American Dignity on the Fourth of July, The New Yorker
“More than three-quarters of a century after the delegates of the Second Continental Congress voted to quit the Kingdom of Great Britain and declared that “all men are created equal,” Frederick Douglass stepped up to the lectern at Corinthian Hall, in Rochester, New York, and, in an Independence Day address to the Ladies of the Rochester Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, made manifest the darkest ironies embedded in American history and in the national self-regard. “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” Douglass asked….
Donald Trump, who, in fairness, has noted that “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job,” represents an entirely different tradition. He has no interest in the wholeness of reality. He descends from the lineage of the Know-Nothings, the doomsayers and the fabulists, the nativists and the hucksters. The thematic shift from Obama to Trump has been from “lifting as we climb” to “raising the drawbridge and bolting the door.” Trump may operate a twenty-first-century Twitter machine, but he is still a frontier-era drummer peddling snake oil, juniper tar, and Dr. Tabler’s Buckeye Pile Cure for profit from the back of a dusty wagon…
Trump began his national ascendancy by hoisting the racist banner of birtherism. Since then, as candidate and as President, he has found countless ways to pollute the national atmosphere. If someone suggests a lie that is useful to him, he will happily pass it along or endorse it. This habit is not without purpose or cumulative effect. Even if Trump fails in his most ambitious policy initiatives, whether it is liberating the wealthy from their tax obligations or liberating the poor from their health care, he has already begun to foster a public sphere in which, as Hannah Arendt put it in her treatise on totalitarian states, millions come to believe that “everything was possible and that nothing was true.”
Frederick Douglass ended his Independence Day jeremiad in Rochester with steadfast optimism (“I do not despair of this country”). Read his closing lines, and what despair you might feel when listening to a President who abets ignorance, isolation, and cynicism is eased, at least somewhat. The “mental darkness” of earlier times is done, Douglass reminded his audience. “Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe.” There is yet hope for the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and “the genius of American Institutions.” There was reason for optimism then, as there is now. Donald Trump is not forever. Sometimes it just seems that way.”