A year later, Trump's bizarre 4th of July speech makes sense

It was a declaration of war against other Americans. His presidency is done, but the conflict still rages.

Donald Trump arrives for the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

July 4, 2020, was an odd moment in American history.

Despite the pandemic and against the urgings of experts concerned about the possibility that a fireworks display could set off a forest fire, President Donald Trump held an event at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

There, on what is supposed to be a day of national unity, Trump delivered one of the most toxic, divisive speeches of his presidency. There, he laid out the most coherent articulation of his vision for America’s future. There, he again made clear that if you didn’t support him and his vision, that he was not working on your behalf.

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Here’s a portion of that speech:

1776 represented the culmination of thousands of years of Western civilization and the triumph of not only spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy, and reason. And yet, as we meet here tonight, there is a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for, struggled, they bled to secure. Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children. Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities. Many of these people have no idea why they’re doing this, but some know what they are doing. They think the American people are weak and soft and submissive, but no, the American people are strong and proud and they will not allow our country and all of its values, history, and culture to be taken from them.

One of their political weapons is cancel culture, driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and to our values and it has absolutely no place in the United States of America.

This attack on our liberty, our magnificent liberty must be stopped and it will be stopped very quickly. We will expose this dangerous movement, protect our nation’s children from this radical assault, and preserve our beloved American way of life. In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us.

Make no mistake. This left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress. To make this possible, they are determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage.

US President Donald Trump speaks during the Independence Day events at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, July 3, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

And moments later, he declared a new kind of Revolutionary War, a new kind of Civil War. This time, the enemies were other Americans:

Here tonight before the eyes of our forefathers, Americans declare again, as we did 244 years ago, that we will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people. It will not happen.

When was the last time a Democratic president gave that kind of speech? Perhaps I’m wrong, but I think the answer is never. When President Barack Obama was running for re-election in 2012, he gave a brief Fourth of July speech at a casual (or at least as casual as a White House event can be) White House barbeque. Unlike Trump’s speech, there were no digs at Obama’s political opponents. It was a normal, relatively boring boilerplate address. He thanked the military, encouraged attendees to enjoy hot dogs and fireworks, and that was pretty much it. His other seven Fourth of July addresses were similarly tame.

U.S. President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama delivers remarks at an Independence Day barbeque for members of the armed services and White House staff and their families on the South Lawn of the White House on July 4, 2011 in Washington, D.C. Obama hosted the barbeque for members of the armed services and White House staff and their families. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

Republicans get held to very different standards than Democrats in the press.

As a progressive and as someone who obsesses over media, there really are few things that irritate me more than the press enabling right-wing hypocrisy. Here’s an example of that, borrowed a bit from something I wrote in January 2020:

In 2008, Obama was asked about how he, a first-term senator and a Black man, could connect with white, working-class voters. He responded that a lot of people rightly felt left behind by the government, and explained that their anger was justified.

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Now, these are in some communities, you know. I think what you’ll find is, is that people of every background -- there are gonna be a mix of people, you can go in the toughest neighborhoods, you know working-class lunch-pail folks, you’ll find Obama enthusiasts. And you can go into places where you think I’d be very strong and people will just be skeptical. The important thing is that you show up and you’re doing what you’re doing.

For more than a decade, that comment has been held out as an example of Obama being an out-of-touch elitist who hated conservative voters… or something of that sort. But his point was that the government needed to step up and do better for people who’ve lost faith in government. He was channeling empathy.

A Trump supporter poses for a picture with a "Caution Deplorables Crossing!" sign while waiting in line to hear President Donald Trump speak at a rally in Freedom Hall at the Kentucky Exposition Center March 20, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. Trump is expected to promote the new health care bill, the American Health Care Act, at this evening's rally. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The same goes for when Hillary Clinton made her “basket of deplorables” comment in 2016. The point she was making was that you shouldn’t just write all Trump supporters off. Yes, there were alt-right types, white supremacists, and so on, but that didn’t mean that all Trump supporters were bad. Once again, this is an example of Democrats trying to be empathetic only for their words to be used as proof that they hate their political opponents.

But the other basket -- and I know this because I see friends from all over America here -- I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas -- as well as, you know, New York and California -- but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

Both Obama and Clinton were mercilessly called out by mainstream media outlets for their words, but the same can’t be said for when Republicans dump on the left.

Once again, from my 2020 piece:

For years, Republican politicians and conservative pundits have made attacks on cities and those living along the coasts part of their campaign strategy. In 2018, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) mocked the people of California, saying, “We are seeing tens of millions of dollars flooding into the state of Texas from liberals all over the country who desperately want to turn the state of Texas blue. They want us to be just like California, right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair." Last year, Fox Business published an op-ed by Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) about what “real Americans in the heartland” think about Trump’s economic policies. During House impeachment hearings, Republicans brought signs calling Democratic leadership the “coastal impeachment squad,” suggesting that their districts were less important and less worthy of representation than GOP members from Ohio or Nebraska.

Mainstream media’s failures embolden Republicans in their quest to dehumanize Democrats.

Republicans have only gotten as extreme as they are through years of media coddling them and holding them to lower standards. The rising threat of fascism from the right will only get worse as long as media outlets continue to gloss over the monsters they’ve created through unending capitulation. So long as they get invited to appear on Sunday news shows, so long as they get treated like a normal political party, the extreme right will continue its radicalization.

The press has a job that it simply hasn’t been doing.