In overworked America, with national holidays too few and far between, citizens look forward to each one. Memorial Day, especially, is a time of unity — a day to honor those who have served and sacrificed, without regard to political party or philosophy.
This year, though, that always delicate truce seemed particularly fraught.
Memorial Day 2018 resembled a Monday like too many others — the beginning of a week of sniping and fighting and irreconcilable views of what it means to be a patriot in these anything but United States. It also was a reminder that my commentary on the intersection of politics, culture and race is so spot-on, it’s depressing, and that those common experiences that Americans imagined we all shared were a mirage — if they were ever real.
Memorial Day is supposed to be about the veterans, those who would not let something as petty as politics stand in the way of fellowship. Then why has a Republican candidate refused to back down from his claim that to be a military veteran and a Democrat is to suffer from some sort of mental disorder?
Wisconsin Republican Kevin Nicholson, a former Democrat who is running for Senate, said in early May that he questioned the “cognitive thought process” of military veterans in the Democratic Party. “Because the bottom line is, they’re signing up to defend the Constitution that their party is continually dragging through the mud,” he said. Nicholson earned criticism from his own party for the statement and should be forced to walk through Arlington National Cemetery and note how political party is no requirement for inclusion.
President Donald Trump, following tradition, did visit Arlington on Memorial Day to honor the fallen who came from “every generation, from towering cities and windswept prairies, from privilege and from poverty.” He said “they were all brothers and sisters in arms. And they were all united then, as they are united now, forever, by their undying love of our great country.”
Earlier, though, he had stepped on that fine message with a tweet that said: “Those who died for our great country would be very happy and proud at how well our country is doing today. Best economy in decades, lowest unemployment numbers for Blacks and Hispanics EVER (& women in 18years), rebuilding our Military and so much more. Nice!”
Retired Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Barack Obama, answered with a tweet of his own: “This day, of all days of the year, should not be about any one of us. No matter how prestigious or powerful, no matter how successful we perceive ourselves to be. Rather, this day should be about those who gave their lives so that we could live ours in freedom.”
Even a perfect reaction to the day could not have erased the president’s history, which includes a continuing feud with veteran and former prisoner of war Sen. John McCain and disrespectful interactions with Gold Star families, particularly those of color.
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Lowering the Barr
One person the president had praised was Roseanne Barr, an entertainer whose show — instead of being a comedy to bring Americans together to laugh — turned into a political cudgel that supporters and detractors found useful to wield. After Barr’s rebooted ABC show drew huge ratings, Trump congratulated the comedian, privately in a phone call and publicly at an Ohio rally, for “unbelievable” ratings for a show “about us.”
Barr herself told ABC’s “Good Morning America” in March: “I really hope that it opens up civil conversation between people instead of just of mud-slinging. I really do because I think we need to be more civilized in that.”
The politically savvy Trump, at first, did not comment on the far-from-civilized, racist, holiday-week tweet that got Roseanne, the show, canceled or the actress’s wild conspiratorial musings that came before and after. (In the case of the racist trope that dehumanizes African-Americans by calling them apes, Barr reached into her own and America’s shameful past.)
But he could not help making it about himself, and on Wednesday, he tweeted: “Bob Iger of ABC called Valerie Jarrett to let her know that ‘ABC does not tolerate comments like those’ made by Roseanne Barr. Gee, he never called President Donald J. Trump to apologize for the HORRIBLE statements made and said about me on ABC. Maybe I just didn’t get the call?”
Though Barr had defenders — most using the same deflection as the president, ignoring the TV star’s racist statements to change the subject and focus on the sins of others — the reaction was relatively muted.
Some Trump voters had warmed to a sympathetic and sanitized TV portrayal of a working-class white family that welcomed mixed-race and gender-fluid grandchildren and focused on the jobs-and-economy narrative that conveniently left out the racist and misogynistic Trump statements a voter would have had to overlook or condone because — immigration. But many of them, no doubt, walked away from the Barr train wreck anyone on Twitter could see coming, and from her actions that ironically put a lot of working people out of work.
Barr joins the Billy Bush club, named for another entertainer who paid the price for being Trump-adjacent, while the man leading a reality-show presidency with real-life consequences has moved to exhorting his rally crowds to heckle Democrats and the media and to join in a call and response about criminal “animals” coming into the United States.
Maybe America has not yet earned the right to relax, if a holiday is the occasion to ignore the tears in the American fabric without truly doing the work of mending them.
Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc.