It’s the 4th of July, the holiday when Americans celebrate not only the creation of our Declaration of Independence but all of the noble ideals that supposedly make America exceptional. We celebrate our freedom of speech, freedom of religion, our ability to pursue happiness. We take a moment to express appreciation for the notion that all human beings are created equal and that, as such, deserve to be treated equally before the law and as such by the society which exists beyond the law.
It is also tempting, at this time, to deplore how Donald Trump violates those ideals.
This article originally appeared in Salon.
I know that I’ve succumbed to that temptation: Before Trump was elected president — to be exact, on July 4, 2016 — I wrote a piece for Salon that predicted how Trump’s administration would mirror that of King George III if he was elected.
Yet as we reflect on this 4th of July, the second of the Trump presidency, it becomes ever more clear that Trump isn’t defying the American spirit, instead, in some of the worst ways possible, he is very much its modern embodiment.
We can start with perhaps his most obvious flaw: his racism. When the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal,” it did not include the hundreds of thousands who were slaves. Even after slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, it took nearly a century for the Jim Crow laws and other legal forms of discrimination against African Americans to be repealed or otherwise remedied by law. Similarly, America has had a number of anti-immigrant movements that have used racial logic and language to justify their existence, from the colonial era through the 1920s. Even after the more pernicious legal codes were repealed, the soil of prejudice that cultivated them in the first place never fully eroded.
In that sense, Trump’s harvest is merely the latest evolution on an old bounty. Future historians will be able to draw a direct line between Trump’s policies and rhetoric toward Latin American and other non-white immigrants, Muslims and the black community and the efforts by “white” American political leaders since the days of George Washington. And yes, “white” does belong in quotes there; as immigration historians like John Higham teach us, the very concept of what is considered “white” has been malleable through the years in order to accommodate the interests of groups with power.
Then there is Trump’s venality and blatant pandering to hyper-partisanship. For historical models of the former, look no further than the man on the $50 bill.
President Ulysses S. Grant led one of the most corrupt administrations in American history when it comes to financial scandals, the kind of thing in which the power brokers at the White House clearly care more about making money than serving the republic. The same could be said about the patronage machine and sleaziness that caused a party hack like Chester Arthur to become vice president and then (after an unexpected assassination) president, or the administration of President Warren G. Harding and its image-defining Teapot Dome scandal.
While the historical consensus on the first and last of those historical scandals (Grant and Harding) is more forgiving, it’s hard to believe that any man has risen to the presidency by being either naive enough to really not know that he was surrounded by crooks or noble enough to not personally benefit from the corruption which surrounded him. Similarly, the antics of administration members like EPA head Scott Pruitt and son-in-law Jared Kushner are all part of the same venal approach to governing that shamed Americans in the 1870s or 1920s. In this way, too, Trump is as American as apple pie.
Then there is the climate of fear that Trump has managed to reignite in this country, one in which right-wing thugs seem to have seized control of the reins of government and are alienating America from the rest of the world.
Recall a trip taken to Europe by America’s greatest United Nations ambassador, Adlai E. Stevenson, exactly 65 years ago this week. While he toured various parts of Italy and Austria in 1953 (before he was ambassador but after his work at the UN, as governor of Illinois and a Democratic presidential nominee had already made him an elder statesman), he repeatedly encountered people who talked about how the climate of ideological intolerance and fear created by Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had destroyed America’s reputation abroad.
How is this substantively any difference from Trump’s “America First” rhetoric (a term he borrowed from pre-World War Two isolationists, many of whom were pro-Nazi) or his demagogic cries of “fake news” for anyone who dares criticize or oppose him? Perhaps the only meaningful difference is that while McCarthy and his followers opposed Russia and never acquired the presidency, Trump is pro-Russia and, alas, very much America’s president.
Just to be clear: There are many more examples of racism, xenophobia, corruption, and fear-mongering besides the ones mentioned here. When it comes to the political characteristics that make America into the nation whose birthday we celebrate today, Trump is often more an early21st-century variation on very longstanding themes.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t love America? Of course not. The United States of America is a nation full of people, who are flawed and will therefore create societies that are flawed. That doesn’t mean that the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence, which is being celebrated today, aren’t still among the most important and pricelessly valuable concepts ever used as the formation for a governmental system. Hence this passage from that immortal document:
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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Thankfully the American form of constitutional government founded upon these precepts in 1787 (the anniversary of which is not the one we’re celebrating today) has lasted without being overthrown for more than 230 years. As a result, just as America eventually threw out rascals who gave us presidents like Grant and Harding or policies like slavery, we will someday throw out all of the depredations caused by the rise of Trump.
When we do, that will be because we’re Americans. That doesn’t mean, however, we should forget that the fact that we had Trump in the first place is also very much because of what it means to be an American.