American Dignity on the Fourth of July

July 5, 2017

American Dignity on the Fourth of July

Reading Frederick Douglass’s Independence Day address from 1852 may ease the despair caused by listening to the President.

More than three-quarters of a century after the delegates of the Second Continental Congress voted to quit the Kingdom of Great Britain and declared that “all men are created equal,” Frederick Douglass stepped up to the lectern at Corinthian Hall, in Rochester, New York, and, in an Independence Day address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, made manifest the darkest ironies embedded in American history and in the national self-regard. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass asked:

I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.

The dissection of American reality, in all its complexity, is essential to political progress, and yet it rarely goes unpunished. One reason that the Republican right and its attendant media loathed Barack Obama is that his public rhetoric, while far more buoyant with post-civil-rights-era uplift than Douglass’s, was also an affront to reactionary pieties. Even as Obama tried to win votes, he did not paper over the duality of the American condition: its idealism and its injustices; its heroism in the fight against Fascism and its bloody misadventures before and after. His idea of a patriotic song was “America the Beautiful”—not in its sentimental ballpark versions but the way that Ray Charles sang it, as a blues, capturing the “fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top.”

Image result for Donald Trump July 4 in America  New Yorker Cartoon

Donald Trump, who, in fairness, has noted that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job,” represents an entirely different tradition. He has no interest in the wholeness of reality. He descends from the lineage of the Know-Nothings, the doomsayers and the fabulists, the nativists and the hucksters. The thematic shift from Obama to Trump has been from “lifting as we climb” to “raising the drawbridge and bolting the door.” Trump may operate a twenty-first-century Twitter machine, but he is still a frontier-era drummer peddling snake oil, juniper tar, and Dr. Tabler’s Buckeye Pile Cure for profit from the back of a dusty wagon.

As a candidate, Trump told his followers that he would fulfill “every dream you ever dreamed for your country.” But he is a plutocrat. His loyalty is to the interests of the plutocracy. Trump’s vows of solidarity with the struggling working class, with the victims of globalization and deindustrialization, are a fraud. He made coal miners a symbol of his campaign, but he has always held them in contempt. To him, they are luckless schmoes who fail to possess his ineffable talents. “The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son,” Trump once told Playboy. “If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination—or whatever—to leave their mine. They don’t have ‘it.’ ”

Trump is hardly the first bad President in American history—he has not had adequate time to eclipse, in deed, the very worst—but when has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak? Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the Presidency a little more. He tells a lie. He tells another. He trolls Arnold Schwarzenegger. He trolls the press, bellowing “enemy of the people” and “fake news!” He shoves aside a Balkan head of state. He summons his Cabinet members to have them swear fealty to his awesomeness. He leers at an Irish journalist. Last Thursday, he tweeted at Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC: “I heard poorly rated @Morning_Joe speaks badly of me (don’t watch anymore). Then how come low I.Q. Crazy Mika, along with Psycho Joe, came . . . to Mar-a-Lago 3 nights in a row around New Year’s Eve, and insisted on joining me. She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!” The President’s misogyny and his indecency are well established. When is it time to question his mental stability?

The atmosphere of debasement and indignity in the White House, it appears, is contagious. Trump’s family and the aides who hastened to serve him have learned to imitate his grossest reflexes, and to hell with the contradictions. Melania Trump, whose “cause” is cyber-bullying, defends the poisoned tweet at Brzezinski. His righteously feminist daughter Ivanka stays mum. After the recent special election in Georgia, Kellyanne Conway, the counsellor to the President, tweeted, “Laughing my #Ossoff.” The wit! The valor! Verily, the return of Camelot!

Trump began his national ascendancy by hoisting the racist banner of birtherism. Since then, as candidate and as President, he has found countless ways to pollute the national atmosphere. If someone suggests a lie that is useful to him, he will happily pass it along or endorse it. This habit is not without purpose or cumulative effect. Even if Trump fails in his most ambitious policy initiatives, whether it is liberating the wealthy from their tax obligations or liberating the poor from their health care, he has already begun to foster a public sphere in which, as Hannah Arendt put it in her treatise on totalitarian states, millions come to believe that “everything was possible and that nothing was true.”

Frederick Douglass ended his Independence Day jeremiad in Rochester with steadfast optimism (“I do not despair of this country”). Read his closing lines, and what despair you might feel when listening to a President who abets ignorance, isolation, and cynicism is eased, at least somewhat. The “mental darkness” of earlier times is done, Douglass reminded his audience. “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” There is yet hope for the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and “the genius of American Institutions.” There was reason for optimism then, as there is now. Donald Trump is not forever. Sometimes it just seems that way. ♦

This article appears in other versions of the July 10 & 17, 2017, issue, with the headline “Dignity and the Fourth.

David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

8 thoughts on “American Dignity on the Fourth of July

  1. With Donald Trump as the POTUS,their is no dignity left,not even on July 4th,with horndog Donald at the WH.On Thursday,the ethics watchdog resigned after much fighting with the money grabbing Trump.He had asked money loving self interest Trump to divest,as the sitting president cannot use his position to benefit his own self,children and relatives.But Trump refused.

