It will surprise no one to note that presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Republican president Donald Trump had two very different approaches to celebrating the Fourth of July.
Biden’s take on the holiday in his new message was steeped in both appreciation of the idealistic achievements of the founders and acknowledgment of just how poorly those same founders and their descendants fared in living up to those ideals. Appropriate to the moment, Biden’s focus was on the nation’s history of racial injustice and white supremacy. But his tone was also hopeful that we could one day soon come closer to putting the vision of true equality into practice.
Through it all, these words [the Declaration of Independence] have gnawed at our conscience and pulled us toward justice. American history is no fairy tale. It’s been a constant push-and-pull between two parts of our character: between the idea that all men and women–all people–are created equal, and the racism that has torn us apart. We have a chance now to give the marginalized, the demonized, the isolated, the oppressed, a full share of the American Dream. We have a chance to rip the roots of systemic racism out of this country. We have a chance to live up to the words that founded this nation.
Donald Trump did the opposite. In a speech filled with overtly racist messages and symbolism, he tried to insinuate that any criticism of America’s past was tantamount to erasing America itself, and that 1776 represented not the beginning of an approach toward justice and equality, but the culmination of aspirations toward achieving it:
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….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.
Hundreds of articles and blog posts have been and will be devoted to analyzing the sickening levels of white nationalism, xenophobia and and straight-up fascist sentiment in Trump’s Stephen-Miller-crafted speech.
But here I want to take an almost amoral, value-judgment-free bird’s eye view of the structural contrasts between these two approaches. Even if you remove all the moral context and history from the equation, only one of these two messages has a dynamic future open to possibility. The other is inert and dead, a spent ideological force.
It is no accident that the same president who delivered this revanchist, defensive Fourth of July message also could not articulate a single second-term policy priority in front of a friendly interviewer. The gauzy haze of nostalgia that it activates in the conservative mind can be good at whipping up certain kinds of votes, but it cannot serve as the basis for a coherent policy platform. It can encode certain sentiments–that America should be primarily for white evangelical Christians and run primarily by older white men–but those sentiments are not only deeply unpopular, they run contrary to the actual words of most of the country’s founding documents and the majority of the last century’s constitutional jurisprudence.
Trump has failed on policy at every level because his vision is difficult to translate into legislation, and when articulated almost impossible to enact democratically. As a substitute for literally Making America White Again, building a big wall, enacting travel bans on certain countries or putting migrant children into cages is not only unpopular and villainous, it’s also difficult to do legislatively and simply ineffectual in accomplishing the task. That’s why these sorts of right-wing populist jabs have historically been culture war red meat designed to keep the bigots distracted while the rich people in charge made off the loot in the form of subsidies and tax cuts. So has it been also with Trump: his base gets to feel like they owned the “libs,” but in actuality the only structurally significant outcomes have been tax cuts and giveaways for rich corporate executives and a raft of corporate-friendly judges. Meanwhile, everyone else gets the shaft economically–including his own downwardly-mobile supporters.
The left and left-liberal approach in the Biden message has both a past and a future. It can acknowledge the very real accomplishments of the flawed people who came before, mobilize our anger and disappointment at the ways in which our society has failed to live up to our own promises, and propose a justice-oriented, achievable policy program to put the country on track to improve outcomes for everyone. It has a future, and contains within it endless possibilities for both fractious debate and productive compromise.
Trump’s vision has no future at all and cannot be negotiated or compromised with. Even if it weren’t morally repulsive, it would still be a dead-end for what politics is supposed to be all about: solving problems. During more frivolous times that might not be seem like such a big deal: after all, in 2016 many people voted for Trump out of a sense of “let’s see what happens” bored amusement. Many thought that the country essentially ran itself, so why not put a showman in charge? Well, we’ve now seen what happens.
There are big problems to solve. Trump and Trumpism are morally, ideologically and even structurally philosophically unequipped to solve them.