President Donald Trump’s outrages, absurdities and indelicacies arrive with such frequency that they numbingly blur together, and to focus and comment on each is to give him too much of what he thrives on — attention — and be debilitated by his dominance of your thoughts and passions.
That’s why many of you rightly cry foul about the media’s obsession with him, and it’s why I’m judicious, or try to be, about how much real estate he gets in my columns.
But there are utterances and actions of his that can’t go unexamined, breaches of decorum, diplomacy or normalcy that stand out from the rest or precisely distill his character. And the recent revelation that he would like to put himself at the center of the nation’s most prominent Independence Day celebration — moving the fireworks to a new spot in Washington, D.C., and making a speech as part of the occasion — falls into that category.
Most of his predecessors did nothing of the kind. They understood that the day belonged to the country, not its leader, and they didn’t conflate the two.
Trump does, all the time, and it’s alternately annoying, confounding and galling. If you’re not thrilling to his vision and submitting to him, you’re possibly guilty of treason — remember that rant? If you’re asking legitimate questions about unholy alliances that he may have forged or conflicts of interest he may possess, you’re orchestrating a coup.
Trumpian logic, more narcissistic than syllogistic, holds that if it’s the president’s job to lift up the country, then it’s the country’s job to lift up the president — spiritually, financially, with appointments for his cronies and sycophants, with jobs for his kin, with applause and of course with parades.
A parade: That’s how this whole impulse to convert the Fourth of July into the Fourth of Trump started, according to reporting by The Washington Post. In Paris, beside President Emmanuel Macron, Trump beheld a Bastille Day procession with all its military hardware, and he wanted the same in Washington, the same for him, tanks in the streets, fighter jets in the air. But that was too financially costly and politically risky, so now this: a tentative plan for a starring role amid the starbursts that less needy and more dignified presidents were content to marvel at, not exploit. For Trump, everything — a national holiday, America itself — is an opportunity for brand enhancement, another tall building on which to slap the letters of his name in gold.
And his response to effacement is hyperbole and swagger: He’s like one of those animals that puffs itself up when predators come around, using illusory might to conceal intrinsic weakness. Is it any accident that in the middle of an escalating feud with congressional Democrats, as the more damning aspects of Robert Mueller’s report sank in and his namesake was served a subpoena by a Republican-led Senate committee, he played host to and praised a loathsome autocrat, Viktor Orban of Hungary; again flaunted his friendship with Vladimir Putin; toughened his talk about Iran; and ratcheted up his trade war with China? For Trump, vulnerability begets a pantomime of super-potency.
He envies Orban, Putin and their ilk. They don’t have to deal with so much disrespect and dissent. They just crush it. His designs on Independence Day call to mind those sorts of leaders: their vanities, shamelessness and equation of national interest with self-interest.
Presidents before Trump were plenty vain — it’s close to a job requirement — and presidents before Trump presented themselves as vessels of the American story and symbols of American values. Barack Obama certainly did, speaking of Kenya and Kansas and the way this country brought such strands together in a singular context of diversity and opportunity. He was right.
And Trump is right to regard himself as an essentially American character who parlayed confidence, showmanship and a daredevil’s approach to ethics into boundless fame and considerable riches.
But he’s neither synonymous with the country nor indispensable to it, obvious distinctions that routinely elude him. “I alone can fix it,” he said during his speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016, and that was no aberration. More like a motto, perhaps stitched onto a throw pillow that he uses for lumbar support while slumping at the Resolute Desk.
Independence Day commemorates the breaking free from insufficiently humble rule. It pays tribute to a country being born, not a leader being crowned. And Trump would surely fashion remarks like those during his belated visit to American troops abroad, when he performed an aria of self-congratulation — the only song he knows.
It’s music so familiar at this point that it barely registers. But sometimes you need to pause and listen. And sometimes you need to say how ugly it is.