In the aftermath of an ironic Fourth of July celebration, let’s revisit the Frederick Douglass speech that famously asked, “What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?”

One hundred and seventy-two years later, the descendants of enslavers need to join the descendants of the enslaved in asking what the holiday has come to mean, beyond its rote traditions.

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Or more to the point: Is the great American experiment nearing its expiration date?

July 1, 2024, will go down in infamy as the date a rogue majority on the U.S. Supreme Court placed the president above the law. A nation that fought a war to untether itself from the British monarchy is effectively crowning a king. What John Adams described as “a government of laws, not of men” had its checks and balances disemboweled by a court whose ethical rot suggests that our nation’s trunk — not merely its branches of government — is desperately sick.

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The “America, love it or leave it” crowd needs to find a new slogan. America is leaving us.

It’s a predictable outcome for a nation that never truly bought what it was selling.

The most memorable passage of the Declaration of Independence, authored by a group composed largely of enslavers, embodies what may prove to be our nation’s fatal contradiction: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Williams: Rewrite MLK? The Youngkin administration can’t be trusted with history.

Four days before America’s 248th birthday, in coating Donald Trump with immunity from criminal prosecution, the U.S. Supreme Court exposed this con for what it was. It gave the most pernicious president in U.S. history a get-out-of-jail-free card and — if he regains the White House — a license to kill. Somewhere, Richard Nixon is kicking himself and asking, “Why couldn’t I have had this Supreme Court?”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a minority opinion, laid out the obvious risks of safeguarding a president from criminal prosecution.

“When he uses his official powers in any way, under the majority’s reasoning, he now will be insulated from criminal prosecution,” she said. “Orders the Navy’s Seal Team 6 to assassinate a political rival? Immune. Organizes a military coup to hold onto power? Immune. Takes a bribe in exchange for a pardon? Immune. Immune, immune, immune.”

The majority opinion accused the liberal justices of “fear mongering” based on “extreme hypotheticals” — an assessment that dramatizes either cluelessness or, more likely, complicity.

A man sets off a firework on the banks of the James River near Forest Hill Park on July 4, 2022.

Look, we all heard Trump, in a phone call, attempt to strong-arm Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” him 11,780 votes after he lost that pivotal state during the 2020 election.

We saw Trump stoke the ire of his supporters with his incessant lie about a stolen election, urging them at a Jan. 6, 2021, rally to march to the U.S. Capitol. We witnessed him doing nothing for hours, amid pleas for help, as his supporters stormed the building to overturn the election.

And yes, we heard candidate Trump boast in 2016: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?”

To dismiss the idea that something awful could happen is to ignore the fact that something awful already has. For Chief Justice John Roberts to dismiss Sotomayor’s concerns is like a police officer shouting, “Move along, nothing to see here” as we catch a glimpse of a chalk outline in the shape of America.

Meanwhile, the architects of creeping American fascism have telegraphed their intentions to effectively undo the 20th and 21st centuries. Civil rights, LGBTQ rights, the New Deal, corporate regulation and the separation of church and state are all on the chopping block under the Project 2025 blueprint by the Heritage Foundation. Thousands of civil servants in the federal government would be replaced by political hacks whose main job qualification would be loyalty to Trump. The plan would sic the military on demonstrators exercising their First Amendment rights — another reason for protesters to hit the streets.

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Don’t like this? Tough, warns Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts. “We are in the process of the second American Revolution, which will remain bloodless if the left allows it to be.”

Yeah, these folks are threatening to spill blood as they all but spoil for a second Civil War. And they have allies on the ethical swamp that is the highest court of the land. One spouse of a justice sought to overturn the 2020 election; another spouse flew flags associated with the “Stop the Steal” movement. This Supreme Court majority — brought to you by another anti-democratic organization, The Federalist Society — is an example of the price we pay when loyalty is prized above impartiality and competence.

This is the cost we’re paying for not putting in work to attack America’s inherent contradictions and thoroughly embrace its ideals. On Thursday, we had the obligatory Fourth of July cookouts, parades and fireworks, and the new citizen ceremonies that have come to define the day. But we’ve never had the necessary desire to contemplate what it actually means to be an American, even as a chunk of our fellow citizens embrace anti-American acts such as censorship and sedition.

Some smart people saw this moment coming.

Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Less known is his ambivalence at the signing of the Constitution. Our form of government, he said, “is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government.”

Translation: You get the government you deserve.

The prophetic African American author James Baldwin warned us that America’s contradictions were hazardous to its health.

“The country will not change until it reexamines itself and discovers what it really means by freedom,” he said. “In the meantime, generations keep being born, bitterness is increased by incompetence, pride and folly, and the world shrinks around us.”

Sadly, instead of introspection, we get an Orwellian political agenda that redefines treason as patriotism, public as private, and equality as oppression. Radicalism is conservativism. The only entity that requires regulation is a woman’s body. And a man who interrupted our long history of peaceful transfers of presidential power is worthy of shielding from prosecution.

America’s fatal flaw has been its inability to see itself as it really is. We must reexamine what freedom truly means and fight to attain it for all.

Otherwise, the first of July will come to hold greater meaning than the Fourth.

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