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Thoughts on Donald Trump, George Wallace, Frederick Douglass, and the Meaning of the Fourth of July

Only we can save ourselves

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”– William Faulkner

Donald Trump has decided to make this year’s July Fourth his own, complete with a nationally televised address in front of the Lincoln Memorial backed by a display of military force. As the Washington Post reports, “plans by President Trump to reshape Washington’s Independence Day celebration now include an area in front of the Lincoln Memorial reserved for dignitaries, family and friends that will be accessible only through tickets distributed by the White House.. . The revamped festivities will include additional fireworks, military bands and flyovers by Air Force One, the Blue Angels and aircraft from all branches of the military.”The New York Times reports that military tanks will also be on display, and that Trump has asked the chiefs of all branches of the U.S. military to be by his side as he speaks.

The Fourth of July is the birthday of American freedom, as Frederick Douglass put it in his now-celebrated 1852 “Fourth of July Oration,” entitled “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” (the speech was actually delivered on July 5, at a meeting of the Rochester, N.Y. Ladies Antislavery Society).

Many past Presidents have delivered speeches on the Fourth extolling national unity and common citizenship. The day has also occasioned some of the most powerful calls to activism in the nation’s history, of which Douglass’s 1852 Address is unparalleled. In 1876, Susan B. Anthony delivered an uninvited “Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States” at a public ceremony in Philadelphia; in 1901, Eugene V. Debs declared that “The Mission of Socialism is as Big as the World” at a socialist picnic in Chicago; and in 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “The American Dream” speech at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

It is doubtful that Trump’s speech will bring these speeches to mind. The Post’s Eugene Robinson put it well: “Trump plans to turn the Fourth of July into a political rally in honor of himself.”

Trump’s performance will surely be “a stain on the Lincoln Memorial.” While last year he spent the holiday golfing, tweeting and hosting a White House picnic for military families, this year’s spectacle is clearly designed, like all of his public events, to rally his base and energize his permanent political campaign. If Trump’s boilerplate Nuremberg-type rallies are any example, this year’s extravaganza is likely to echo a different, more infamous historic Fourth of July performance: George Wallace’s “The Civil Rights Movement fraud, sham and hoax.” Delivered outside of Atlanta, two days after President Lyndon Johnson has signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Wallace’s speech, the high point of his campaign for the Presidency, was a vicious attack on the Act, which Wallace described as “an act of tyranny. It is the assassin’s knife stuck in the back of liberty.With this assassin’s knife and a blackjack in the hand of the Federal force-cult, the left-wing liberals will try to force us back into bondage. Bondage to a tyranny more brutal than that imposed by the British monarchy . . . Today, this tyranny is imposed by the central government which claims the right to rule over our lives under sanction of the omnipotent black-robed despots who sit on the bench of the United States Supreme Court.”

Wallace’s speech did more than condemn federal civil rights legislation. It did so in the name of a boldly neo-Confederate reading of the Declaration of Independence, deliberately omitting any reference to the idea that “all men are created equal”; treating the federal government as a “despot”; and framing his political campaign as a populist defense of resistance to tyranny: “We come here today in deference to the memory of those stalwart patriots who on July 4, 1776, pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establish and defend the proposition that governments are created by the people, empowered by the people, derive their just powers from the consent of the people, and must forever remain subservient to the will of the people.”

It is striking how many ways the speech anticipates the Trump rhetorical playbook.

Wallace treats civil rights as a left-wing attack on freedom: “. . . It was left-wing radicals who led the fight in the Senate for the so-called civil rights bill now about to enslave our nation . . . . The liberal left-wingers have passed it. Now let them employ some pinknik social engineers in Washington, D.C., To figure out what to do with it.”

He engages in unabashed red-baiting:

It has reached the point where one may no longer look to judicial decisions to determine what the court may do. However, it is possible to predict with accuracy the nature of the opinions to be rendered. One may find the answer in the Communist Manifesto.

The Communists are dedicated to the overthrow of our form of government. They are dedicated to the destruction of the concept of private property. They are dedicated to the object of destroying religion as the basis of moral and ethical values. The Communists are determined that all natural resources shall be controlled by the central government, that all productive capacity of the nation shall be under the control of the central government, that the political sovereignty of the people shall be destroyed as an incident to control of local schools. It is their objective to capture the minds of our youth in order to indoctrinate them in what to think and not how to think.

I do not call the members of the United States Supreme Court Communists. But I do say, and I submit for your judgment the fact that every single decision of the court in the past ten years which related in any way to each of these objectives has been decided against freedom and in favor of tyranny.

He blames the press for deceiving the American people, anticipating Trump’s “fake news” mantra:

. . . it would have been impossible for the American people to have been deceived by the sponsors of this bill had there been a responsible american press to tell the people exactly what the bill contained. If they had had the integrity and the guts to tell the truth, this bill would never have been enacted.

Whoever heard of truth put to the worst in free and open encounter? We couldn’t get the truth to the American people.

You and I know that that’s extremely difficult to do where our newspapers are owned by out-of-state interests. Newspapers which are run and operated by left-wing liberals, Communist sympathizers, and members of the Americans for Democratic Action and other Communist front organizations with high sounding names.

