Well, I suppose a man who derives verbal inspiration from Charles Lindbergh, James Cameron and Bane, a man who celebrates fallen American intelligence operatives by comparing his cover appearances on Time magazine to those of Richard Nixon, can’t really be faulted for naming a holiday after his own resistible rise to power.
But the floridity that strikes the eye and ear in Donald Trump’s first presidential proclamation, heralding the day of his inauguration as a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion,” eerily echoes another insecure authoritarian’s advertisement for himself.
“Today, feelings of patriotism and love for the Motherland are truly invaluable for our vast multiethnic country. These noble qualities and the steadfast civic-mindedness of our people underpin the country’s unity and sovereignty.
“Of course, many factors are essential for the security of the country and its stable development. But they are only effective if people believe in their Fatherland, have respect for it and support it, if they consider our country the best and aspire to live and work for its prosperity.”
Thus spake Vladimir Putin on Russia Day, June 12, 2016.
Now compare. “A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart,” the new commander-in-chief informs us, referring to nothing so new as his own state of becoming commander-in-chief. “We are one people, united by a common destiny and a shared purpose.”
I wouldn’t quite put it like that to the millions of women and men who marched in every major American city on Saturday, much eclipsing the headcount at Trump’s rainy Friday anointment. They seemed to declare their destiny and purpose distinctly at odds with how the pussy-grabbing, wall-building executive chooses to define these. And any sensible viewer of White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s first two performances on the size of the crowd at the National Mall, or Kellyanne Conway’s reference to alternative facts on Meet the Press by way of justifying that lie, emblematic of every wobbly despotism, will have been stirred by a feeling other than pride.
Nor does the text of this document, consecrating a single day which came and went before any of the proud multitude can have even noticed it, improve much from there: “Freedom is the birthright of all Americans, and to preserve that freedom we must maintain faith in our sacred values and heritage.”
“By the known rules of ancient liberty” was how Milton, in a formulation favored by Orwell, referred to what Trump may have been trying to get at here—namely, that there are freedoms that endure because they are right and true and self-evident. As for America’s “values” and “heritage,” faith in those mixed concepts has been shaken and revised repeatedly (in one instance in fratricidal warfare), and typically in deference to the U.S. constitution, a far more readable text which Trump embarrassingly cites to justify this superfluous proclamation.
The rest of Trump’s proclamation is a mash of purple prose and logical nonsense: “Our Constitution is written on parchment, but it lives in the hearts of the American people. There is no freedom where the people do not believe in it; no law where the people do not follow it; and no peace where the people do not pray for it. There are no greater people than the American citizenry, and as long as we believe in ourselves, and our country, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”
Most Americans, including probably the author of this proclamation, can’t recite the Bill of Rights. Laws exist whether or not they are obeyed; otherwise they’d be unnecessary. Peace has nothing at all to do with prayer. And there is actually a great deal that even the greatest people on earth can’t accomplish, such as winning complicated land wars in the Middle East.
In 2009 Barack Obama took the occasion of his own inauguration to issue a proclamation, the “National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation.” Coming months after his pompous nomination victory speech in St. Paul, in which he announced that the oceans would recede and the planet would heal itself by virtue of his delegate count, there was at least a solemnity in asking the American people to overcome adversity and uncertainty in the spirit of solidarity. Obama’s forced references to an “awesome God” were also meant to signpost humility, not triumphalism. “[W]e are reminded that we are heirs to over two centuries of American democracy,” Obama intoned, “and that this legacy is not simply a birthright—it is a glorious burden.”
That’s actually a nice way of putting it, particularly in hindsight. Obama’s successor’s bizarre day of “patriotic devotion” is not really about America or its people. It is, as ever, about Donald Trump.