What to this immigrant is the 4th of July? It’s America’s birthday, but it’s also, in a sense, mine. It’s a confirmation of my choice to leave behind other scenes and other cultures and reinvent myself anew on these shores, and an affirmation of all the virtues that drew me here.
And so, I had a lovely and long Independence Day weekend. I grilled kosher hot dogs and drank some local IPAs. I listened to Skynyrd and Muddy Waters. I watched Angels in the Outfield, which is a great movie about family and faith and baseball and all the other things that make America what it is. I fished for trout and played with my children and teared up a bit when looking at Old Glory waving in my yard, framed against the cloudless sky like an eternal promise.
When Sunday rolled in, I woke up and begrudgingly looked at my phone. The president, a news alert informed me breathlessly, had delivered a “dark and divisive” speech on the foothills of Mount Rushmore. How dark and divisive? To hear our pundits tell it, Trump’s address made Cicero’s fiery rebuke of his would-be assassin Catiline seem like a good-natured toast by comparison. Over at CNN, for example, editor-at-large Chris Cillizza found no fewer than 28 outrageous lines worth cataloging and discussing at length, while the Associated Press announced that the speech promoted “racial division” and The Washington Post alerted its readers that “Trump is running an openly racist campaign.” Sighing, I made myself a cup of coffee and sat down to watch this contested oration.
Now, I consider the president neither savior nor demon, because this is America and one big reason to love it is that here we neither crown our elected officials the harbingers of all hope and change nor do we detest them with the fiery animus that thrusts so many fractured societies into civil war. Here, we remember that we’re a republic, which means that the men and women we dispatch to represent us are often, like us, a little too careless and a little too gross and always striving and all too human. Trump is no different: I support some of his policies, and find others disastrous. But because I believe—as a great man who had earned having his face carved into Mount Rushmore once said—that the poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer, I tuned in to Trump’s speech with an open mind.
It was every bit the statement I needed to hear, a clear and unapologetic reminder of why America is worth loving unconditionally, admiring unequivocally, and fighting for unremittingly.
You should watch the whole thing, but, in case you don’t, here’s just one moving bit:
We are the country of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, and Frederick Douglass. We are the land of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody. We are the nation that gave rise to the Wright brothers, the Tuskegee Airmen, Harriet Tubman, Clara Barton, Jesse Owens, George Patton—General George Patton—the great Louie Armstrong, Alan Shepard, Elvis Presley, and Mohammad Ali. And only America could have produced them all. No other place.
We are the culture that put up the Hoover Dam, laid down the highways, and sculpted the skyline of Manhattan. We are the people who dreamed a spectacular dream—it was called: Las Vegas, in the Nevada desert; who built up Miami from the Florida marsh; and who carved our heroes into the face of Mount Rushmore.
Americans harnessed electricity, split the atom, and gave the world the telephone and the internet. We settled the Wild West, won two World Wars, landed American astronauts on the moon—and one day very soon, we will plant our flag on Mars.
We gave the world the poetry of Walt Whitman, the stories of Mark Twain, the songs of Irving Berlin, the voice of Ella Fitzgerald, the style of Frank Sinatra, the comedy of Bob Hope, the power of the Saturn V rocket, the toughness of the Ford F-150, and the awesome might of the American aircraft carriers.
Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story. You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it.
Amen to that. The president may not be your favorite messenger, and you may be excused for doubting his commitment to much beyond his own appetites and ambitions. That’s fine. But as a statement of America’s founding principles, Trump’s Mount Rushmore speech was as eloquent and powerful a speech as any elected official has made in a long, long while, precisely because it contained, at its core, the emotional truth every immigrant holds to be self-evident: Knowing that it’s here and only here that accidents of birth can be transcended with relative ease and the full bloom of one’s genius allowed to flourish precisely because the cultural soil is so rich and so varied and contains multitudes. To be an American is to inherit the wealth of Sinatra and Ali and Douglass and Whitman and Fitzgerald and Berlin and Twain and Hope, along with the permission to add another wild tile to the gorgeous mosaic of their legacy, a tile that’s at once all-American and all your own. Another terrific immigrant to these shores, Leonard Cohen, neatly captured this feeling: “It’s here they got the range/And the machinery for change/And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.”
To reject this vision as dark is to turn your back on America’s foundational covenant, the same spirit that animated anyone from George Washington to Martin Luther King Jr., which, sadly, is the case today among so many of the guardians of our institutions. In Princeton, a long roster of distinguished professors chose July 4th as the appropriate date for a letter that begins by claiming that neither life nor liberty but “Anti-Blackness is foundational to America.” A New York Times columnist reminded his readers that the Founding Father who so boldly claimed that all men were created equal was himself a slaveholder and therefore worthy of little but contempt, and that, for the same reasons, we should now rid our parks and public squares of the likeness of George Washington as well. A potential Democratic vice presidential candidate sternly reminded us that South Dakota was stolen land, which makes Mount Rushmore not a testament to our nation’s greatness but merely one piece of evidence of its great crimes. The list goes on.
Under the watchful gaze of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, Trump claimed loudly, unapologetically, and correctly that all these grimly revisionist statements are a threat to America’s future. He stated what all but a virulent minority of credentialed mediocrities seem to understand innately, namely that a nation engaged in a campaign to negate its essential beliefs and demolish its sacred symbols isn’t likely to survive. He said nothing that could be interpreted as curbing criticism—in fact, many of the men and women he hailed are worthy of our praise precisely because they rose, against much opposition, to urge America to be truer to its founding ideals. But to do that you must have a culture—an innately American culture—that permits and even encourages dissent. And that culture, the president correctly diagnosed, is everywhere imperiled.
America isn’t and should never be the nation where newspaper editors get fired for publishing opinions that don’t please the governing elite. America isn’t and should never be the nation where elected officials doctor data to succumb to their ideological convictions. America isn’t and should never be the nation where citizens are shunned, silenced, or fired for speaking their minds or failing to adhere to the stringencies of their superiors. And America isn’t and should never be a nation engaged not in the holy work of the perennial pursuit of justice but instead in the degenerative affliction of self-loathing and causeless blame.
“We must demand,” boomed the president, “that our children are taught once again to see America as did Reverend Martin Luther King, when he said that the Founders had signed ‘a promissory note’ to every future generation. Dr. King saw that the mission of justice required us to fully embrace our founding ideals. Those ideals are so important to us—the founding ideals. He called on his fellow citizens not to rip down their heritage, but to live up to their heritage.” This is only a divisive sentiment if you are committed not to America’s gloriously noisy culture of loud and constant argument but to a creepy conformism that suffers no deviation. And such an airless and oppressive vision, the president helpfully reminded us, has no room in the home of the brave and the land of the free.
Which, really, is why the Mount Rushmore speech was so valuable. It came as a stark reminder of what’s at stake and what’s being contested, an urgent call to choose between America—flawed, faulty, always busy being better—and something else, foreign to our foundations and terrifying for most. You may reject the president’s leadership, or decide that it did little to serve the very causes and values he so proudly hailed. You may believe his opponent will restore the nation to its senses and sensibilities, or you may fear that the Democratic Party is too far gone, seized by crazed commissars who won’t stop until they’ve taken down every monument, tarnished every reputation, and rewritten every line of history. Whatever you choose, you’d be wise to take this piece of the president’s advice: “Americans must never lose sight of this miraculous story. You should never lose sight of it, because nobody has ever done it like we have done it.”