    Who can blame Trump?After all,this is who he is.After fifty years of stiffing and cheating contractors,suppliers,waiters and waitresses,realtors and even students at his phony Trump U.He is well known for all the shenanigans with no respect for the law.Now the American people is stuck with this grab them by the pu*sies lowdown sewage bound garbage.

  2. Talking about dignity, I’m proud of White House ethics chief Walter Shaub who is resigning later this month. While he says that he wasn’t pushed out by Trump, Shaub makes it clear in his resignation letter that he views this administration as placing profiting off of the presidency above all else. Here is Shaub’s letter of resignation:

    The Washington Post reported: “In an interview, Shaub said he was not leaving under pressure, adding that no one in the White House or the administration pushed him to leave. But the ethics chief said he felt that he had reached the limit of what he could achieve in this administration, within the current ethics framework.”

    Shaub via the Campaign Legal Center made it clear that there are problems within the Trump administration, “I have had the honor and privilege of serving the American public at the U.S. Office of Government Ethics under three presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. In working with the current administration, it has become clear to me that we need improvements to the existing ethics program. I look forward to working toward that aim at Campaign Legal Center, as well as working on ethics reforms at all levels of government.” The White House is so unethical that Shaub resigned in the hopes of being able to push for more reform from outside of the Office of Government Ethics.

    Trump is deeply conflicted, and with the Russia scandal soaking up the headlines, the fact that the Trump family has been rampantly profiting off of the presidency has been somewhat overlooked. The Shaub resignation is a big alarm bell that signals that there is a vast level of corruption within the Trump administration. Donald Trump and his family are abusing the presidency for personal enrichment. Shaub’s resignation should be a big story, and hopefully, it will bring the Trump Emoluments Clause violations the attention that they deserve.

    Shiou, Walter Shaub must be a leftist, too, right? By the way, do you want the Risperidone and Olanzapine or not? I promise they will stop your hallucinations and delusions. They work on both human and ape like Trumpanzee. Moreover, you’ll get these drugs for free. See, what a decent and compassionate man I am!

    • Mr LaMoy

      There is another grave danger to the health of the American Republic.
      While Trump is entertaining and horrifying the world (simultaneously),
      real damage is bring done under the radar by the neo-fascists in the White House staff (Bannon, Miller) and his incompetent, ideological political appointees running the various departments of state (such as DeVos at the Dept of Education).

  3. How inefficient is the Trump administration? He went to Hamburg, Germany for the G20 Summit but forgotten to book a hotel room. He tried to book one in Berlin, 180 miles away, and commute to the G20 meetings by helicopter but that plan fell apart too. And so he will have to rest in Hamburg in a government-owned guesthouse. Saudi Arabia which has booked the whole Four Seasons Hotel does not have the courtesy to give him face to spare him a room. Great ally.

    You know what? This isn’t the first time the Trump administration failed to find accommodation in Germany. Last February Rex Tillerson failed to find a hotel room in Bonn and had to stay at a spa catering to old folks.

    • He should have copied Muammar Khadafy and pitched
      a big tent (a beautiful white one) on the grounds of the
      conference venue. Wasted Opportunity. To fire up his base. Sad.

  4. With Trump in the White House the G7 and G20 summits may have to change their names to G6 plus 1 and G19 plus 1. Pictures of the recent G20 tell plenty about the summit. Trump was sidelined by protocol in the G20 summit. Angela Merkel arranged Xi Jingping by her side all the time in group picture and at dinner table. She put Trump at the far left of the group picture. But Emmanuel Macron, showing great gesture of French chivalry, jostled his way from the second row to the front to stand by the side of Trump. See:

    Merkel is showing her total despise of Trump. And knowing Trump a thin-skinned and notoriously vengeful person, I anticipate there will be a lot of verbal war between the two from now on.

    Xi Jingping spoke during a lunchtime session, taking a swipe at “major developed nation” for backsliding toward protectionism, while making a pitch for China and Russia to step up and assume more global leadership. Trump scowled and sat with his arms crossed listening closely. And Angela Merkel poured praise on China as “an ever more important partner, one who has now become a strategic partner.” Ironic it may seem, communist China is now the leader of globalization of the ‘free trade’ world. Even Shinzo Abe, the true lapdog of the US, was telling Xi he wanted to join the AIIB and the Belt and Road Initiative. Abe must have lost hope completely in Trump. Is the decline of the Anglo-Saxon Empire, often mistaken as the West, picking up speed? The West is not declining, but the Anglo-Saxon Empire certainly is.

    Trump has pulang ka tanah air, balek kampung so to speak, may be preparing to tell the American people that Russia did not meddle in the 2016 presidential election, because his Taikor Vlad told him so to his face. Meanwhile his own UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the woman who is so ashamed of her Indian origin that she dropped the beautiful name her parents given her, Nimrata Randhawa, said during an interview on CNN that “everybody knows that Russia interfered in the election.” And his own son Donald Trump Jr. has confirmed that the Russia meeting happened, and what the Trump campaign expected to get out of the meeting, blowing the door wide open for Congress to impeach his father….

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