Cutouts of J.F.K., Jr., Tanks, and Adulation at Trump’s “Salute to America”
Arriving early at the Mall for Donald Trump’s “Salute to America” event on Independence Day, I saw no tanks. But I did see, everywhere, the face of John F. Kennedy, Jr.—on hand fans, on signs, and, in one instance, as a cutout fixed to the back of a chair. The chair belonged to a dark haired and trimly bearded forty-something man and a blonde woman of about the same age. Both wore red T-shirts prominently featuring the letter Q and some other indecipherable text. I asked the woman what “Q” meant. She smiled warmly.
“What I believe it is, is a military operation that is communicating with the public,” said the woman, a follower of Q, a mysterious online conspiracy theorist who claims to have top-secret information about various plots and intrigues involving the Trump Administration and the wider political world. “I don’t think it’s just one person,” she added, explaining that posts on the Web site were perhaps written by Donald Trump himself. I then asked what the J.F.K., Jr. cutout was all about.
“You know how he died, right?”
“A plane crash,” I replied.
“So there’s a theory that there’s a possibility, that, maybe . . . ”
She smiled almost apologetically.
“ . . . he didn’t actually perish.”
“I see,” I said.
“That he staged his own death. In order to not only avenge his father’s death—J.F.K., who was assassinated—but also to take back our government. So it’s for the people, not an elite group.”
“So, he’s working with Trump to do that?” I asked.
“Possibly. Wouldn’t it be a neat ticket for 2020?”
I replied that it would be an interesting one.
As the President’s speech drew closer, the crowd thickened. Conversations broke out. I overheard a short blonde woman in a parka talking to a young man in an American flag shirt about clashes that had taken place between the far-right group the Proud Boys and anti-fascist protesters in Portland. The woman argued that the Mafia would not have tolerated open violence in the streets back in its heyday. She was Italian, she said by way of explanation. A minute or two later, the pair turned to the annual Independence Day parade that had taken place that morning.
“You know what I found interesting about the parade?” she asked. “The Taiwan-Americans, the Sikh-Americans, the Chinese-Americans playing ‘I’m proud to be an American, where at least . . . ,’ you know?”
“How did that make you feel?” the young man asked.
“It actually made me cry,” she said. “It was so nice to see them be grateful to America for giving them a better life!”
“Yeah, it really is!”
“But what you didn’t see,” she continued, “were Muslims. Muslim-Americans. Almost every different sect was represented except for the Muslims. They don’t want to assimilate.”
At about this point I decided to ask the woman, who had said she was Italian, how her ancestor or ancestors had come to the country; perhaps through Ellis Island?
“He was a stowaway, actually,” she replied. “He killed a man.” Then she turned away.
Some seconds passed in silence. I then asked her, with an apology for the question, whether she believed that a Mexican immigrant who had killed a man should be allowed to cross the border and enter the country. She considered this for half a moment.
“It was a different time,” she said. “Around the turn of the century! And, I mean, this was an honor killing, you know? The man was flirting with his girlfriend.”
The Trump Administration is mulling over ways to force the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. It’s widely believed that doing so will lead to an undercount of the overall population by discouraging responses from undocumented immigrants. One potential goal of this move was put into relief by a New York Times article in May about the hard drives of the late Thomas Hofeller, a Republican strategist. The hard drives contained a report detailing the ways in which a tally of non-citizens would allow conservative states to exclude them from the population counts used to draw state legislative districts, to the advantage of Republicans. But the citizenship question is, more broadly, also about sending a message to undocumented immigrants: that they, literally, do not count, that they are not members of our communities or our society—that policymakers and government do not have any particular obligations to them.
