intelligencer chats

Is Trump’s Fourth of July Spectacle Un-American?

The president’s favorite toys. Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

I’m your host, Benjamin Hart, and today I’m talking with Intelligencer writers Sarah Jones and Eric Levitz about President Trump’s latest norm violations.

Ben: The Trump administration is planning what sounds like a jingoistic lovefest at the July 4th parade, an event that will include tanks on, or at least near, the streets, military flyovers, and a rousing speech from President Trump (which will likely devolve into a stump speech). All this has drawn a lot of opprobrium from those who despair that our wannabe-dictator president is planning an event more in keeping with the spirit of North Korea than the United States.

But in a culture in which we revere veterans in a largely unquestioning manner, in which not standing for the national anthem has become a culture-war flash point, in which military spectacle (including flyovers) is tightly wrapped up with our most popular sport — is that criticism actually correct?

Eric: It’s not un-American. Perhaps it’s a bit uncouth.

Sarah: I think that’s exactly the right question to ask. There really isn’t anything un-American about this display at all, at least in my mind; Trump, as he usually does, amplifies rather than invents certain tendencies.

Eric: The military and the police are the only governing institutions that a majority of Americans have “a lot” of confidence in. “Kamala Harris Is a Cop” would probably be a winning general-election slogan.

Ben: What about Trump injecting politics into the proceedings? (I assume he will do so, though it’s not totally clear.) His administration is giving out VIP tickets to RNC donors, which, again, is very unseemly. That to me seems like possibly a bigger violator of norms than the military-hardware stuff.

Sarah: It’s very unseemly, but I’m not sure how much it violates existing norms. Trump didn’t invent corruption or partisanship, either. He’s just open about it all.

Eric: Yeah. Although, all the rules prohibiting the use of government funds for political purposes are kind of silly, in that they proceed from the premise that the president of the United States can, theoretically, give a public speech that is not political. Competently performing the role of head of state — without injecting any partisan vitriol into the mix — would be a savvy political move for Trump.

Ben: Sarah, I would argue that the lines Trump crosses are important, though. Yeah, corruption has always existed, but his willingness to throw out the rule book on relatively minor stuff like this, and the fact that he has not been punished for it really, erodes people’s trust and expectations, slowly but surely.

Eric: It is still an expression of contempt for good government and offensive on that level, yeah.

Ben: Do you think it’s possible that Trump’s veneration of the military and the police — which is almost a parody of conservatives’ love affair with martial-authority figures — will force a serious reexamination of the way our society treats these entities?

Eric: Among highly engaged liberals, yeah — at least temporarily. Look at what Trump has done to radicalize highly engaged normie Democrats on questions of border security. Although I guess the Mueller saga complicates things.

Ben: Why don’t we have any black-bloc primary candidates?

Eric: Haha.

Sarah: I would like to believe that it will, but I’m not optimistic. The average American is inundated with entertainment and political messages (from both parties) that treat military service like it’s almost a religious vocation.

Eric: Yeah. You’re probably right, Sarah. I was thinking it could move the needle among a small subsection of Democrats, but probably not.

Sarah: It’ll take more than Trump to force a popular reconsideration of military service or of the police. Take the cop shows off TV and then we’ll talk :slightly_smiling_face:

Ben: I agree, basically. I do think Black Lives Matter has transformed the way a good portion of the country thinks about police, but probably not the majority.

Eric: Yeah. It just made the majority like the police in an angrier way, or parts of that majority.

Sarah: I think if we’re talking about forces that could erode public support for the police, that an amped-up drug war is likelier to do so, now that the opioid crisis affects white suburbanites along with poor rural whites.

Ben: Going back to the “this isn’t American” declamation I’ve seen expressed so many times about this parade: What do you make of this sentiment generally? I see it employed often as a condemnation of the way we’re treating immigrants, of our criminal-justice system, of a lot of our current ills. Obviously America has in the past committed many sins, and I don’t think the people who label things “un-American” are ignorant of that. They mean that the behavior they’re describing does not live up to the country’s ideals. But is this a kind of easy way out in describing what’s going on? Is it useful in any way?

Eric: I mean, the phrase has two different (if related) meanings/intentions I feel:

1) “This isn’t in keeping with the best aspects of our national identity/tradition (or this isn’t normatively what America should stand for).”

2) “This is entirely out of step with what America has always been, and has emerged ex nihilo, without any historical precedent or context.”

I think the latter is bad. But there’s a place for the former, since I don’t think there is ever going to be a majority in the U.S. that rejects national pride or identity.

Sarah: I truly despise this sentiment.

Ben: Tell us what you really think …

Sarah: I just fundamentally distrust any appeal to our national identity. The idea that there’s anything there worth salvaging — that America has ever been anything but a bloodstained and bloodthirsty empire — rests on total fictions about what this country is and stands for. I don’t think it’s even politically useful to say, for example, that the Trump administration’s abuses are un-American. Used this way, the phrase becomes an obstacle to the very political reforms that would make America a more survivable place to be. How can we possibly achieve the change we need if we can’t be honest about the sort of country we live in? I think we’re better off discarding the phrase completely.

Is Trump’s Fourth of July Spectacle Un-American?