Why do Americans love boycotts? Because for all we obsesses over politics, they let us register our preferences on the 364 days of the year when we don’t get to vote. If you want to stick it to conservatives, don’t buy Hobby Lobby craft supplies, Yuengling beer, or Chick-fil-A sandwiches. If you’re eager to own the libs, then avoid Nike shoes, Gillette razors, and Keurig coffee machines. These actions may not make much of a difference to corporate bottom lines, but they are a reminder that arguments over symbols—salad combs, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Navy Yard apartment—are increasingly filling our rotted-out political core.
That’s why it’s kind of amazing that, even in these blisteringly partisan times, a holiday like July 4 still spans cultural divides. (Last year’s “A Capitol Fourth” concert at the Capitol featured the Beach Boys, country star Luke Combs, and gospel singer CeCe Winans.) That could be because more than eight in ten Americans still think the US is better than most other nations and enjoy celebrating the birthday of the country they love. Or, more likely, it could be because Donald Trump hadn’t quite figured out how to insert himself into the holiday.
Alas, that ended in February when the President announced via tweet that he’d booked the Lincoln Memorial for a July 4 “Salute to America” featuring a “major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!” Smartypants types were quick to note that the Mall has been hosting major fireworks displays and Fourth of July entertainment since well before the future President ever contemplated leaving the New York real-estate business. No matter: Trump’s attempt to make the holiday about him ricocheted around the internet—and now might complicate how a lot of people around Washington feel about the annual celebration.
It’s too early to know whether Trump’s July 4 party will be something truly new and different or if it will prove to be political vaporware, like Space Force, the DC military parade, and the Wall before it. But unless the event includes a 90-foot holographic dramatization of Don Jr., Lee Greenwood, and Sebastian Gorka “solving” the Seth Rich case, no one should let it stop them from celebrating the holiday their own way.
Here’s the thing to remember: The Mall fireworks cap off one of the best days around here. In my deep-blue Alexandria neighborhood, hundreds of residents toddle up a hill every year to watch them burst over the Washington Monument. It doesn’t matter that the display can get a bit blurry if the weather’s not clear: We close down the street; people bring folding chairs, dogs, and beers; kids with glow-stick necklaces run around and whack grownups’ shins with toy lightsabers. Everyone cheers each big explosion and goes nuts during the finale. Nobody, as far as I can tell, spends one moment talking about Donald Trump.
Even if you view this as an icky centrist fantasy, there’s good reason not to let the Fourth become another litmus test. It’s a symbol of what holds this nation together. No, not decency, negotiation, and compromise. I’m talking about the one essential part of the American character that no one has yet been able to turn into a political stance: Most of us still think it’s cool to watch stuff blow up.
This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Washingtonian.