Special to The Washington Post
President Donald Trump has decided that the Fourth of July belongs to him. In February, he announced on Twitter that he was rebranding the day as a “Salute to America” that would feature “an address by your favorite President, me!” (Perhaps a necessary clarification.) On June 5, Washington D.C. officials confirmed that Trump planned to speak from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, forcing the relocation of the traditional fireworks display to West Potomac Park.
In the hours after The Washington Post broke the news, Democrats pounced on Trump for politicizing the national holiday. Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va. denounced the president for “injecting partisan politics into the most nonpartisan sacred American holiday there is.” Three prominent congressional Democrats, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., wrote a letter to the president describing the Fourth as a “nonpartisan and apolitical” day. “It is, therefore, unfortunate that you are considering a conflicting event, which would create the appearance of a televised, partisan campaign rally on the Mall at the public expense.”
But these claims are wrong. The Fourth has never been apolitical or nonpartisan. Americans have always used Independence Day to disguise political messaging in the cloak of patriotism. And often, these messages have contained the divisiveness and acrimony we have come to associate with Trump.
Politicization of the Fourth of July began even before the United States was a country. During the War of Independence, officials used the anniversary of Congress’s adoption of the Declaration of Independence as an opportunity to bolster anti-British sentiment. They rallied support for the Patriots’ cause with toasts, orations, militia drills and fireworks. In the postwar years, the day transformed into a civics lesson, with Americans extolling the benefits of republican government and, later, the Constitution.
As soon as political parties developed in the 1790s, partisans began capitalizing on the nation’s birthday as well. Local leaders hosted rival Fourth of July celebrations and positioned their parties as the “true” inheritors of the American Revolution’s legacy. Occasionally they came to blows as each side vied for control over the crowds and public spaces in their communities.
During the Civil War, even some Confederates celebrated the Fourth of July to reinforce their claim that secession constituted a renewal of the Patriot cause. “We are today engaged in the second war for independence,” a Confederate official declared at the Texas State Capitol on July 4, 1861. “We have asserted our independence of the old Union for causes before the magnitude of which the collection of a tax on tea dwindles into insignificance.”
Activists, reformers and interest groups have also used the holiday as an opportunity to link their causes to the revolution’s promises. In the 19th and 20th centuries, trade unionists, abolitionist societies, Sabbatarians, temperance advocates, antiwar demonstrators and civil rights and gay rights activists have all hosted demonstrations, protests and rallies on the Fourth of July.
Nor will Trump be the first president to give a Fourth of July address. Harry Truman, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford all did so.
Trump’s proposed Fourth of July speech, therefore, doesn’t pervert the holiday but rather keeps with its traditions. Since the Founding era, Americans of all stripes have used Independence Day as an opportunity to practice politics. Often they capitalize on the festivities by enveloping their particular message in the trappings of patriotism and claiming continuity with the nation’s revolutionary past.
The Democrats’ mistaken assertion that Independence Day is apolitical not only ignores this history, it also obscures the myriad ways in which our current celebrations carry political messages, even as they appear apolitical and nonpartisan. In particular, these festivities often equate patriotism with obedience to the state. From the first parades and fireworks of 1777 until now, the symbols of the day - the flags, colors and songs - have served to reinforce allegiance to those wielding political and military power.
For instance, Lee Greenwood’s song “God Bless the U.S.A.,” which first gained prominence at the 1984 Republican National Convention, frequently accompanies parades and fireworks displays on the Fourth. The song’s lyrics contain a multitude of political messages, including the glorification of the military, the assertion of an American monopoly on freedom and a link between patriotism and Judeo-Christianity. And Greenwood’s song is the norm, not an exception, on a day filled with music, parades and other symbols that celebrate the military, the flag, adherence to traditional American norms and allegiance to the government.
As a result, a day intended to commemorate revolution instead reinforces the status quo. And this is the heart of the problem. Instead of celebrating self-government or considering what promises of the revolution remain unfulfilled, the Fourth’s political messaging often boils down to a brash, unsubstantiated assertion that the United States is the best country on Earth. The traditional Independence Day rites leave no room for the nation’s improvement.
Thus, while Trump’s Fourth of July address will probably extol his greatness, not the nation’s, his speech will be no more problematic or political than any other celebration.
Trump’s politics are undoubtedly abhorrent, and any chance to resist his dangerous speechifying should be taken up with enthusiasm. Still, rather than falsely accusing him of politicizing the Fourth, those bothered by his proposed rally might do well to consider the implications of their own celebrations. Perhaps the centuries-long, uncritical extolling of American greatness on Independence Day helps to explain the rise of Trump in the first place. After all, his nationalistic, xenophobic and bombastic rhetoric aligns with 2½ centuries of Fourth of July traditions.