Everyone knows the Fourth of July is for picnics and parades and fireworks. It’s not a heavy holiday – the days when some local politician would give an “inspiriting” speech in the park are long gone. People wave flags. That’ll do – but this Fourth of July is a bit different. Donald Trump is president. A question hangs in the air. What have we gotten ourselves into?
David Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush – and a Canadian who long ago decided to become an American – and a neoconservative true-believer back then. He came up with the Axis of Evil turn of phrase – but the Bush years ended. They had to, so he did the obvious. He joined the American Enterprise Institute. That’s where conservative “thinkers” are paid big money to think big thoughts, but they kicked him out, over Obamacare. Frum argued that conservatives – just like him – should have compromised when that was the hottest fight in years. Conservatives could have wedged in a few of their ideas here and there, instead of opposing every single damned thing. Conservatives didn’t, and they got nothing at all, when they could have had at least something – and then they spent years whining.
Frum wasn’t impressed. These people didn’t understand how the system works. A representative democracy is not one long zero-sum game. You get what you can get from the other side – at least something – and live to fight another day – and that “something” can be useful. Proudly settling for nothing at all – and boasting about it – was stupid. Frum had no use for such people. They had no use for him. He was a distant cousin of Paul Krugman after all. And he was a Canadian.
Frum wasn’t a Canadian. He had just been born there. Frum was a naturalized American citizen, who took all the tests to prove he knew how our system worked, and passed them. That’s the deal. The natural-born citizens at the American Enterprise Institute didn’t ever have to take those tests, and pass them, and perhaps that was the problem. One should know how they system works.
Frum did just fine. He writes for the Atlantic now and pops up on CNN now and then – but not on Fox News of course – and continues to worry about the system. Now he’s worried about the Fourth of July:
Tomorrow, the Fourth of July, Americans will celebrate their independence, the birth of a free nation. Leading the celebrations will be a president mysteriously dependent on a foreign power – a president who lavishly praises dictators and publicly despises the institutions of freedom, not only the free press but also an independent judiciary and other constitutional restraints on his will.
This is a Fourth tinged with sad ironies.
Yes, Donald Trump is one of those natural-born citizens who didn’t ever have to take those citizenship tests, and pass them, and probably couldn’t pass them, but now the issue is far beyond how the legislative process works:
A traditional theme of the rhetoric of the Fourth is the celebration of “American exceptionalism.” That phrase has acquired a boastful overtone, which is why President Obama famously handled it so diffidently. “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”
Obama may have been onto something, because we ain’t so hot, really, when one uses the term “liberal” in the general and not political sense:
Even pre-Trump, it was hard to argue that the United States was a consistently more liberal society than Germany or Britain, let alone Denmark or Canada. In some ways, yes: Free speech is more protected in the United States than other places. In some ways, no: The right to vote is better protected almost everywhere else in the democratic world than in the United States.
But most of the compliments Americans paid themselves half a century ago ring hollow in the 21st century. In 2010, as a rising star in the Tea Party movement, Marco Rubio delivered the keynote address at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. He told his own inspiring personal story and credited it to the unique opportunities of the United States. “The result is an America where – which is the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from. You can be anything you are willing to work hard to be. The result is the only economy in the world where poor people with a better idea and a strong work ethic can compete and succeed against rich people in the marketplace and competition.”
None of that is true, and in important ways it is the opposite of the truth. Who your parents were and where you came from matters probably more in the United States than in most other advanced economies, at least if statistics on upward mobility are to be believed.
That’s one way to see where we are this Fourth of July:
America’s uniqueness, even pre-Trump, was expressed as much through negative indicators than positive. It is more violent than other comparable societies, both one-on-one and in the gun massacres to which the country has become so habituated. It has worse health outcomes than comparably wealthy countries, and some of them most important of them are deteriorating further even as they improve almost everywhere else. America’s average levels of academic achievement lag those of other advanced countries. Fewer Americans vote – and in no other democracy does organized money count for so much in political life. A century ago, H. L. Mencken observed the American “national genius for corruption,” and (again pre-Trump) Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index ranks the U.S. in 18th place, behind Hong Kong, Belgium, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany – never mind first-place finishers Denmark and New Zealand.
Frum is taking inventory and things are not pretty, and they’re getting worse:
Now the United States has elected a president who seems much more aligned with – and comfortable in the company of – the rulers of Turkey, Hungary, Uzbekistan, and the Philippines than his counterparts in other highly developed countries.
That result forces a reshaping of the question of American exceptionalism.
What have we gotten ourselves into? That would be this:
If, as I believe, Donald Trump arose because of the disregard of the American political and economic elite for the troubles of so many of their fellow-citizens, it has to be asked again: How could the leaders of a democratic country imagine they could get away with such disregard?
Nor has that elite learned its lessons. Look at the progress of the Republican healthcare bill through the House and Senate. The authors of the bill are acutely aware of how despised it is, how much more despised it will be once it goes into effect: That’s precisely why they have broken through all normal legislative processes, why they do not hold hearings, why they conceal its elements, why they outright lie about its effect. Even so, only fewer than one in five Americans support what they wish to do.
