On Independence Day

 

(There’s not a real reason for this song, except it is elegiac and haunting and has been in my head, and it is awesome and represents the best of us, our creativity and drive, and that it has Canadians and Brits makes it even more beautifully and beatifically American in the best sense)

There is something grotesque and unwholesome about waking up on a blinding blue 4th of July and contemplating Donald Trump. It’s a day of jubilant parauppa-dum-dum parades and picnics along the lake. We shouldn’t be thinking about this waking nightmare, this wretched intrusion into our civic life. But then, it is exactly what we should be thinking about, because of how this intrusion reflects on our yearly show of patriotism.

What do these parades mean in the age of Trump? Where do our claims to greatness stand? Is celebrating Independence Day when Donald Trump is President a rebuke to his intrusion, or is it the same head-in-sand ignorance and chest-beating triumphalism that allowed our democracy to be so degraded?

To answer that, I think, we have to really think about that horrible phrase, “the Age of Trump”. It still seems ridiculous to say and makes the fingers itch to type; after all, how can we name an age for such an obvious buffoonish clown? As someone who has hated Donald Trump for as long as I can remember (really, literally), it is particularly painful. Here’s what I wrote last year during the primaries, which I think still rings true.

 He was the pinnacle of the worst of the 1980s, of the greed and opulence that marked our “return to traditional values”. In the 1990s, he was an avatar of cheating wealth, floating through a pointless time, opening and closing casinos, taking advantage of a game that was, for once and all, rigged toward the rich. In the 2000s he dominated the heightened idiocy of our reality age, all artifice and fake drama obscuring the disasters below our feet. And then of course in this decade he has been our preeminent birther, and the leader of the paranoid and hateful brigade.

In short, he’s been at the forefront of what has been the worst in American culture for four decades. He’s represented what is greedy and vulgar and dirty and stupid, what is fake and pompous and overblown and artificial. His glamour has always been the dull and lifeless sex of hostage porn, the weeping simulacrum of something beautiful. Whatever the American dream is, he’s been buying it on the cheap, packing it into something gaudy and worthless, and selling it at a profit.

He has always been this person: an insecure bully, an overhyped dope, a tabloid non-person. But that’s what has been celebrated. Artifice, vulgarity, ignorance, the virtues of blow-hardedness, the diminution of expertise, the faux-regular-guy with the golden yacht. We’ve celebrated the fake for so long that it isn’t an aberration. It might be part of our national character.

Every country has its myths and legends, and every country sees its best reflections in history’s dirty mirror. I can’t say that America is unique in this. But not being unique isn’t a virtue. America has always told a story of itself that is almost the exact inverse of the truth. It’s a cliche to say “We said all men were created equally, but still had slavery”, but really: think about it. The intensity of that hypocrisy is overwhelming, and yet, we still tell ourselves the myths of liberty.

We tell ourselves that America is now, and always has been, uniquely virtuous, and that we’ve never taken land in a war, and yet our entire country is stolen land. We warred for over a century to annihilate the existing nations. We were the exterminators. The British, French, even the Spanish after time weren’t interested in taking over all the land. Their claims were economic, making deals with the native nations to rob them. It wasn’t virtuous, of course, but it was nothing compared to the violent horrors of when America decided she wanted all the land.

(Want a good representation of our colonization process versus, say, the English? There are a billion Indians in India. The English, for all their cruelty, bigotry, and avarice, didn’t wipe them out, just as they didn’t wipe out the native tribes here. But we still somehow tell ourselves we are unique in our goodness, even while every inch of land was stolen via murder, war and broken treaty.)

We’ve employed horrific violence against workers trying to win rights. We’ve employed horrific violence against minorities trying to vote and take equal part in the civic life promised to them. We’ve employed horrific violence against the LGBTQ community for daring to be human. And those assaults–on labor, on voting rights, on equal rights–still continue, through legal means.

And yet, doesn’t that represent a kind of progress? Isn’t that sort of the point of America, this wild and fractious land, that we struggle toward a more perfect union, never getting there, but making incremental progress? Isn’t it inspiring that we’ve changed the battlefield for rights?

It is, yes. But that we’re still fighting those battles, and that the supposed rear-guard is actually winning, despite being in the minority is, I think, less an aberration but a continuation of our national character. It’s part of our belief that somehow good will always win even in the face of bad actors, and in our belief that America does good simply by doing. That we can’t do wrong, because we’re America.

That’s artifice, obviously, and it is artifice in a way that Trump exemplifies. He is a fake, and always has been. He’s a relentless self-promoter of his wholly-invented mythology, and in that way is extremely American. That he is grotesque and disgusting and entirely ignorant doesn’t make him distant from other hucksters and Gantrys, but rather an evolution.

That’s where America is right now. We’ve had 40 years of anti-intellectual “elite-bashing”, of praising “Real Americans” while destroying their jobs and poisoning their air and water, and that’s combined with a truly idiotic reality-show/tabloid/celebrity culture. None of this is entirely unique in America, but it does mix with our lack of historic honesty to create a culture in which a man like Donald Trump does more than exist, and more than thrive: it’s one in which he rises to unimaginable power, not despite, but because of these elements. He’s the right man for his time.

So yes, it is a weird 4th. We have to reconcile the fact that we aren’t a mature democracy. A mature democracy wouldn’t create opportunities for Donald Trump to rise in politics, and it certainly wouldn’t have a mechanism where he could win with fewer votes than his opponent (another legacy of slave power). A mature democracy wouldn’t allow a minority power to ruthlessly gerrymander votes out of existence based entirely on race.

This is where I want to offer hope. After all, it turns out our institutions are standing strong. The workers of the state are loyal to the country and are resisting Donald Trump’s attempts to turn them into personal servants. The courts are standing up to him. The media has seemed to at least sort of learn their lesson, and aren’t being cowered. And the people continue to resist his attempts to make bigotry and hatred the law and rule of the land.

But maybe it is already. Maybe the worst of us use these national myths not to unify, but to further their agenda of hatred (because it is impolite to cry “racism”). Maybe the worst of us use our devotion to 18th-century documents to erase actual democracy. Maybe there is something inherent in the American character, in our devotion to the myth and  that makes it easy for the worst of us to win. Maybe we’re just too big and wild and impossible to be governed.

We have to reconcile with these stories. They have raw power, and can often been used for good. This has happened as recently as the election of Barack Obama, a decent man who invoked these myths as a way to inspire. They’ll be used for good today, when we smile at neighbors and paint our faces and snuggle on blankets to watch fireworks enredden and smolder the bat-wheeling night. And that will be good, and we’ll be happy.

But when a man with no decency and no dignity is fronting an agenda that works to enshrine minority power, subvert democracy, and sell off our heritage, we have to ask ourselves what these stories mean. It’s time to tell a new one, before it is too late.

 

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