Donald Trump finally got his big show.
Two years after being wowed by a military parade in Paris, the president spent his Fourth of July presiding over a grand display of US military force. There were tanks and military flyovers (including Air Force One) on the National Mall, turning a once non-political, non-military celebration into something very different.
In the past, presidents have stayed away from the Mall celebration. But Trump delivered a rambling 45-minute paean to American exceptionalism at the Lincoln Memorial, tickets for which were distributed by the White House to Republican donors and political appointees.
The politicization of a national holiday is bad enough; trotting out weapons of war on the Fourth is obscene. It brings to mind patriotic demonstrations in the old Soviet Union that were intended to show “strength” but could not mask the rot that resided within.
According to Trump, as long as the United States “stay(s) true to our course. . . [and] never, ever stop(s) fighting for a better future, then there will be nothing that America cannot do.”
But these words are empty platitudes when one is reminded that more than 70,000 of our fellow citizens die every year from drug overdoses, close to 40,000 are killed by guns, millions lack health insurance, life expectancy in the United States has declined for three straight years — and Congress and the president can barely lift a finger to deal with these crises.
Who wants to wave an American flag when that same symbol of freedom and opportunity flies over detention facilities where migrant children seeking a better life are being housed in barbaric conditions?
This July 4, more than any other in recent memory, I’m reminded of a speech given by Senator Robert Kennedy, when he ran for president in 1968.
Noting that the gross national product stood at $800 billion (today, it’s $21 trillion), Kennedy wondered whether a statistic that captured “the mere accumulation of material things” could adequately define America.
“The gross national product,” said Kennedy, “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. . . . It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”
We can take pride as Americans in how far we’ve come in advancing civil rights for people of color and the LGBTQ community — and social and economic opportunity for women. Far more of our fellow citizens graduate from high school and attend college, now. They are far less likely to smoke or die in car accidents. Even our air and water are cleaner.
And yet our national poverty rate is almost identical to where it stood in 1968. Meanwhile, since 1980 the share of national income controlled by the top 1 percent of Americans has nearly doubled.
In the early 1990s, the United States was ranked sixth in the world for education and health. Today it’s 27th. Four in 10 of our fellow Americans are obese, which has contributed to a disturbing uptick in cardiovascular disease, the biggest killer of Americans. Our maternal and infant mortality rates are some of the worst in the developed world.
As for political freedom — the nominal reason that we celebrate the Fourth — can anyone take pride in the state of our democracy in 2019? The president openly talks of receiving assistance from foreign governments; state governments are creating ever-rising barriers for voting; and the Supreme Court is unwilling to stop partisan efforts to protect Republican officeholders from democratic accountability through gerrymandering.
Barely half of Americans even bother to vote.
Throughout American history, July 4 has been a time for celebration — not just of past deeds, but of our long-standing optimism about the future. Tens of thousands of migrants are risking their lives to come here now for precisely that promise.
But in 2019, Independence Day should be a time for painful introspection — a time to consider how far we’ve fallen as a nation. Trump and his psychodramas are not the cause of American decline, they are a symptom of a larger breakdown in our national character. This July 4, the hard work of making America great — and upholding its founding ideals — is as vital as ever.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.