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The Fourth of July Is an Idea and Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand It

July 3, 2019
The Fourth of July Is an Idea and Donald Trump Doesn’t Understand It

I really love the Fourth of July. Always have.

Traveling to a random small town, to take in the purity and earnest patriotic energy of their parade has become a mandatory sojourn. It’s the one holiday that can get me to trade in my black and grey wardrobe palate in favor of primary colors. I’ve dedicated a preposterous number of hours to curating a killer America-themed playlist.

And each Independence Day, before I crack open a Bud heavy or Original Coors, I like to subject those around me to some passages from our country’s founders about what exactly it is that we are celebrating.

This has resulted, once or twice, in some eye rolls. And yet, I persist. Because this isn’t some phony holiday invented by Madison Avenue branding wizards to sell greeting cards. It’s not a made-up social media holiday to #drive #engagement. (Happy #BestFriendsDay, baes!)

No, it’s a day that marks the beginning of a historical sea-change that has brought once unimaginable freedom and opportunity to people across the world. The Fourth of July is the reason I do what I do.

On a campaign a few years back, my Independence Day obsessiveness and the stylized ephemera of Instagram culture came to a head when our well-intentioned digital department wanted to mark the holiday with a “Happy Fourth of July!” meme featuring a flag lapel pin on a businessman’s suit. This was . . . not going to work for me.

I decided to raise the consciousness of my colleagues by going into the office common space and performing a dramatic reading of Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Roger Weightman, the mayor of Washington, D.C., regretfully declining an invitation to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence because of his poor health. In this letter an elderly and broken Jefferson summoned for one last time the spirit that he brought to the Declaration itself. Ten days after drafting it, he was dead. On the 50th anniversary of his greatest achievement. And so this marks his final message to future Americans about what, exactly, it is that the anniversary of the Declaration marks:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings & security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view. The palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

It’s hard to read that letter and not drop into utter depression about our current political moment and the garish Independence Day celebration our president is hosting this week.

Because President Donald Trump is planning the #InternationalChocolateDay version of July 4th.

It’s all phony branding, no history.

It will be a gaudy TRUMP extravaganza, replete with tanks on the mall, “USA” spelled out across the sky, a rendering of the president’s massive hands with USA tattooed across the palm, a musical extravaganza hosted by Uncle Jesse from Full House, an “enormous” American flag, and a “special appearance” by the Sesame Street muppets. (Only one item in that list is made-up, the rest were provided, unironically, by the Department of Interior).

The TRUMP version of Independence Day swaps out liberty and self-government for owning the libs and self-aggrandizement.

Nothing from the promotion of this event, nor from President Trump’s rhetoric, has given us the slightest reason to believe that he intends for this celebration to honor the founding principles. I’d say that it’s probably an even-money proposition that our president has ever read the Declaration, or the Constitution, or the Federalist Papers, or . . . oh, what the hell. He appointed Gorsuch and loves big-ass American flags. Shouldn’t that be enough?

The answer, of course, is no. While it’s possible that other American presidents have been just as poorly versed in our Founding, Trump is undeniably the first President in our nation’s history who refuses to even pay lip service to the fundamental principles the Declaration was built on.

Worse than that: He has demonstrated, repeatedly, that the vision laid out by Thomas Jefferson is one he rejects outright. Every phrase in Jefferson’s letter includes a repudiation of our current president and actions that he has taken just in the week leading up to this year’s Fourth of July celebration.

Remember this passage?

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the Signal of arousing men to burst the chains, under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded to bind themselves, and to assume the blessing & security of self government.

Jefferson saw the anniversary of the Declaration not merely as marking a document that listed the various grievances against the King of England—but as a beacon throughout the world calling people to “burst the chains” of tyranny. He does so explicitly acknowledging his own failings—to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all—but he was always looking towards greater freedom and progress.

Trump could not have less interest in oppressed peoples bursting their chains. In fact, some of his best friends are chainers. Less than a week before his Fourth of July celebration, he walked into a literal prison state—not to call for the self-determination of North Koreans, but to participate in a smiling photo op with the man who is binding them in servitude.

In Jefferson’s eyes Independence Day marked the restoration of “the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.” Trump spent the week prior to his tank orgy, participating in a comedic jerk-off sesh with a tyrant about how he cracks down on journalists expressing their freedom of opinion. And then he ran cover for a despot who had a writer for American news outlets murdered for his exercise of reason.

Trump isn’t fighting to help those who are booted and spurred by the “favored few.” His administration is being run by his family members, right on down to his favored son-in-law texting the guy who ordered the dismembering and dissolving in acid of a man who was arguing for a free society.

Jefferson wanted the annual return of this day to forever refresh our recollection of the small-“l” liberal rights that this nation was founded upon. The only way in which the Trump celebration will do that is in laying bare how little our current president cares about these rights. Trump preceded Independence Day by siding with the forces of illiberalism throughout the world and agreeing with Vladimir Putin’s assessment that western liberalism is dead. Trump’s defenders argued that the president’s comment didn’t mean that he supports Putin’s illiberalism—it’s just that he doesn’t know what “Western-liberalism” is.

Keep in mind: That is the best-case scenario.

And here is why we must keep the focus of the Fourth on the ideals of Western liberalism and America’s place in bringing a beacon of freedom to the world:

Because if the day ever loses that meaning, then it will turn into a meaningless, jingoistic military exercise in service to whoever happens to be our elected king. It will become a celebration of blood and soil. Of the individual humans who live here and their various cultural quirks. It will reduce the United States of America to just another country among many on the map. Like Bolivia or Lichtenstein. Only with guns and McDonald’s, and clam chowder and Toby Keith.

We will simply become a land full of people with common interests. Which, by the by, are a dime a dozen.

It’s true that Independence Day has become a celebration that lifts up and honors our culture. And that’s fine, so far as it goes. But it’s supposed to be about so much more than that.

Because the United States of America is not merely a country, but an idea. And the anniversary of our Founding is about more than the parochial interest of its residents.

It’s about the choice that we make between submission and the sword. It’s a signal to rouse men throughout the world. It’s a celebration of inalienable rights.

And each year we must refresh our recollections, lest we find ourselves with branded saddles on our backs.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.