Critic’s Notebook: Trump Hijacks Independence Day

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The president turns the Washington Mall into Red Square.

President Trump somehow resisted the urge to turn his “Salute to America” on the National Mall into a political rally. But that would have been almost preferable to the boringly jingoistic speech he did give. He delivered a lesson on American history from the Founding Fathers to the present day, dropping such names as Clara Barton, Lewis and Clark, George Washington (who got the biggest cheers) and the Wright Brothers, among many, many others. He reserved his greatest enthusiasm for “Douglass, you know. The great Frederick Douglass,” at least managing to avoid referring to him in the present tense.

It was clear that neither Stephen Miller nor Steve Bannon had a hand in crafting this address. There were no mentions of “American carnage,” unless you count the kind our military has inflicted on our enemies. You had to be at least grateful that Trump got to deliver it, since it was obviously the closest he’s come to reading anything about American history. He said everything as if he were hearing it for the first time. It was hard to avoid the feeling that the speech was being recited not by him but rather his animatronic version borrowed from Disney World.

Trump’s affinity for the military has come late in life. He held it in no such regard when he avoided service in Vietnam thanks to those bone spurs. On the other hand, he experienced something far worse, as he once famously told Howard Stern in an interview.

“Dating is like being in Vietnam,” Trump said to the shock jock. “It’s the equivalent of a soldier going over to Vietnam. It’s like war out there.” (Uh, thank you for your service, Mr. President?)

Of course, there could be another reason Trump is sucking up so strongly to the military. He wants to make sure they’re on his side when he refuses to leave the White House.

The speech was periodically interrupted by chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” which was helpful, because otherwise you might have thought you were seeing it beamed live from Moscow or North Korea. Trump began by cheerily greeting, “Hello, America, hello!” Not to make any comparisons, but Bill Pullman came off as far more presidential.

The event was televised on only two networks, State Television, excuse me, Fox News Channel, and C-SPAN. You could forgive the latter, because what else were they going to broadcast at that hour? They’ve got a lot of airtime to fill. Trump was shown through a plastic shield that was streaked with rain because of the inclement weather. (At least I think it was rain. It was hard to tell through my tears.) PBS took such pains to disassociate itself from the event that it sent out a tweet declaring that its program A Capital Fourth had nothing to do with the Trump event.

The audience, many of them GOP donors, seemed sparse. Although you can count on recently appointed press secretary Stephanie Grisham to announce that it was the largest crowd ever seen on the National Mall and that it was a beautiful day.

There were enough special guests in attendance to populate a dozen State of the Union speeches, including Gene Kranz, the famed NASA flight director played by Ed Harris in Apollo 13. Trump praised them all graciously, but you could tell he was ceding the spotlight reluctantly. He introduced several top brass in the military, including Mark Esper, the acting Secretary of Defense. (At least of this writing. You might want to check back in a day or two.)

He also saluted the Gold Star Families who were in attendance, but you would probably have had to search far and wide to spot Khizr and Ghazala Khan.

The main event of the evening was the salute to the various branches of the military, with Trump delivering brief backgrounds on each of them like the most enthusiastic high school history teacher ever. The only time he actually sounded like himself was when he was talking about a famed Coast Guard mission and quoted the line, “Did they get off?” He didn’t seem to notice the irony.

The introductions to the Coast Guard, Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Army were each followed by flyovers and relevant military songs. Throughout each procession, Trump gave his best Mussolini impression. The various aircraft may have been impressive in person, but they barely registered on television, looking mainly like tropical insects. Sadly, there were no tanks in sight. It was a bitterly disappointing anticlimax considering all the fuss that’s been made about them.

After the military display was over (your tax dollars at work, folks), Trump wrapped it up. “The future belongs to us,” he shouted. Add the proper melody, and he could have been singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from the movie Cabaret. In case you don’t remember, it was sung by the Hitler Youth.