That Mt. Rushmore speech will go down as one of the sickest, most debased moments in the history of the presidency. First of all, it was officially not a campaign speech, but a presidential speech, meaning that we the taxpayers paid for it. More importantly Donald Trump was delivering this address not as a political candidate but as the servant of the whole people, those who voted for him and those who did not. And what he gave us was a Goebbels-esque piece of propaganda quite literally intended to foment as much division and hatred as possible.
If you think this distinction between campaign speaking and official speaking is quaint or trite or unimportant, you are wrong. You are overly cynical. Politicians actually do make such distinctions. Especially presidents—of both parties.
Out of curiosity, I went back and looked at Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Independence Day address—from the year in which he, like Trump now, was seeking re-election. I do not like Reagan. Never did, never will. But compared to Trump, he was a moral giant. His speech did not touch on the dark aspects of our history that we are finally, belatedly confronting in earnest today. Republicans have a very hard time admitting imperfection in our union, not least Republicans who made a point of giving a major campaign address—about states’ rights, no less—in a town in Mississippi where three civil rights workers had been viciously murdered 16 years before, as Reagan did in 1980.
Still, Reagan’s speech that July 4 of 1984 was completely presidential. This part even brought a little tear to the corner of my eye: “And in a courthouse somewhere, some of the newest Americans, the most recent immigrants to our country, will take the oath of citizenship. Maybe today, someone will put his hand on the shoulder of one of those new citizens and say, ‘Welcome,’ and not just as a courtesy, but to say welcome to a great land, a place of unlimited possibilities. Welcome to the American family.”
Can you imagine this president talking like that? I suppose it’s possible that he has—that some desperate aide talked him into attending a citizenship ceremony somewhere along the line. But we know that he doesn’t think this way. He thinks about hatred and race and how he can crush people.
As he’s been slipping in the polls these last few weeks, we’ve heard some commentators and a number of “concerned” or “disappointed” Republicans say that Trump needs to right the ship, to reach out to swing voters and suburban women, to salvage Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin and stop with the endless splenetic rage. These people are either soulless robots or proud liars, or they hold PhDs in Wishful Thinking from Susan Collins University.
Most politicians, of course, would do just that. But Trump won’t change. He can’t. That is, he couldn’t even if he wanted to, because emotional 5-year-olds, like real 5-year-olds, are incapable of such self-reflection. But he doesn’t even want to. He loves himself (even though deep down he also hates himself, which is the source of the psychodrama we’ve all been Hoovered into for four years), and he loves things just the way they are. He thinks he’s doing great.
We have to be clear about all this, incredible as it may seem. He thinks he was the best president ever before the virus hit. Not since Reagan or since Roosevelt or even since Lincoln. Ever. He thinks the virus was a Chinese/Democrat plot to weaken him. He thinks he’s handled the pandemic exceptionally well. He thinks we’re past the worst of it. He thinks we’ll all be fine if we just quit being such desiccated little buttercups and get back to normal, as if the virus will observe us going to the movies and attending sporting events and give up, cry uncle, admit defeat against an indomitable, mask-mocking people.
He thinks he is loved. And of course, tragically, he is, by millions of people. He is hated by millions more, many more than love him, but he can’t remotely begin to fathom this or, God forbid, try to figure out why, because to him the problem is not him, but them.
So if you think all that, why would you change? Nothing needs changing. Indeed, you double down, you intensify, you just do more more more, because you were the best president ever and the people love you and the virus, which you handled as beautifully as that Ukraine phone call, isn’t your fault and everybody knows it.
And that is all he is going to do between now and Election Day, become a more intense version of Trump. I’m out of the election prediction business since 2016, so I’m not going to predict an outcome. But I will say this: He’s not going to do anything to change his current downward trajectory. Oh, and that’s another thing he thinks. He thinks the polls are fake news. They’re campaign manager Brad Parscale’s fault, like the lame crowd in Tulsa. So he doesn’t need to change a thing. He’s going to get worse and worse such that by Election Day, that June 1 Bible stunt will rank as maybe the fourth or fifth most offensive thing he’s done, at best.
Meanwhile, Joe Biden. I don’t know what they’re putting in that guy’s coffee, but once again, he sent out a magnificent little video address on Independence Day, which you really should watch. Our founding principles and ideals, he said, have “gnawed at our conscience and pulled us toward justice. American history is no fairy tale. It’s been a constant push and pull between two parts of our character—the idea that all men and women are created equal, and the racism that has torn us apart. We have a chance now to give the marginalized, the demonized, the isolated, the oppressed a full share of the American dream... This Independence Day, let’s not just celebrate the words, let’s celebrate that promise and commit to work, the work we must do to fulfill that promise.”
That’s just the message we need right now. It’s part Reagan and part Frederick Douglass. At Mt. Rushmore, Trump declared war on this message, on grappling with our real history and cleansing the deep stains on our character—the dark half of which now lives, we hope not for much longer, on Pennsylvania Avenue.