rather not notice.
Take the recent tensions between the United States and Iran. There is no doubt in my mind that Barack Obama would have handled the situation with much more grace than Trump ever could, from a rhetorical perspective. Yet I also suspect that he would have authorized a limited strike on enemy targets, as he frequently did while in the White House. Trump’s unwillingness to act with equanimity, as someone more “presidential” might, may outrage his critics but it also has the potential to make us aware of the collective self-deception that has kept the postwar United States motoring forward towards a truly Orwellian Pax Americana. In the end, we might be better served recognising that the fireworks that light up our Fourth of July are blinding us to the ones the United States spend the rest of the year marketing.
Photo courtesy of Antonio Carlos Bohnke. Published under a Creative Commons License.