What Does Trump's 'Day of Patriotic Devotion' Really Mean?

The president declared his own inauguration a national holiday. But the language he used says something more.

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You could be forgiven for forgetting the National Day of Patriotic Devotion—technically, it happened before it was ever declared. Donald Trump established it with a stroke of a pen sometime after his inauguration; the official proclamation appeared Monday in the Federal Register.

That bit isn’t all that unusual. Presidents christen National Days Of Things all the time. President Barack Obama, for example, proclaimed the day of his own inauguration in 2009 a “National Day of Renewal and Reconciliation,” calling “upon all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century.” He annually declared September 11 to be “Patriot Day.” But “Patriotic Devotion” strikes a different note—flowery, vaguely compulsory.

Here’s the proclamation:

A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart. We are one people, united by a common destiny and a shared purpose.

Freedom is the birthright of all Americans, and to preserve that freedom we must maintain faith in our sacred values and heritage.

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.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim January 20, 2017, as National Day of Patriotic Devotion, in order to strengthen our bonds to each other and to our country -- and to renew the duties of Government to the people.

It’s hard to imagine Trump tweeting: “A new national pride stirs the American soul” in one of his tweets. It sounds more like the language of his inaugural address, which the administration has insisted Trump wrote himself, but which was reportedly actually written by former Breitbart News head Steve Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller.

The proclamation speaks of the need to “strengthen our bonds to each other and to our country.” That parallels this section from his speech on Friday:

At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice.

Presidential proclamations can go over the top. Those who felt a shiver of discomfort reading Trump’s florid prose should remember that Bill Clinton sounded similarly grandiose when declaring, say, Irish-American Heritage Month. (Barack Obama, on the other hand, kept his proclamations relatively conversational.)

But it’s not the words that are jarring. It’s the sentiment, which seems out of step with what the president himself usually says. Trump is an individualist; his books and speeches largely center on the ability of one person—often him—to do stuff. When he talks about America as a whole, it’s usually in the frame of his “movement,” which of course reflects back on him.

The proclamation instead focuses on America as a national community —and sounds much more like Bannon. He’s said that America is more than an economy, it’s a “civic society”—implying that the number of successful immigrants in Silicon Valley poses a threat to that. When the proclamation declares that Americans must “maintain faith in our sacred values and heritage,” it’s hard to tell whether it’s a banal sentiment, or an echo of the more troubling rumbles of white-identity politics.

And like his inaugural speech, Trump’s proclamation is devoid of history. He does offer a mention of the Constitution. But while Obama often tried to broaden what it means to be an American by weaving the traditional veneration of the Founding Fathers together with other moments of American triumph, such as the civil-rights movement, Trump leaves what “patriotism” means up to interpretation. That, and the fact that the proclamation was timed to his own inauguration, led critics to suggest it means devotion to Trump himself, the defender of those “sacred values and heritage,” the rightful successor to a president whose legitimacy he never really stopped questioning.

“Patriotic Devotion” is itself a phrase with a decidedly martial ring. The last president to declare a Day of Patriotic Devotion was Woodrow Wilson, marking the enactment of a draft for World War One. In 1943, when Congress attempted to establish December 7 as a day to recognize the “patriotic devotion” of members of the armed forces, FDR vetoed the bill. “I think that a more suitable date can be selected for this purpose,” he wrote.

The president’s critics felt much the same about his decision to declare his own inauguration a holiday. If, as the proclamation declared, its intent was “ to strengthen our bonds to each other,” it ended up having the opposite effect—serving as one more point of division.