However, we will not be intimidated by the vultures of the liberal left-wing press. We will not be deceived by their lies and distortions of truth. We will not be swayed by their brutal attacks upon the character and reputation of any honest citizen who dares stand up and fight for liberty.

And he presents himself as the savior of ordinary Americans under assault from arrogant elites:

There is yet a spirit of resistance in this country which will not be oppressed. And it is awakening. And I am sure there is an abundance of good sense in this country which cannot be deceived. . . I intend to give the American people a clear choice. I welcome a fight between our philosophy and the liberal left-wing dogma which now threatens to engulf every man, woman, and child in the United States. I am in this race because I believe the American people have been pushed around long enough and that they, like you and I, are fed up with the continuing trend toward a socialist state which now subjects the individual to the dictates of an all-powerful central government.

Wallace’s rhetorical bid for the Presidency was unsuccessful. Shortly after delivering the speech he dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination, his message ceded to Republican Barry Goldwater, who lost the general election in a landslide to Johnson.

Yet in losing, Goldwater laid the foundation of Republican ascendancy in the decades to follow, pioneering a politics of resentment, centered on the rhetoric of white populism, that would then be taken up full bore by Richard Nixon, who embraced a “Southern Strategy” that transformed American electoral politics (On this I highly recommend Rick Perlstein’s 2008 Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America). This strategy was boldly prophesied by Wallace in his 1964 speech:

I shall never forget last spring as I stood in the midst of a great throng of South Milwaukee supporters at one of the greatest political rallies I have ever witnessed. A fine-looking man grabbed my hand and said: “Governor, I’ve never been south of South Milwaukee, but I am a Southerner!” Of course, he was saying he believed in the principles and philosophy of the southern people . . . Of you here today and the people of my state of Alabama.

He was right.

Being a southerner is no longer geographic. It’s a philosophy and an attitude.

One destined to be a national philosophy–embraced by millions of Americans–which shall assume the mantle of leadership and steady a governmental structure in these days of crises.

One can only wonder what the deliverer of this speech would have thought if someone would have told him that his vision would reach its apotheosis over fifty years later, and that the bearer of his “Southern” philosophy would be an opportunistic, former-Democrat from New York City named Donald Trump?

Back in 2018 New York Times writer Clyde Haberman drew the connection clearly in “George Wallace Tapped into Racial Fear. Decades Later, its Force Remains Potent”:

Separated by as much as half a century, the two men’s public lives run strikingly parallel. It’s as if they drank from the same political cup: George C. Wallace, the Alabama governor who ached to become president, and Donald J. Trump, the developer and showman who made it to the top. They are bound by their streaks of opportunism and by their campaigns tailored to resentful voters brimming with the conviction that society’s deck is stacked against them. “What both share is the demagogue’s instinctive ability to tap into the fear and anger that regularly erupts in American politics,” Dan T. Carter, a historian and Wallace biographer, wrote in The New York Times during the 2016 presidential campaign. . .

The two men fired up crowds in similar fashion. Both appealed to “forgotten” Americans, stoking fear and loathing of “the other” — blacks in Mr. Wallace’s case, immigrants in Mr. Trump’s (though he also has had race cards up his sleeve, as with his embrace of “birtherism” to discredit President Barack Obama). The message from both was that a nefarious other, enabled by a bumbling government, was stealing work and wealth from upright Americans.

Today Trump will mark the birthday of American freedom by celebrating brute force, autocratic power, and mindless patriotism. Like Wallace before him, he will present himself as the protector and savior of an “American people [who] have been pushed around long enough.” Unlike Wallace, who spoke as a Presidential aspirant in Atlanta, Trump will speak as the incumbent President of the United States seeking a second term, and he will speak before the Lincoln Memorial, and to a nationally televised audience.

Back in 1852, Frederick Douglass reminded his audience that “The cause of liberty may be stabbed by the men who glory in the deeds of your fathers.”

I doubt that even Douglass, an escaped slave who experienced his share of brutal racism and cynical hypocrisy, could have fathomed a figure as contemptible, and as dangerous, as the 45th President of the United States, who stabs the cause of liberty on a daily basis before even getting out of bed.

And yet Douglass understood the unending struggle between power and justice. He also understood that while American tyrants and imposters might claim ownership of the Fourth of July, it ultimately eludes their grasp:

The 4th of July is the first great fact in your nation’s history — the very ring-bolt in the chain of your yet undeveloped destiny. Pride and patriotism, not less than gratitude, prompt you to celebrate and to hold it in perpetual remembrance. I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the ring-bolt to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.

From the round top of your ship of state, dark and threatening clouds may be seen. Heavy billows, like mountains in the distance, disclose to the leeward huge forms of flinty rocks! That bolt drawn, that chain broken, and all is lost. Cling to this day — cling to it, and to its principles, with the grasp of a storm-tossed mariner to a spar at midnight.

It’s hard to think about Trump holding forth today about liberty, standing before the Lincoln Memorial while his government separates families and detains children in veritable concentration camps, and to avoid the feeling that it’s midnight in America.

The principles of democracy are saving principles. But they won’t save us. Only we can do that—by taking democracy seriously.

Jeffrey Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is the author of #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, now available from Public Seminar Books/OR Books. You can talk to him about this essay on Facebook.

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