Frum has been here before:
Rather than make any attempt to build consensus – never mind to make adjustments that could gain broader consent – a small leadership group is pushing through. Some of those leaders are dogmatically sure that they are correct, no matter what anybody else thinks. Others are heedless of consequences for anyone but their supporters and donors. Still others feel cynically certain that if they can prevail now against the numbers, they can use the inertia of the American system to prevent the large majority who opposed them from reversing their actions.
Frum had no use for such people back in 2010 and the years that followed. They didn’t understand how the system worked back then. They still don’t understand how the system works. That makes it hard to celebrate American exceptionalism on the Fourth of July.
The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson – one of those natural-born citizens who didn’t ever have to take those citizenship tests but could probably pass them all – probably because he’s a black man from South Carolina who ended up at Harvard – has this view of this Fourth:
The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act cracking down on criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.
Yet they laid out a set of principles later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.
What have we gotten ourselves into? That would be this:
We have a president who neither understands nor respects the basic norms of American democracy. Make no mistake: Donald Trump is a true aberration. There is no figure like him in U.S. history, for which we should be thankful.
Trump’s inexperience is unique; he is the only president never to have served in government or the military. This weakness is exponentially compounded by his ignorance of both policy and process, his lack of curiosity, his inability to focus and his tremendous insecurity. He refuses to acknowledge his shortcomings, let alone come to terms with them; and he desperately craves the kind of sycophantic adulation that George Washington, a genuine hero, pointedly rejected…
He strings along his supporters with promises he has no idea how to keep. Like many a would-be strongman before him, he defines himself politically by the fights he picks; he erects straw men – faceless “elites,” cable television hosts, Muslims, Mexicans, nonexistent individuals or groups waging an imaginary “war on Christmas” – because authoritarians always need enemies. Yet his ego is a delicate hothouse flower, threatened by the slightest puff of criticism.
That has become obvious, but there is the system:
The Founders, mindful of their own faults, ultimately designed a system to contain a rogue president. They limited his elective term to four years, gave checking and balancing powers to the legislative and judicial branches, and designed impeachment as a last-ditch remedy. The Trump presidency compels all of us to be mindful of our constitutional duties.
That’s what the Fourth of July is all about:
The role of the citizenry – to express approval or disapproval at the ballot box – includes making sure that suffrage is not selectively and unfairly denied by restrictive voter-ID laws or partisan purges of the voter rolls. It is heartening that red states have joined blue in resisting the attempt by Trump’s trumped-up “voter fraud” commission to assemble a national list of voters. Perhaps some future administration could be trusted to make sense of our confusing patchwork of voting systems. This one can’t.
That’s where the system helps:
Congress must assert its powers of oversight. One reason the signers of the Declaration gathered in Philadelphia to pledge “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to the cause of independence was that they saw the mingling of royal power and British commercial interests as corrupt. We now have a president whose far-flung business empire – which he has refused to divest, and which his family still operates – presents myriad potential conflicts of interest. Trump has deepened the swamp, not drained it; and Congress has a duty to sort through the muck.
Congress must also let Trump know, in no uncertain terms, that any attempt to impede or disrupt special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling will have the gravest consequences. Trump should be told that firing Mueller would automatically be considered grounds for impeachment.
The justices of the Supreme Court, meanwhile, should study the court’s decisions in United States v. Nixon, which forced Richard Nixon to turn over his White House tapes; and Bush v. Gore, which halted the 2000 vote recount in Florida. Both were instances wherein the court, which rightly shies away from decisions that determine who occupies the presidency, felt it had no choice but to act. It is no stretch to imagine that Trump’s contempt for the Constitution will once again force the court’s hand.
This could all work out:
The Fourth of July is no day for despair. It’s a day to remember that our system, though vulnerable to a charlatan such as Trump, is robust and resilient. Eventually he will be tossed or voted out. And the star-spangled banner yet will wave.
Will it? There’s that despairing line at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” That’s when everyone knows that everything is lost. It was 1926 and Hemingway was writing about what Gertrude Stein called the Lost Generation. We may have another one of those. Wave the flag.
The New York Times’ Charles Blow – another one of those natural-born citizens who didn’t ever have to take those citizenship tests but could probably pass them all – a black man originally from Louisiana in this case – has his own view of the Fourth:
We must remind ourselves that Trump’s very presence in the White House defiles it and the institution of the presidency. Rather than rising to the honor of the office, Trump has lowered the office with his whiny, fragile, vindictive pettiness.
Here’s his Fourth of July inventory:
The presidency has been hijacked.
Last week, when Donald Trump attacked two MSNBC hosts, people were aghast. The condemnation came quickly and from all quarters.
But his words shouldn’t have shocked. His tweet was just another pebble on a mountain of vulgarities. This act of coarseness was in fact an act of continuity. Trump was being Trump: the grossest of the gross, a profanity against propriety.
This latest episode is simply part of a body of work demonstrating the man’s utter contempt for decency. We all know what it will add up to: nothing.
