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Most everyone, critics and supporters alike, who commented on the Fourth of July celebration on the Mall, missed the central point President Trump was making in his hour-long address. More important, they miss something essential about the Declaration of Independence: its nationalism.
For nations to become independent, that is to give birth to themselves, they must exert violence. To remain a nation, however, America replaced bullets with ballots—the rule of force with the rule of law.
The display of military might reminds us of the reality the fireworks may blind us to. Without the necessity of a tiresome harangue, the flyovers made that reality apparent to all—the argument was in the action—anyone there could see, hear, and feel American patriotism.
I have experienced this logos of the body when I taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy in the 1990s and took in many a flyover at home football games. A10 Warthogs would start the show, with fighter bombers and other planes following, culminating with the B-2. Watch and listen to the excited voices of the cadets and take in the screaming B-2 and F-22s :
In the stands, I heard those booms elicit startled cries from children, who were quickly calmed by Volumnia mothers: “That’s the sound of freedom.” In the same way the booming of a drum calls forth patriotism.
The spectacle was too much for journalist and former Republican speechwriter David Frum, who denounced the celebration in The Atlantic. “The speech existed only to provide a reason why he needed to stand in one place long enough for five waves of warplanes to cross the sky,” Frum huffs. “No non-American could watch that spectacle at the Lincoln Memorial and feel that America stood for anything good or right or universal.”
Of course, plenty of non-Americans know the achievements of Abraham Lincoln. Yet even the Canadian-American Frum (who is often insightful on questions of immigration) raises doubts about his own doubt: “I found myself paying attention to [Trump’s] hackneyed words in a way I never had before. Will Americans always be that people? Are Americans that people now?”
The teacher of patriotism and political philosophy Leo Strauss anticipated Frum’s dull response when he wrote about the Declaration’s most famous words in the second sentence of Natural Right and History:
The passage has frequently been quoted, but by its weight and its elevation, it is made immune to the degrading effects of the excessive familiarity which breeds contempt and of misuse which breeds disgust. “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . .” The nation dedicated to this proposition has now become, no doubt partly as a consequence of this dedication, the most powerful and prosperous of the nations of the earth.
Unfortunately, the most recent printing of the book lacks the earlier cover bearing the image of the Declaration of Independence.
Trump, unlike Strauss, wanted his reality show to emphasize the results of this American creed: its power (as well as the prosperity that made this power possible). It is unlikely that any Democrat would even have thought of doing anything similar, and their words, indeed, would be hackneyed and hollow.
The unique patriotism of America, based on a creed, is not without its physical signs: We pledge to each other “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Propositions about equality and liberty cannot have ultimate meaning without the reality of “the last full measure of devotion.”
The mind of the Left that supplies its anti-patriotic sentiments shares with a friend of America, the incomparable Alexis de Tocqueville, the premise that Americans are a Cartesian people (“I think, therefore I am”): dogmatic skeptics who need certainty through abstract premises.
Despite his high opinion of many American qualities, including their practicality, religious and commercial spirit, and independence, Tocqueville was appalled by their brash patriotism and excessive embrace of the Declaration of Independence (letter to Chabrol, July 16, 1831). Perhaps his final thought on the Declaration is seen in the fact that he never mentions it in his 700-page classic, Democracy in America.
In the same divided way, Thomas Jefferson himself embraced both modern skepticism and traditional piety. In consecutive chapters of his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, he argued that it made no difference whether neighbors believe in 20 gods or none, and that we can only remain a free people if they hold that their “liberties are of the gift of God” (Query 19).
American statesmen have taken the latter perspective against religious skepticism and on the need for faith—but the modern Democratic Party are both Cartesian skeptics and moral fanatics. By contrast, Jefferson was a patriot and publicly pious. Rejecting both Tocqueville and Jefferson, the contemporary Democrats make their god something else—the forces of progress, heightened consciousness, or “science.”
Of course patriotism is another foolish sentiment to be dismissed or reinterpreted to fit the current social agenda. Relatively few Democrats describe themselves as “extremely” or “very patriotic.” Nationalism, in their view, is a close relative of national socialism. Their manifestations, like their statues, ought to be banned. If Robert E. Lee goes, Ulysses S. Grant is not far behind.
In his stirring speeches of the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln would sometimes ask, why do we celebrate the Fourth? On one occasion he replied:
And now I appeal to all—to Democrats as well as others—are you really willing that the Declaration shall be thus frittered away?—thus left no more at most, than an interesting memorial of the dead past? thus shorn of its vitality, and practical value; and left without the germ or even the suggestion of the individual rights of man in it?
Like Americans back then, those who were at the Mall this Fourth of July know the Declaration is not just about sparklers. We felt it in our bones as we saw the flyover. I didn’t need to quote from Trump’s most fitting speech about patriotic Americans then and now. He gave a 21st-century answer in his reality show.
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Photo Credit: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images