The President has issued a proclamation that May 1 be celebrated as “Loyalty Day.” Although in doing so he may be revealing his political savvy, he also once again proves the lack of historical awareness animating his White House and the movement that got him there. The text of the proclamation states that the day is intended “To express our country’s loyalty to individual liberties, to limited government, and to the inherent dignity of every human being.” Let’s think about this list for a moment, in light of the founders and of the actions to date of this administration.
We can all agree that the founders valued individual liberties. They enshrined a list of those liberties in the Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution, a document that the short proclamation references twice). Beyond the much touted right of militia men needed for the defense of the nation to bear arms, they valued many other individual liberties—freedom of the press first among them.
Limited government was not a goal of the Constitution’s authors, rather quite the opposite. The opponents of big government, the anti-federalists, lost the struggle over the Constitution. They feared that the expanded powers it gave to the central government would come at the expense of the states and of individuals. It could easily be argued that their assessment was correct. Trump’s party runs the massive federal government created by the Federalists, enshrined in the Constitution, yet they claim that it is a government dedicated to limited federal powers. They wield the great power that comes with the presidency, but they also want you to believe they are for limited government (especially when they cut health care or open public lands to businesses). So the “limited government” claims of Loyalty Day are both ahistorical and politically self-serving.
Finally the proclamation cites the government’s support for “the inherent dignity of every human being.” This reference may be code for the Republicans’ anti-abortion stance; it is evocative of language used by Catholics when explaining their church’s commitment to opposing abortion, although Catholics, unlike most Republicans, understand that inherent dignity also demands such unpopular policies as care of the poor and opposition to the death penalty.
More obviously, references to the inherent dignity of every human being makes a transparent bid to commandeer May 1, international workers’ right day, to the Republican cause. May Day is already dedicated to human dignity because it fights the abuse of the powerless by the powerful. A day celebrated across Europe and elsewhere, May Day features marches and rallies in support of workers’ right. In the United States May Day has made a modest comeback as a left-leaning (pro-worker, pro-immigrants’ rights) holiday. In the 20th century, the U.S. government tried to suppress its celebration, fearful of its association with Communism. They replaced it with Labor Day four-months later in the year, since that day had no larger political meaning. Declaring May 1 Loyalty Day, the President was no doubt aware that his political opponents mean to take to the streets on Monday.
May Day as celebrated internationally represents the opposite of patriotism. It rejects the idea of elevating one country over others, as Loyalty Day does, in favor of promoting workers’ shared needs and goals across all countries. Demanding public affirmations of Loyalty instead invokes not just patriotism but repressive regimes: loyalty oaths, loyalty parades honoring the Führer, or allegedly disloyal Soviet citizens sent to the Gulag. Put alongside our now nearly ubiquitous use of the term “homeland”—so reminiscent of the Russian “motherland” or the German “fatherland”—Loyalty celebrations have unsettling associations, as many have already pointed out. May Day, in contrast, is inherently internationalist. That is why it was opposed as potentially Communist in an earlier era in U.S. history.
Trump’s move to remake May Day into an event celebrating the government he runs is transparent, but it may also be brilliant. Perhaps, ever the showman, he intends to claim all those hundreds of thousands of protesters holding signs to stop the deportations and rein in big business as his supporters, which would amount to an Orwellian move of monumental proportions. Since he threw an under-attended party in Washington in January, he may imagine himself running to the front of someone else’s parade so he can pretend he planned it all along. More likely he hopes some well-staged loyalty celebrations on the part of his dwindling numbers of supporters will give the right-wing media something to cover other than the traditional May Day events. When workers of the world unite, it seems unlikely to be behind this President.