It’s pretty hard for a U.S. president to mess up celebrating America’s Independence Day. You don’t need to be Bill Pullman, and you certainly don’t need to be festooned with pomp. Make it about the day, not about you. All the president had to do is let people cheer for the country. He had to show up at a few places to say a few dignified words, and let the non-partisan good feeling of the day warm people. Smile, wave, and let John Philip Sousa do most of the work.
Unfortunately, among the many personality defects of Donald Trump are a gaping maw of insecurity and a mind-boggling mountain of narcissism. He cannot help but try to make everything about him. It’s no surprise that he would want to vaingloriously co-opt and corrupt any last vestige of patriotic and communal norms in the service of his own ego. Trump wanted to recreate the solemn charm and pageantry of the French Bastille Day ceremony. Instead, he ended up making a mockery of both himself and the country.
It was a monumental catastrophe. His planned show of armored might was nothing more than a sad set of tanks on truck beds; he bungled his own speech by claiming Revolutionary War soldiers took over airports, giving a performance so flat, it was obvious that he didn’t write a word of it, or practice its delivery. Not to mention, attendance was very poor as even his own officials feared it would be. The weather itself seemed to be actively working against him: it rained throughout the day and several areas by the national mall had to be cleared due to the threat of lightning. Even when the rain dispersed at night, the winds were so calm that the much-touted fireworks display was obscured from view by a thick cloud of smoke that covered Washington. It was a pageant of embarrassment. And the cost of the event itself has become something of a minor scandal, as millions of dollars in Park Service funds were diverted to stage the event, even as special access and tickets were given to Republican National Committee members and top GOP donors.
All of it was an unforced error. Trump didn’t need to insert himself into the Fourth of July and trigger a cascade of failures. He actively chose to do so despite repeated warnings from both the military and members of his own administration.
Of course, I exaggerate the impact somewhat. Of all the horrors and transgressions of this presidency, the Fourth of July brouhaha will end up as just a minor footnote. But it’s also deeply symbolic of everything Trump and his presidency represents.
Trump ruins everything he touches. He has ruined countless lives in his real estate career; he stiffed hundreds of contractors; he somehow managed to bankrupt himself in the casino business, then stick his lenders with the bill; he swindled Trump University students in a knowing scam; he allegedly assaulted more than a dozen women—who have credibly accused him of such—and likely many more; he sent his own fixer to prison after making him responsible for a lifetime of petty threats and blackmail against Trump’s victims and enemies.
Trump is also destroying the Republican Party. It doesn’t look like it from their perspective—after all, they got their tax cut and are getting a lot of judges confirmed. He saved them from a Hillary Clinton presidency. But he also exposed the GOP for having spent decades carefully disguising racist and sexist animus in the garb of economic libertarianism and social propriety. In an America that is rapidly growing less white—and where the increasingly powerful force of millennial voters wants nothing to do with that sort of bigotry—Trump has guaranteed that the GOP will, for the foreseeable future, be the party of tiki torch-waving white supremacists and Bible-thumping throwbacks to the Mad Men era. It’s a strategy destined for very short-term gains and catastrophic long-term defeats, just as it was in California when Governor Pete Wilson used a similar strategy to demonize immigrants in the 1990s, ensuring the eventual collapse of the Golden State’s GOP.
It’s as hard to ruin the Fourth of July as it is to go bankrupt running casinos. But Trump managed to do it. Despite his famous love of gold, Trump has a reverse Midas Touch: all he comes into contact with is corrupted by him. Anyone who works for him winds up tainted. The best thing the country can do is repudiate him as quickly as possible.