Scenes from America’s Nervous Breakdown
I went to Washington for Donald Trump’s July Fourth Salute to America. It was supposed to be modeled on France’s Bastille Day, but it turned out to be more heartbreaking than festive.
It was a muddy metaphor for an empty lot of a presidency.
The rain was on and off when I got to the Mall with a journalist friend and ran into a Proud Boy he knew. The Proud Boy wore boat shoes and had that kind of upper-middle class, clean-shaven look, sort of like a young Tucker Carlson. He wore a t-shirt with the words “Roger Stone did nothing wrong” on it. “I’m going to go get drunk,” he said and walked off. We found the non-VIP gate and waited in line. We looked for tanks, but didn’t see any. We ended up taking pictures of ourselves in front of a giant military transport truck.
The line was not super long. We had our bags checked and then walked through the gate and out onto the grass on the Mall, which has recently been restored. The first thing I saw was a girl interviewing two young white men who were clad completely head to toe in MAGA gear. The girl was wearing a stars and stripes bathing suit and a pair of blue-jean cut offs. I thought at first she was the Kent State gun girl, but on closer inspection, I think she was probably a different internet micro-celebrity. Or just a normie hoping to become an internet micro-celebrity. It’s hard to tell the difference these days.
Or maybe there is no difference.
She had her phone mounted on a tripod and was using it to interview the pair of young men. One of them had an American flag painted on his face. I couldn’t hear the entire exchange, but at the end the boy with the flag on his face told her to “keep fighting the good fight.” Which is when I noticed she was holding a large microphone festooned with the Infowars logo.
Back in 2016, Donald Trump gave his people something with his rallies. He gave them a place to go, a sense of community, free entertainment. Most of the people I saw on the Mall didn’t look all that entertained. There was skinny girl sitting alone on a bench in her MAGA hat. She smiled at me. My friend took a picture. She looked like she was getting wet in the rain. I wanted to go and give her my umbrella, but didn’t. Instead, I smiled back, but kept walking. I wish I hadn’t.
We continued on through the mud. We got to the place where a group of protestors had set up a giant Trump figure sitting on a toilet. Surrounding the statue were a crowd of people chanting anti-Trump slogans. Some of them held signs that said things like “deport Trump.”
A guy holding two enormous blue Trump flags in a red Trump 2020 t-shirt and a MAGA hat went over and started screaming at them. One of the protestors, a bald man, stepped forward and started arguing back with him. A flurry of people whipped out their phones and started recording video and snapping pictures, because that’s what people do now that we’re all Very Online.
I stood right next to them taking pictures, too. And I kept thinking to myself that these figures we were all taking pictures of hoping to turn into micro-celebrities, these collections of pixels in our phones, were real people. They came into the city on their day off. They had to deal with parking and transit and security. They went to all of this trouble for what? To get into an argument? And the rest of us were turning their argument into a performance.
The exchange grew more heated; there was screaming. The guy in the MAGA hat yelled at the bald guy “How do you know he’s going to do something bad?”
“Because he always does,” the protestor said.
My feet started to hurt. The area around the reflecting pool filled up. We took a few more pictures. I kept seeing lost-looking families, lots of children in strollers—the kind of thing you might have expected to see on the Mall on July Fourth last year. Or ten years ago. And then I saw a Qanon flag.
That’s when I realized the real strangeness: The Americas from two different time-lines were colliding in one space, like in those sci-fi movies where a group of Marines from World War II find themselves pulled through a worm-hole into ancient Rome. We had the apolitical America from three years ago, who came to Washington to watch fire works and eat fried food and show their kids the monuments. And they were bumping up against the people from the new America, which now views the Fourth of July as another battle in the Trump wars: A chance to own the libs or #resist or get internet famous.
And these two groups find it impossible to understand one another.
I heard a kid crying as we made our way to the exit, passing a few groups of young white men in their late teens or early twenties wearing MAGA hats. They were animated and seemed excited, almost giddy.
As I was leaving, a crush of people were trying to get in. A stroller got stuck in the mud. The mother struggled with the stroller, eventually someone helped her. I thought of all the times I had struggled with a stroller and how we had lost our connectedness to each other. Had Trump done this to us? Had we done it to each other? Or had it always been this way and we just didn’t realize it?
That’s the real question, I think. In 2003 you wouldn’t have seen throngs of people on the Mall in W-2004 hats. You wouldn’t have seen Qanon flags. Or Proud Boys. So what happened? Did all of this sprout out into the world in 2016 with Trump’s emergence, like mushrooms after a rainstorm? Or were those people always there—walking around on the Mall, watching the fireworks, smiling and passing. Just waiting to be activated.
It’s impossible to know. And maybe it doesn’t even matter. I write about these people—we all do—we tweet about them and take pictures of them, and then somewhere along the line we forget that they’re just people. We forget their humanity and that act of forgetfulness costs us a piece of our own.
I left Trump’s speech feeling a pang for something lost. Would America ever heal itself? Would we ever be whole again? Would we, as a nation, always hurt so badly?
Or was this the new normal?