Trump's speech on the Mall praised America, even while we abused human rights at the border

A better president could've commemorated America in a way that included all that we are and all that we’ve yet failed to become.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump at the "Salute to America" event at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on July 4, 2019.Carlos Barria / Reuters
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By Sabrina Hersi Issa, human rights technologist

The charade that was thrown this Fourth of July on the National Mall reflects the values and morals of a White House that has never cared about democratic governance; Donald Trump’s celebration was, as everyone predicted, a taxpayer-funded pep rally fit for a dictator. Overall, the content of his remarks carried little more substance than those of a midtier wedding DJ, but his insistence on a military parade and all the war pageantry continue to show the president's devotion not to America but to the authoritarian dictators for whom he openly, publicly professes love and admiration.

His administration represents not just the ascent of American kleptocracy disguised as political leadership but also dissonance in action. Trump, in those Salute to America remarks, praised the very same Gold Star families he has publicly attacked and denigrated over the course of his administration.

It is perhaps no surprise that Donald Trump sits at the helm of an administration eroding the very democratic institutions he purported to be saluting in his patriotic charade. This is an administration whose actions directly and repeatedly collide with constitutional mandates. The outcome of former FBI director Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation concluded that “there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” yet it inexplicably merited victorious statements from Trump.

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This is not an administration that values democracy, it is an administration that values spectacle and Trump is a masterful artist at creating chaos.

Donald Trump co-opted our national holiday to place fear and war at center stage but, elsewhere, the holiday marking American independence is not celebration but a memorial. For example, this July 3 marked 31 years since the United States shot down an Iranian passenger plane in the Persian Gulf, killing almost 300 people because our military mistook a commercial Airbus A300 for an Iranian F-14.No formal apology has ever been issued; Pentagon officials deflected responsibility for the attack at the time and have never changed their position. Then-Vice President George H.W. Bush bragged at a campaign rally less than a month after the incident, "I will never apologize for the United States — I don't care what the facts are… I’m not an apologize-for-America kind of guy.”

Trump’s spectacle thrives on that precise culture of non-apology ("America," he said to the United Nations, "will never apologize for protecting its citizens") and it reinforces the dominant narrative of what is ultimately an American contradiction in action. It undermines democracy to parade around as if America has nothing in the world to apologize for and puts our democratic institutions in the business of serving a lie instead of serving people. Apology strengthens democracy; it expands humanity and recognizes the fallibility of the people in our government. Apology helps reckon with the moral gaps and clashes between America’s ideals and America’s actions in the world. It would benefit America to embed apology into our heritage.

But Trump’s Fourth of July spectacle leaves no room for nuance, complexity or apology. As the contradictions and clashes between American ideals and American actions are becoming more stark and frequent and Trump continues to wage chaos around the world, it is becoming increasingly clear that America must deliver grace, because we will soon need the world’s mercy.

Trauma and chaos have become America’s chief import and export. No better place can this be seen than at the U.S.-Mexico border, where officials estimate more than 144,000 migrants were apprehended or denied entry in May and almost 6,000 children seeking asylum primarily from Central America are currently being held in detention facilities. The severe violence they are fleeing is part of America’s legacy, the fallout of decades of civil strife and political instability directly incited (and often bankrolled) by our foreign policy. Instead of finding sanctuary from a hell that the U.S. government helped create, migrants seeking peace are reportedly being subjected to flagrant abuse by government officials, women fleeing sexual violence are subject to more sexual violence, and children are being kept in cages.

If we do not do anything to also grapple with this country’s complicity in oppression, then celebrations like the president's will only continue to be a front for a cruel circus act.

We can only end the spectacle by entangling ourselves in the reckoning with messy moral obligations. Our democracy is strong enough to bear witness to and end state-sponsored human rights abuses while also pushing for impeachment. We can create a commemoration of America that is expansive enough to include all the things that we are and all that we’ve failed to become. As it stands, in a politicized culture absent apology, accountability and growth, we are a nation united under a lie, governed by liars.

As someone whose family received political asylum in the United States from Somalia, this complicated legacy is a part of my inheritance too. In my first homeland, America instigated chaos and also delivered my family and I our second chance at a peaceful life. But in an America where Somalia is both covered under Trump’s arbitrary Muslim ban and subject to an unofficial air war, peace never reigns far from clouds of chaos. Even as my existence in this country feels precarious, I believe that others fleeing from violent fates similar to my own history are due peace, and not through luck or chance, but as a basic human right. As the beneficiary of grace I continue to choose, through fighting for the rights of others, to give America my mercy.

We will never be free until we face our complicated legacies.