In the days when I helped people with speeches, our relationship often began like this:
“Can you help me with this speech?”
“Sure. What do you want to say?”
It’s amazing how seldom there came an answer to the question. The speaker would often have a very clear idea of the attitude he wanted to project, but no urgent message to communicate. He wanted to fill air for 10 or 12 minutes or longer, at the end of which people would regard him as compassionate or strong or whatever other image he had in mind. But how to get from here to there? Well, that’s why he was paying me.
I was jolted back to those days as I reread President Donald Trump’s Fourth of July speech the day after it was delivered.
Trump’s speech was written by people who did not know what they wanted to say. It was a litany of old glories, a shout-out to heroes carefully balanced by race and sex, but with no conscious theme or message. It narrated old triumphs in war and commerce, but without apparent purpose or direction. First this, then that, now a third thing.
Trump wanted pictures and video of his big day: Trump standing in the place where Martin Luther King Jr. once stood, the podium swathed in flags and bunting, bordered by tanks, adoring audience in front, screeching fighter jets overhead … Strong! Proud! The speech existed only to provide a reason why he needed to stand in one place long enough for five waves of warplanes to cross the sky.
Yet it’s a strange thing about words. Talk long enough, and sooner or later you will say something. Consciously or not, Trump did say things that evening.
As Trump retold the story of the Pacific War, he said this: “Nobody could beat us. Nobody could come close.” When he paid tribute to the Air Force, he said this: “As President Roosevelt said, the Nazis built a fortress around Europe, ‘but forgot to put a roof on it.’ So we crushed them all from the air.” He added: “No enemy has attacked our people without being met by a roar of thunder, and the awesome might of those who bid farewell to Earth, and soar into the wild blue yonder.” Bringing the story to more recent times: “The Army brought America’s righteous fury down to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and cleared the bloodthirsty killers from their caves.”
Were these wars right or just? Why were they fought? What were their outcomes? Except for the mentions of “freedoms” sprinkled randomly through the text, those questions went unconsidered. Instead, Trump would periodically ad-lib “What a great country!” after this or that mention of power and violence. America is great because it crushes all before it. Altering for circumstances, it was a speech that could have been given by Kaiser Wilhelm or Napoleon or Julius Caesar or the Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib. A great country is one that is feared by its enemies, that can inflict more devastating destruction than any other.
How did the United States get so strong and fearsome? Trump revealed some assumptions about that, too. He said of America’s “warriors”:
They guard our birthright with vigilance and fierce devotion to the flag and to our great country. Now we must go forward as a nation with that same unity of purpose. As long as we stay true to our cause, as long as we remember our great history, as long as we never ever stop fighting for a better future, then there will be nothing that America cannot do.
Devotion. Unity. History. Fighting.
But not: Democracy. Justice. Individuality. Peace.
From time to time, one of Trump’s more devout speechwriters will try to insert references to God into the president’s mouth. Those references never sound natural from the least spiritual president in the nation’s history. They were, fascinatingly, all but absent from this speech commemorating the independence of a nation, in the apt phrase of G. K. Chesterton, with the soul of a church. Instead, there was only vainglorious boasting: See our wealth, see our power, see our glorious triumphs over the mounded corpses of our enemies. We will always win, because we always fight.
It was as if the whole ceremony fulfilled Rudyard Kipling’s foreboding of how empires end:
If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe …
That was how the American president spoke on this 243rd commemoration of a nation that began its independence with a solemn acknowledgment of a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” No non-American could watch that spectacle at the Lincoln Memorial and feel that America stood for anything good or right or universal. Power worshipped power, for its own sake.
“We will always be the people who defeated a tyrant, crossed a continent, harnessed science, took to the skies, and soared into the heavens because we will never forget that we are Americans and the future belongs to us.” That sentence of self-congratulation toward the end of Trump’s speech was probably lodged in the clipboard memory of some 1980s vintage word processor hauled from the Executive Office Building.
It’s bumpf, a thousand times typed, a thousand times said. And yet this July 4, after all the rodomontade that preceded it, I found myself paying attention to those hackneyed words in a way I never had before. Will Americans always be that people? Are Americans that people now?
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!