For the last few years of her life, Mom and I had DVR service through our (asshole) cable company, but she didn’t care for it all that much. Even if her eyesight hadn’t deteriorated so much that she had to squint with her face three inches away from the television just to see the cable box menus, Mom didn’t tend to adjust well to new technology, unless it was so simple to use (like the Amazon Echo I got her) that she didn’t have to learn all that much to be able to utilize it. If blank VHS tapes had still been available in local stores, Mom probably would have had us keep buying them for those few things she wanted a permanent record of, especially since she was still using her VCR to watch old tapes until her last days in the house.
Mom didn’t want permanent recordings of much that aired on television, but the Fourth of July specials that air on PBS and A&E every year were always at the top of her list for things she wanted brand-new videotapes for. She didn’t care much for the B-list-of-yesteryear singers and other “celebrities” that frontload the first half of those events, but she loved the classical music and fireworks that always closed out the shows. It wasn’t that Mom felt any big sense of patriotism or anything like that; she just liked good music and pretty colours. (Now you know where I got that from.)
It’s hard to read all these news stories about President Trump insisting on Fourth of July celebrations in Washington like it’s some kind of new concept without remembering how religiously Mom watched those shows. They weren’t her favourite thing in the world to watch, but those videotapes she made got a lot of play all twelve months of the year. (Given that we’re in the middle of yet another streak of sub-zero weather up here, I’m half-tempted to load up one of those shows on YouTube just so I can try to jog my memory about what warmth feels like.) On one level, this insistence on a “new” celebration seems absurd on its surface, since it’s about as redundant as saying that America needs to design a rectangular fabric of red, white and blue to fly in the air for the purposes of national identification.
This whole thing operates on two other levels, though, and they’re levels that are already sickeningly familiar to many of us. For all the manifold criticisms of Trump, few dispute his success at branding, turning his name (at least for many) into a synonym for luxury and quality. This new celebration, even if it doesn’t feature fireworks in the shape of the letters “TRUMP” every five seconds (though that wouldn’t surprise me if it happens), will permanently be associated with Trump, and no matter who our next presidents are, it’s almost a given that Trump’s supporters will fight tooth and nail to make sure that the “Trump” Fourth of July celebration continues year after year after year.
More distressing, though, is the co-mingling of Trumpism with the very notion of America. Republicans have long fought to redefine America as being exclusively their own personal domain, with any notions that contradict their perverse beliefs being denounced as un-American, anti-American and so on. After the 09.11 attacks, this became even more apparent as conservatives tried to goad everyone else into virtual dick-measuring contests of who could wear the biggest American flag pin, all that rambunctious rhetoric serving as a distraction from the fact that they were lying us into a war for oil. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A few weeks ago, when some right-wingers threw a temper tantrum over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dancing to rock music in a video she filmed while she was a college student, I had to wonder just how close we really are at this point to a Handmaid’s Tale-style dystopia. I find it hard to believe that most of you don’t look at Mike Pence and envision him mentally masturbating to such an idea. I’d quote that whole thing about gradually raising the temperature of a pot of boiling water so the frog inside doesn’t realize it’s being cooked, but we’re already at the point where some dead frogs are being served, and not all that modestly, to the far-right conservatives in charge right now.
That is the lens through which this arrest of a pre-teen student after refusing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance needs to be seen. The tales of Trump’s insistence on loyalty to him personally, and thus his ideas — not just on a personal level, but even overriding government employees’ stated duties to the nation first and foremost — are already legion, and more of them seem to emerge every week. For many conservatives, the actions of people like this student in protesting blind obedience to a nation with very deep flaws — think Colin Kaepernick, if you weren’t already — is not just an affront to some apolitical, ahistorical ideal of what “America” is, but to them personally, and something to be punished with all possible severity.
There’s always the danger of being accused of hyperbole when anyone makes a claim about America quickly sliding into an Atwoodian dystopia, especially when evidence of widespread dissent remains so widespread. No reasonable person is saying that we’re all going to wake up tomorrow and see government-issued red dresses and white bonnets laid out for us. The question we constantly need to be asking ourselves, though, is how much closer we’re getting to the possibility of something like that happening, and when eleven-year-old children can be arrested after refusing to pledge loyalty to a country that treats people like them as second-class citizens (if even that) a lot of the time, the answer to that question is clearly that we’re a good deal closer right now than we were before that arrest.
After the last presidential election, many figures cautioned us to be vigilant about the fact that what was about to happen to America was not normal, and that advice is more important now than ever. The more we allow stories like children being arrested after protesting loyalty oaths to become normalized, the easier it will be for those in charge now to jerk us down that horrible path to theocratically-tinged tyranny. Regardless of whether the target is a sixth grader or a multimillionaire celebrity, every time we fail to resist this attempted redefinition of America, we take one step closer to going down that path.