Sometimes, in the course of American events, Independence Day falls at a time when it’s easy to be discouraged about the trajectory of the nation. It is hard to be devoted to one’s country when one gets the impression that other citizens are not reciprocating that feeling. This is particularly true for the United States, a country founded on ideals far more than blood or soil. As John Quincy Adams phrased it, America “will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.”
Alas, right now the loudest American voice belongs to President Donald Trump. Over the weekend he demonstrated yet again his inability to be the president of all Americans. Jonathan Chait correctly noted, in the Daily Intelligencer, that even when friendly media offer softballs to the president, he whiffs:
” ‘As the commander in chief, as the president of this great country, what can you do to bring us together?’ she asked. This is [Fox news host Maria] Bartiromo prodding Trump to utter some dignified-sounding banalities about American unity to promote the fiction that he is above the level of his cherry-picked opponents. Trump failed to pick up on the cue.
” ‘Our people are so incredible,’ he replied, in what could have developed into some acceptable pabulum about the great American people, but which Trump immediately made clear was a reference limited to the people who voted for him: ‘Do you know, there’s probably never been a base in the history of politics in this country like my base. I hope the other side realizes that they better just take it easy.’
“… Trump is being invited to cast himself as the president of the entire country, but he is so ingrained in his gut-level partisanship, he can’t manage to utter the required bromides.”
On Independence Day 2018, it might be easy to be discouraged. The president of the United States is illiberal in the extreme. The other branches of government do not seem inclined to check his power. National institutions seem awfully weak. The train of abuses and usurpations seems pretty long.
On the other hand, perhaps the situation is not as bleak as one might suspect. As The Washington Post’s Fred Hiatt noted this week, for all of the Trump administration’s cruelty, “there will be people pushing back. ‘We are a country of laws, and of compassion,’ they will say. Many Americans, as always, will be working to keep that true.”
The Trump administration has also triggered the peaceable assembly of a lot of civil society, all dedicated to the prospect that the current administration is not fit to govern. This makes sense, since Trump’s policies have not prospered in the public sphere. Public opinion data shows that most of Trump’s policy positions have become less popular over time. Polling on U.S. alliances, trade and immigration all reveal public sentiment shifting away from Trump’s stated positions. After his first 18 months in office, Trump had persuaded some Republicans to embrace his brand of populist nationalism - at the cost of alienating the rest of the country. And elections, they are coming.
America’s critics love to highlight the ways in which the United States fails to live up to its professed ideals. And make no mistake, the United States falls well short of liberal democratic ideals on a regular basis. What these critics always overlook, however, is the role that those ideals play in forcing the United States to become a more perfect union. The notion that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, is still pretty radical.
The U.S. government has not always honored those rights, and the Trump administration has been particularly scornful of them. Those ideas will endure, however, and the gap between those ideas and current administration policy will become all the more glaring. This does not mean that the arc of history will bend toward liberty. It just means that, with effort and faith and grit, it can.
I’ll take that bet.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.