Donald Trump’s “Inoffensive” War on Reality
Donald Trump’s Fourth of July address was most remarkable for the things it did not contain. Immediately afterward, commentators noted that Trump didn’t use the opportunity to attack the Democratic Party, to issue explicit campaign slogans, or, it would appear, make any impromptu additions (with the possible exception of the claim that American troops commandeered enemy airports during the Revolutionary War). The President was so disciplined on the occasion of the republic’s two hundred and forty-third birthday that Vox called his speech “inoffensive.” Slate gave the speech credit for being “not a complete authoritarian nightmare.” The Times noted that Trump called for unity, in a gesture uncharacteristic of his “divisive presidency.” The word “tame” popped up in different outlets, including Talking Points Memo, which concluded that, thanks to the President not going off script, “the whole thing was pretty standard.”
Campaign slogans and glaring Trumpisms were not the only things absent from the speech. Immigrants were missing. Trump’s most recent predecessors presided over Fourth of July naturalization ceremonies. A rhetorical link between the holiday and immigration has long seemed unbreakable. During his last Independence Day as President, Bill Clinton chose to speak in New York Harbor, against the backdrop of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. “Perhaps more than any other nation in all history, we have drawn our strength and spirit from people from other lands,” he said. “On this Fourth of July, standing in the shadow of Lady Liberty, we must resolve never to close the golden door behind us, and always not only to welcome people to our borders, but to welcome people into our hearts.” In a much-criticized series of Independence Day events in 1986, President Reagan lit the torch of the Statue of Liberty and noted the swearing in of twenty-seven thousand new citizens across the country. He also referred to the “immigrant story” of his then new Supreme Court nominee, Antonin Scalia.
That immigrant story is, of course, the story the Trump Administration has demonstratively abandoned. Last year, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services dropped the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement. That phrase, like most foundational myths and more than some, obscures much of the country’s history: the first immigrants would more accurately be described as settler colonialists, who brought Africans here as slaves. But this was not why the Trump Administration deleted the phrase. Trump has retired the myth of America as a nation of immigrants because he staked his election campaign and his legitimacy as president on the demonization of immigrants—and on mobilizing Americans for a war against immigrants.
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Trump’s American story is the story of struggle, “the epic tale of a great nation whose people have risked everything for what they know is right,” as he said in the address. Over the course of forty-seven minutes, Trump enumerated American military conquests and the branches of the U.S. armed forces. A quick listing of civilian achievement—medical discoveries, cultural accomplishments, civil-rights advancements, and space exploration—was thrown in at the beginning of the speech, but the master narrative Trump proposed was one of wars and victories, punctuated by the roar of airplane engines for flyovers and the songs of each armed-forces branch.
The narrative was also one of fear. Trump spoke like the leader of a country under siege. The President and the people who joined him onstage were in a fortress of their own, a clear protective enclosure that, streaked with rain, made for an incongruously melancholy sight, as though we were watching them through a veil of tears.
Trump extolled the strength and battle-readiness of American troops but named no current threat. He promised only to strike fear into the hearts of America’s enemies. But his audience knows who the enemy is. North Korea or China may go from enemy to partner to friend on a whim, but there is one enemy whom Trump has consistently, obsessively described as an existential threat: the immigrant.
Two days before the July 4th celebration, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General issued an urgent report on the conditions in migrant detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. Photographs in the report showed children and adults in crowded cages. Other pictures showed people in extremely crowded holding rooms raising up signs in windows, apparently attempting to attract the attention of government inspectors. The document reported “serious overcrowding” and prolonged detention that violated federal guidelines. Children had no access to showers and hadn’t been provided with hot meals. At one facility, the report said, adults were held in standing-room-only conditions. “Most single adults had not had a shower . . . despite several being held for as long as a month,” the report said. A diet of bologna sandwiches had made some of the detainees sick. The report left no doubt that “concentration camps” was an accurate term for the facilities it described. On the eve of Independence Day, the media reported the story, which looked obscene among other stories. How could we read, write, or talk about anything else?
The President responded in a series of tweets in which he blamed the Democrats and the immigrants themselves. “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come. All problems solved!” he tweeted. Most of Trump’s tweeting day, though, was spent on other issues: railing against the Supreme Court’s decision not to allow a citizenship question on the census, for example, and hyping expectations for his Fourth of July extravaganza. In the Trumpian universe, immigrants pose a superhuman threat but are themselves of subhuman significance. Through his tweets, his attacks on the media, and his lying, Trump has been waging a battle to define reality to the exclusion of documented facts. In Trump’s reality, it’s not just that the Administration refuses to be held accountable for running concentration camps—it’s that the camps, and the suffering in them, do not exist.
The July 4th celebration, inspired by Trump’s visit to France during Bastille Day festivities in 2017 and informed by his affinity for the sabre-rattling tyrants of the world, was a high point in the President’s battle to command reality. With the possible exception of rain streaks, the pictures from the rally are his image of himself and the country. Following his speech, Trump kept retweeting images of his own limo leaving the White House, of fighter jets flying, of the red stage and a strange cross-like formation of red elevated platforms, and of himself speaking. In these pictures, Trump is the supreme ruler of the mightiest military empire in the history of the world and his people are with him in the public square. Nothing else exists.
A common maxim of the Trump era has it that two Americas exist, each with its own media and consequently limited view of the world. In fact, though, in one America there is only Trump, his tanks and planes and ships. In the America that a majority of us inhabit, however, there are concentration camps—and Trump with his flyovers. In this America, it is increasingly clear that concentration camps and the public spectacle of mobilization are not in contradiction: one is, in fact, a consequence of the other. It is also clear that the omissions of Trump’s speech are not accidental. In addition to not mentioning immigrants, Trump didn’t mention the complexity of the American project. Until two and a half years ago, Republican and Democratic Presidents regularly reminded the American public that this country’s democracy is a work in progress, that its guiding principles are a set of abstract ideals that continue to be reinterpreted.
“This union of corrected wrongs and expanded rights has brought the blessings of liberty to the two hundred and fifteen million Americans, but the struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is never truly won,” President Gerald Ford said on July 4, 1976. “Each generation of Americans, indeed of all humanity, must strive to achieve these aspirations anew. Liberty is a living flame to be fed, not dead ashes to be revered, even in a Bicentennial Year. It is fitting that we ask ourselves hard questions even on a glorious day like today. Are the institutions under which we live working the way they should? Are the foundations laid in 1776 and 1789 still strong enough and sound enough to resist the tremors of our times? Are our God-given rights secure, our hard-won liberties protected?”
Forty years later, in a much more casual celebration on the White House lawn, President Barack Obama said, “On a day like this, we celebrate, we have fun, we marvel at everything that’s been done before, but we also have to recommit ourselves to making sure that everybody in this country is free; that everybody has opportunity; that everybody gets a fair shot; that we look after all of our veterans when they come home; that we look after our military families and give them a fair shake; that every child has a good education.”
In less than three years, as our senses were dulled by the crudeness of the tweets, the speed of the news cycle, the blatant quality of the lies, and the brutality of official rhetoric, Trump has reframed America, stripping it of its ideals, dumbing it down, and reducing it to a nation at war against people who want to join it. These days, that is what passes for “inoffensive,” “tame,” and “standard.”