Arts

Matthew Gilbert

At his ‘Salute,’ a rote performance from a president who didn’t mean what he said

Trump looked on during the "Salute to America" Fourth of July event.
Brendan Smialowski / AFP
Trump looked on during the "Salute to America" Fourth of July event.

As a TV event, President Trump’s “Salute to America” rang hollow. It was not must-see, as he promised; it was an hour of dutiful recitation, with planes.

Beforehand, observers feared the event would be overtly partisan and self-serving, with Trump coopting an American celebration for his own purposes. But what viewers saw of “Salute to America” — which aired live only on Fox News and C-SPAN, while it streamed online — was scrubbed clean of overt references to his reelection campaign.

The shiny, happy crowd carefully positioned behind him for the camera wore no MAGA hats. His speech included none of his usual rhetoric, none of his negativity about the press, the Democrats, and the experts who don’t fall in line with his wishes. He did not surround himself with his children, and he did not loudly sing his own praises. The crowd chanted “U.S.A.,” not “Lock Her Up.”

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You could have thought he was not politicizing the event. But, as we’ve learned, he is a partisan creature from deep in his gut all the way to his ego. When he brings out Presidential Don, the model that doesn’t shoot from the hip and incite discord, it’s generally to serve his own PR needs of the moment. Pretending to preside over a united country — even though he has worked hard to divide it — suited him on July 4, and, instead of lather-building bluster, he relied on national imagery and a written speech. He used footage of the country’s military to align himself with our powerful planes and tanks. He once again tried to identify himself with Abraham Lincoln by setting himself under the Lincoln statue on the National Mall.

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And he read from the Teleprompter, bringing us on a long, slow walk through American history. There were a few errors in the speech, including the wrong date on which the Founding Fathers declared independence from Great Britain (it was July 2) and the assertion, due to a misreading of the Teleprompter, that the Army took over airports a century or so before the Wright Brothers first flew. Naturally, Twitter was all over the mistakes, and #RevolutionaryWarAirportStories was trending before the night was over.

But the real problem, beyond the mistakes, was the sense of disconnect that transcended everything he said. Watching Trump read the speech, you knew that he was merely reciting text, that he actually knows very little about the history of America or any other country. Hearing him quote Thomas Jefferson was like hearing a Kardashian go deep on Jane Austen. It added a layer of irony to the event that was as thick as the foggy bulletproof glass that protected him.

When he praised Gold Star families with the words written for him, it was hard not to think of his own offensive words directed to the Khan family during the election. As he went on and on about the military, it was hard not to remember his comment about a former POW, Senator John McCain: “I like people that weren’t captured.”

Perhaps another president could have read the same speech — without the errors — and made it fly like the planes that soared over the crowd. But in Trump’s mouth, the words were just words, like those of a substitute grammar school teacher reading from the textbook to fill the time and distract the kids. For an hour of TV on a holiday, you could have done a lot better with your remote.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.