Trump’s Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore, as well as his White House Lawn speech a day later, were not just divisive — they were manipulative, misleading, offensive, and inflammatory. On the day we should have been reflecting on how our society can better embody the positive values of justice and equality proclaimed by our Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the Constitution, Trump chose instead to deliver a fiery denunciation of those fighting for those very values. In the midst of his abysmal mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis, with a tanking economy, raging unemployment and polls slipping, Trump resorted to the oldest trick in the autocrat’s playbook: demonize one’s opponents. Democrats, liberals, Marxists, anarchists, violent mobs, even teachers were all thrown together in a cauldron of far-fetched accusations and demeaning insults.
Those consuming only right-wing talking points delivered by political operatives posing as journalists, probably have no idea about the spiritual and political strengths of the BLM protests, about the millions of people of all ages, races and ethnic background marching peacefully against racism and social inequality in thousands of big and small American cities and throughout the world. They do not know that elderly ladies in their wheel chairs, parents pushing strollers, children, young people holding hands, marched day after day, most of the time with no incident whatsoever, and in the spirit of the American revolutionary values of freedom, justice and equality. No, from the president and his allies they heard instead of violent mobs bent on razing American civilization to the ground.
As someone who devoted a lifetime to study history, I am dismayed by Trump’s blatant manipulations and horrified by his reactionary zeal. Trump shamelessly rewrites both history and current events to suit his myopic and self-aggrandizing political ends. He pays lip service to the concept of equality enshrined in our Constitution, but doesn’t recognize the racism and entrenched inequalities that divide us today and from which the protests were born. In fact, he does not attempt to distinguish between protesters, looters and vandals. He does not recognize that some of the worst damage (to businesses and even churches and monuments) was carried out by white supremacists and provocateurs. Most importantly, he does not acknowledge the necessity of getting rid of the negative, oppressive and exploitative symbolism still enshrined in some of our monuments. Quite the contrary, he accuses protesters of destroying exclusively the monuments devoted to our founding fathers (and, no, I don’t agree with toppling the statues of Washington and Lincoln).
But the most egregious (and, of course, intentional) fallacy of Trump’s speech is equating history and monuments. The removal of statues during some of the protests, whether one agrees with it or not (and I had rather the removal of racist symbols were carried out institutionally, as it was done with the confederate flag in Mississippi), is not part of a “left-wing revolution to overthrow American values.” It is Americans demanding that the American values of equality and justice be respected. It should go without saying, that we can’t erase history by removing statues. Woodrow Wilson, General Lee, and other white supremacists will continue to be studied and their ideas will be put in context and taught in school. But they cannot be set up as the symbols of American values for future generations. Their statues today belong in museums, not in the public squares.
As a historian and as a teacher, I was especially offended by Trump’s misrepresentation of education in our country. Among other things, he said:
The violent mayhem we have seen in our streets and cities run by liberal Democrats in every case is the predictable result of years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism and other cultural institutions. Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it weren’t heroes, but villains.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Teachers, no matter their political leanings, encourage first and foremost students’ ability to do research, to ask questions, and to come to a nuanced understanding of history on the basis of documents. Every single American teacher, parent and student, who knows the amount of care and attention to facts teachers put in their work, who knows how much they love their students, and how much they care for the future of our nation, should be outraged.
With his attempted re-appropriation of American values and American history, Trump’s Fourth of July speech can be seen as a dangerous embrace of fascist rhetoric. By identifying Trump’s supporters as “American” and his critics as “liars,” “violent mobs,” “totalitarians” the speech effectively brands not just political opponents, but any critically-thinking individual (such as teachers), who does not share his opinions, as un-American, unpatriotic, and, ultimately, “de facto” enemy of the state.
If we fail to see that Trump’s ultimate aim is to scapegoat his critics and to stoke resentments and hatreds among us, if we are not scared and horrified by the potential strife his stance envisions and predicates, we will be betraying our founding principles and jeopardizing our democracy.
Unfortunately, judging by anecdotal evidence, Trump’s Fourth of July speech was quite well received in the Italian American community–too many don’t seem to recognize its divisiveness and insidiously antidemocratic nature. This does not bode well for our future. Nevertheless, I would like to end on a positive note: I still hope that we can get together to do what is right. As Biden recognized in his July 4th video address, we have an opportunity now, today, to fulfill the promise “that all men are created equal” and to live up to the words that have founded our nation. But we need to acknowledge the racism that still divides us, and we need to listen to the voices of the oppressed.