There is a price to pay for that:
Republicans have bound themselves up with Trump. His fate is their fate. They have surrendered any moral authority to which they once laid claim – rightly or not. If Trump goes down, they all do.
It’s all quite odd, this moral impotence, this cowering before the belligerent, would-be king. A madman and his legislative minions are holding America hostage.
There are no new words to express it; there is no new and novel way to catalog it. It is what it is and has been from day one: The most extraordinary and profound electoral mistake America has made in our lifetimes and possibly ever.
Yes, celebration seems inappropriate:
We must always remember that although individual Americans made the choice to vote affirmatively for him or actively withhold their support from his opponent, those decisions were influenced, in ways we cannot calculate, by Russian interference in our election, designed to privilege Trump.
We must remember that we now have a president exerting power to which he may only have access because a foreign power hostile to our interests wanted him installed. We must remember that he has not only praised that foreign power, he has proven mysteriously averse to condemning it or even acknowledging its meddling.
We must remember that there are multiple investigations ongoing about the degree of that interference in our election – including a criminal investigation – and that those investigations are not constrained to collusion and are far from fake news. These investigations are deadly serious, are about protecting the integrity of our elections and the sovereignty of our country and are about a genuine quest for truth and desire for justice.
Opposing that there’s this:
Donald Trump is depending on people’s fatigue. He is banking on your becoming overwhelmed by his never-ending antics. He is counting on his capacity to wear down the resistance by sheer force.
He’s counting on the Fourth of July being about picnics and parades and fireworks and not a heavy holiday at all. No one now has the energy for anything else – he made sure of that – and John Avlon offers this:
Like many grandchildren of immigrants, I was brought up with a special reverence for America. Our country was not to be taken for granted – it was not like all the others.
As a child, I devoured pint-sized presidential biographies where the arc of Oval Office lives was presented as a lesson in character as much as ambition, punctuated by bits of useful wisdom. All were flawed, but taken together the presidential pantheon formed a kind of reassuring firmament over the American story.
But this is the first Fourth of July under President Trump, and the patriotic bunting feels a bit different this year.
There’s a reason for that:
In less than six months, we have been forced to confront a president uniquely uninterested in uniting the nation, a reflexive divider who is quick to attack civic-minded critics while cozying up to autocrats worldwide. He is a master of bluster and marketing but you can’t graft heroism or character on his life story. Normally, the Oval Office ennobles the occupant, but Trump is governing just the way he campaigned: as a celebrity demagogue whose disregard for facts or common decency is compounded by his ignorance of policy and American history.
This is not a partisan complaint. Most Republicans in Congress will acknowledge this sad state of affairs in private, occasionally in public. What most journalists know is that some members of the administration feel the same way.
Over the course of his campaign, many of his aides privately came to the conclusion that their party’s nominee was a man whose instincts and experience were spectacularly unsuited to the office, even as they resisted a return of the Clintons. This instinct has only grown since inauguration day as many of the presidents’ men and women find themselves engaged in an absurd game of “contain the president” routinely derailed by Twitter tantrums.
But again, the system may save us:
The Achilles heel of democracy was always the danger that people would fall under the sway of a demagogue with authoritarian ambitions. That’s why the founders divided power into three equal branches of government, strengthened with a series of internal and external checks and balances. Participating in the legislative and judicial branch – let alone state and local government – doesn’t get as much attention as presidential-level politics, but it is just as essential to the overall stability of our system.
In the Trump era, it’s no small irony that liberals are suddenly seeing the wisdom of federalism while civil libertarians are more broadly appreciated as defending core values. These are civic evolutions we should not forget when the next president comes to town.
And there’s this:
It’s worth remembering that the Constitution doesn’t mention political parties, but it does mention a free press. That’s because the founders recognized that journalism is an essential guarantor of liberty. Don’t take my word for it, listen to James Madison: “To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.” On the other side of the equation is our current president, who has repeatedly called journalists “the enemy of the American people.”
In the coming months and years, Americans are going to rely on a focused and fearless free press despite the attempts of the administration to attack and intimidate us into silence. We’re going to rely on a vibrant independent judiciary to restrain executive overreach. And we’re going to need principled members of Congress to assert their independence rather than acting as partisan apologists for the president while abandoning their constitutional responsibility.
If so, things may work out:
We are adjusting to an insult to our ideal of the presidency that is even deeper than the dark late chapters of Dick Nixon, who at least had real policy and geopolitical accomplishments. But the American system is strong. It was designed to survive such a crisis of confidence. After all, one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, was bookended by two of our worst, James Buchanan and Andrew Johnson.
We’ll get through this – but only if we resolve to remember that our democracy is a common responsibility, not something we simply delegate to warring factions or a figurehead president. That’s the way to really make America great again.
We’ll get through this? This is the first Fourth of July with a new president where everyone seems to be doing an inventory to figure out what we have here, trying to figure out what the hell we’ve gotten ourselves into, and if there’s a way out. This could be most extraordinary and profound electoral mistake America has ever made. That changes things – but wave the flag anyway. There’s no other option.