The authoritarian nationalist leader typically rewrites the story of the nation in his own image, in a very particular way. Our own homegrown authoritarian nationalist has proved particularly devoted to this fusion of national mythmaking and self-hagiography, often delivered in his own unique language of crass, gaudy spectacle.
The historians tell us that this is what authoritarian nationalists do. As Harvard’s Jill Lepore puts it, they replace history with tried-and-true fictions — false tales of national decline at the hands of invented threats, melded to fictitious stories of renewed national greatness, engineered by the leader himself, who is both author of the fiction and its mythic hero.
This is what we will be seeing in one form or another on the Fourth of July, no matter what Trump says in his planned Independence Day speech from the Lincoln Memorial. The very act of taking over the proceedings in the manner he has cooked up itself accomplishes this feat.
New details are emerging about Trump’s plans. The Post reports that the National Park Service will now divert millions of dollars previously earmarked to improve parks across the country to fund Trump’s celebration on the Mall.
Meanwhile, a White House official tells The Post that the plans include a plane from Air Force One’s fleet soaring overhead at precisely the moment that Trump takes the stage. Tanks will take part in the display.
Finally, the White House is handing out tickets to the event to GOP donors and political appointees. Passes are being distributed by the Republican National Committee and Trump’s reelection campaign.
As many critics have pointed out, by politicizing the Fourth of July so nakedly, Trump has inevitably transformed the celebration into a campaign event. It remains to be seen whether he will do so explicitly in his speech, but either way, that conversion has already been implicitly accomplished.
It’s the melding of that fact with the particular display Trump is putting on that makes this so ugly. The showcasing of military might, Trump’s association of himself with it, and the unabashed conversion of a paean to the nation’s founding into a reelection event — what it all amounts to is larger than the sum of its parts.
The naked audacity of the usurpation is itself the point. That Democrats and liberals are getting trolled into expressions of outrage over it only reinforces that point to greater effect.
Many have interpreted this moment as yet another sign that Trump does not care a whit about the idea of America. Never-Trumper Tim Miller has a good piece arguing that in multiple ways, Trump rejects the ideas about freedom, equality and self-governance at the core of Thomas Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence.
Instead, Miller notes, “it’s all phony branding, no history,” an exercise that “swaps out liberty and self-government for owning the libs and self-aggrandizement.”
Trump and American greatness
All of that is true. But at the core of Trump’s celebration there actually will be a vision of America — or, at least, of American greatness, and more to the point, of his own imagined restoration of that greatness. For you cannot disentangle Trump’s vision of both those things from his paeans to the strength of our military.
Trump campaigned on the false story of an America in steep decline. He embellished this story with endless lies and demagoguery about immigrants, and about how international engagement supposedly resulted in foreign leaders “laughing at” and “humiliating” us. Central to this tale was the constant refrain that our military has been “depleted,” the ultimate symbol of that national decline.
Trump’s claim to having rebuilt the military is also foundational to his tale of revived American greatness — and his own authorship of it. He pulled out of the Iran deal — international diplomacy had produced a “weak” solution — and will now force Iranian capitulation by threatening unilateral “obliteration.”
There is no doubt that Trump envisions this Fourth of July speech — delivered amid a show of military might — as a display of his own imagined role in “restoring” U.S. greatness.
But the whole story Trump told about American decline is false, and it is producing epic policy disasters. The demented worldview undergirding his lies about immigrants is producing a horrific humanitarian catastrophe. The anti-globalization rhetoric — while containing kernels of truth — has in practice produced a combination of bread-and-circuses bluster toward foreign elites and destructive trade wars with no end.
Meanwhile, Trump’s turn away from international engagement has in practice meant a genuine embrace of strongman authoritarian nationalism, and with it, a very real abandonment of the ideals of liberal democracy. Just this week, Trump agreed with Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s claim that “the liberal idea has become obsolete” and “joked” with him about getting rid of journalists. Trump absolved the Saudi royal family of any role in the dismembering of Jamal Khashoggi.
It may be, as Jonathan Chait suggests, that Trump does not know why he hates liberal democracy — only that he senses that it is incompatible with the value he places on domination and hierarchy.
It may also be that Trump has not given much thought to the Declaration of Independence, or to what Abraham Lincoln — whose memorial will become Trump’s stage — said about Thomas Jefferson’s words in it in a letter in 1859:
All honor to Jefferson -- to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.
That “abstract truth” from Jefferson was seen at the time as an afterthought amid the immediate political grievances of the moment. But it is what endured, and it is a big reason we celebrate the Fourth of July today.
Nobody, to be sure, has a monopoly on the meaning of America and its history. That is a big reason we celebrate the Fourth of July today as well.
Trump will read aloud some words of his own about Jefferson and Lincoln that were written for him to create the impression that he grasps these things. But the celebration itself will reveal that he very much does not.