How steep is the slide from this idea to the notion that undocumented people are not really people at all? Over the past several weeks, we’ve read reports that undocumented immigrants in Customs and Border Protection’s custody, including many children, are being kept in obscenely crowded rooms and going unbathed and underfed. Defenders of the Trump Administration’s handling of the surge of migrants at the border have argued that any administration would struggle to process the influx. But the Trump Administration, which has intentionally separated children from their families on a massive scale to deter further migration, has done little to inspire faith that they are working to deal with the situation as humanely and expeditiously as possible. On the day before his Salute to America, President Trump dismissed reports about conditions at detention facilities in a tweet. “If Illegal Immigrants are unhappy with the conditions in the quickly built or refitted detentions centers, just tell them not to come,” he wrote. “All problems solved!”
Of course, many immigrants—including those making up the bulk of undocumented recent arrivals, who are fleeing violence and destitution in Central America—come here because they feel they absolutely must. There are an estimated twenty-five thousand asylum seekers in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, a small but important share of D.C.’s substantial foreign-born population. Walking around the Mall on Thursday, you could hear Spanish, Urdu, Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and many other languages in the air, spoken by parents and children toting tiny American flags and ice cream—whether assembled out of curiosity, out of disdain, or even in support of a President who finally managed, for a day, at least, to conquer Washington with a massive crowd of his fans.
When the President finally arrived, his supporters were treated not to the campaign rally many expected but to an American history lesson that, truth be told, may well be the best speech Trump has ever had prepared for him—which is, naturally, saying extremely little. There was a bizarre mistake or two. At one point the President noted how, during the American Revolution, the Continental Army, in its extraordinary bravery, had seized “the airports.” It seems unlikely that we would have a fourth of July to celebrate if King George III had had air support, but again, in comparison to his usual blather, Trump’s remarks were, on the whole, almost professorial.
The crowd loved it all, even from behind the fence, gazing up at jumbotrons of Trump speaking behind rain-streaked bulletproof glass. As the Salute wore on, I met a man who said he was a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a whim, he had driven to Washington from Arkansas overnight with a friend. Seeing Trump in person had been worth it, he said. “Donald Trump is the most patriotic motherfucking President we’ve had in a goddamn long time,” he told me. “He is absolutely most definitely my motherfucking President.”
Soon afterward, Trump finished his spiel about the Air Force and announced an incoming flyover.
“Representing the Air Force you will soon see beautiful, brand new F-22 Raptors from Langley Air Force Base in Virginia,” he crowed. “And one magnificent B-2 Stealth Bomber from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri!”
As he paused and the band struck up the Air Force march, the crowd tilted their phones and heads skyward, looking for a sign of the planes in the clouds. When they finally appeared in the distance behind the Washington Monument, there were cheers. They came in fast, swinging widely around the reflecting pool before disappearing out of sight briefly above the trees. They reappeared a moment later—two F-22s escorting the B-2’s dark arrowhead, all roaring towards the Lincoln Memorial over the whooping crowd, likely one of the few assemblies of human beings in the world, at that particular moment, eager to see an American bomber directly overhead. As the planes flew out of sight, the veteran, who had been pointing excitedly just a second before, tapped my side and looked at me with a sadness in his eyes that startled me.
“How,” he asked me, “could anyone hate this guy?”
The fireworks display that followed the event was, at the President’s request, the largest in Washington’s history. It was as though someone had looked at a menu of ordnance and ordered several of everything—starbursts and waterfalls; brocades, and comets and crossettes; smiling faces and explosions of the letters U.S.A. all so large that the night sky seemed at times nearly day-bright. But about midway through the thirty-five minute show, the fireworks became occluded by their own smoke. There were so many, a large gray cloud emerged over the Mall, making it impossible to see the grand finale clearly. By its end, the whole thing had been reduced to plumes of ash, flashing red, white, and blue against a backdrop of assaultive noise. The oohs and ahs gradually hushed, and we all began filing for the exits. The smoke followed, sinking in a thick shroud to the city streets for a mile or two around the Monument, as the crowds put their hats and shirts to their noses and mouths, wandering through the haze that had descended upon Washington.
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