The Fourth of July celebration in Washington has long been a grand pageant of democracy, a family-friendly event that transcends ideology and partisanship. President Trump intends to turn it into a cult-of-personality political rally in honor of himself.
No, I’m not surprised, but what Trump is doing makes me angry. And it makes me sad to see one of our very best traditions being trampled and dishonored.
Anyone who has raised children in the D.C. area knows what I mean. Independence Day is a highlight of the summer, a chance to wave the flag and watch the fireworks. The crowds on the National Mall are always thick. The muggy heat is reliably oppressive. Clouds often reduce the pyrotechnics to diffuse flashes of colored light. The traffic jam afterward is epic. And the whole thing, every minute of it, is simply wonderful.
There’s entertainment on the West Front of the Capitol, way down yonder, visible to most revelers only via giant video screens. But the point isn’t what’s happening on any stage. The point is the crowd itself, a cross-section of a diverse and often fractious nation, united in celebration of what holds them together rather than what pulls them apart. What the Declaration of Independence means to me might be different from what it means to the grizzled Vietnam War veteran to my left or the family of immigrants from Pakistan to my right, but that doesn’t matter. We’re all Americans, we’re all borderline dehydrated, we’re all having a great time and we all hope the sky clears before dark.
Most presidents understand that the theme of the day is “we the people,” not “me, me, me.” They usually have the good sense to keep a low profile. Some, beginning with Ulysses S. Grant, made a point of leaving town; others opted for symbolic activities befitting the occasion. George W. Bush and Barack Obama chose to preside over naturalization ceremonies for new citizens. Last year, Trump appropriately hosted a picnic at the White House for military families.
This year, the real Trump — the bullying narcissist — promises to make an appearance.
On Feb. 24, Trump posted this alarming tweet: “HOLD THE DATE! We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th. It will be called ‘A Salute To America’ and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”
With less than a month to go, Trump’s aides still haven’t fully informed local officials of the plan for a revamped celebration. We know that they intend to move the fireworks display from the Washington Monument to West Potomac Park, closer to the Potomac River; and much farther from the usual entertainment stage at the Capitol. Apparently, officials may erect a second stage nearer the new fireworks site.
And we know that Trump plans to give a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The temple that honors our noblest president will be sullied by our basest. The sacred site of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal “I Have a Dream” speech will be usurped by a president who looks at a group of neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members and sees some “very fine people” among them.
An in-person speech by any president would change the dynamics of the event, encouraging attendance by political supporters while discouraging opponents from braving the crowds. Trump is such a polarizing figure that this effect will surely be magnified. What once was the most inclusive holiday in the nation’s capital threatens to become just another Trump rally, providing lots of gaudily patriotic imagery for use in his reelection campaign.
Maybe Trump is doing this in an attempt to finally draw a crowd to the Mall that he can credibly claim is as big as Obama’s inaugural throngs. Maybe he’s frustrated that his ridiculous demand for a grand military-style parade, complete with tanks and missiles, never panned out.
Whatever the genesis of this truly awful idea, the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, put it best:
“It’s about the worst holiday he could have chosen. You never want to make events like this around a single person. This is the difference between the Soviet Union — the old Soviet Union — and the United States. Cults of personality are not how we operate in this country.”
That is indeed how Trump operates, though. The desecration of the Fourth of July is yet another reason to kick him out of town next November.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.