America’s businessman president plans to rebrand the Fourth of July by injecting himself into the celebration, showcasing the U.S. military, and relocating — and extending — the iconic fireworks show.
President Donald Trump is scheduled to address the nation from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Independence Day Thursday evening. A special VIP section will be established in the area and tickets to these premier spots will be given out by the White House.
The president has also directed the Pentagon to provide military vehicles, including tanks, for display at the celebrations. The order has sparked worries that the weight of the vehicles could damage the infrastructure on the National Mall and in the surrounding area.
The Fourth of July commemorates America’s 1776 declaration of independence from Britain and the establishment of the United States as an independent nation. Presidents in modern times have chosen to mark America’s birthday by participating in events apart from the main celebration on the National Mall.
And while Independence Day marks an important political event in the nation’s history, celebrations traditionally refrain from focusing on any particular political party or politician.
A new poll suggests most Americans are fine with the president giving a public speech on July 4. Eighty-one percent of Republicans, 55% of independents, and 27% of Democrats approve of Trump’s plans to speak on the National Mall.
However, with the 2020 presidential campaign in full swing, some historians fear the president is injecting partisan politics into this year’s festivities.
“He is turning this celebration, which should be a national celebration, into a celebration of him,” says Mary Beth Norton, a recently retired professor of history at Cornell University and author of a forthcoming book, 1774: Year of Revolution.
Having a U.S. president take an active part in Independence Day celebrations changes the nature of the event, according to Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association.
“And that doesn't mean that change is always bad, but it does mean it becomes a less democratic event,” he says, “less democratic and more partisan. [The Fourth of July] is not about a particular party. It's not about a particular person. In some ways, it's a celebration of politics. It's a celebration of democracy.”
Trump’s plans for the Fourth of July include extra fireworks — first, from an area behind the Lincoln Memorial, followed by a second fireworks show launched from a park about two miles from the National Mall.
The traditional National Independence Day Parade and the “A Capitol Fourth” concert on the West Lawn of the Capitol building will go on as usual.
The National Mall, a grassy area that stretches two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol, features more than a dozen memorials honoring America’s history and is flanked by the national Smithsonian museums.
“There is no more appropriate place to celebrate the anniversary of American independence than among the Nation’s monuments on the National Mall and the memorials to the service men and women who have defended the United States for the past 243 years,” said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who helped plan the event, said in a press release.
“For the first time in many years, the World War II Memorial and areas around the Reflecting Pool will be open for the public to enjoy a stunning fireworks display and an address by our Commander-in-Chief.”
Several groups have applied for and received permits to protest at this year’s celebrations. However, Anita McBride, of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, sees no cause for alarm.
“I am not opposed to any president changing the location or program for Fourth of July celebrations,” McBride told VOA via email. “There are more important things that need attention than changing a venue and program for the celebrations.”
McBride, who served in the Reagan White House and both Bush administrations, says it is natural to have strong feelings about any president.
“The hyperpartisanship predates Donald Trump, but there is no doubt it has been exacerbated under him,” McBride says. “He alone is not responsible for that. Yet if we recognize our country for what it is — full of diverse personalities and positions and opinions, then we shouldn’t let differences diminish what the holiday represents.”
The president’s “Salute to America” will honor the U.S. armed forces through music, military demonstrations and military aircraft flyovers. While speaking to reporters at the White House on Monday, President Trump said, “We’re going to have some tanks stationed outside.”
“The Fourth of July should be about honoring the founding documents,” says Grossman. “The Fourth of July is not a military holiday. It's a political holiday. It's honoring democracy. It's honoring the creation of a nation and no, it does not deserve to be militarized.”
“It was never about the armed forces and it shouldn't be,” Norton says. “We have other days to honor the armed forces. We have Memorial Day. We have Veterans Day. We have Armed Forces Day. The people who celebrate the Fourth of July are primarily civilians and it always has been primarily a civilian celebration and I think should remain so.”
Trump became enamored with military parades after attending a Bastille Day celebration in Paris in 2017. One-time plans for a Veterans Day military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue were abandoned due to the estimated $92 million price tag.
Trump’s speech could shift the holiday’s focus to the nation’s temporary leader rather than its citizens and the contract — the Declaration of Independence — that binds them all together.
“The most patriotic Fourth of July is a Fourth of July that celebrates the American people and the importance of the founding documents as items for debate and items that provide the foundation for the legitimacy of our political institutions,” Grossman says.
How much the expanded celebrations will cost the city of Washington, D.C. and the federal government is unclear. City officials say the Trump administration still hasn’t paid $7 million that it owes stemming from costs incurred by the 2017 inauguration.