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Independence, Missouri: tribalism, the flag and 4 July in the age of Trump

In a small midwestern town, memories of President Harry Truman fuel hope for a brighter American future

Its so omnipresent, you longer notice it. On poles outside the historic courthouse and a nearby office building. In a window display at a kitchenware store and on a heart-shaped table in an antiques shop. Above neatly mown lawns and porches of Victorian mansions along North Delaware Street. Beside the grave of a US president and emblazoned on the chest of a salesman as his car pulls out of the square.

The American flag, the stars and stripes, is flying high in Independence, Missouri, an unshowy city in what is literally middle America, preparing to celebrate Independence Day. The public holiday on 4 July celebrates the declaration of independence from the British in 1776 with barbecues, bunting, fireworks, parades, picnics and patriotic songs reassuring rituals of Americana designed to guard against an identity crisis. But this is 2018, Donald Trump is president and patriotism is even more complicated than usual.

Ive always been ra-ra when it comes to America but its hard to feel that this year, said Craig Whitney, a former teacher who hung the flag outside his home. In quiet, measured tones, the 70-year-old added: Im very fearful. I think weve already lost what my father fought for in world war two. Global democracy is on its way out. Im increasingly pessimistic, I have to admit. Im confident the [Republican party] and Trump have wrought damage that will last decades.

Trump has sought to repurpose the trappings of nationalism for his own America first agenda. He has a habit of literally hugging the stars and stripes. He has repeatedly berated American football players for kneeling during the national anthem, in protest at racial injustice. His hardline approach to the border appeals to nativist impulses and threatens Americas longstanding reputation as a nation of immigrants.

This 4 July, against a backdrop of division and tribalism, some will embrace Trumps vision of flag and nation. Others, in thousands of other towns and cities north, south, east and west, will try to preserve their own interpretation of Old Glory. Whitney, who lives in an 1893 house on North Delaware Street, said: My sister is the worlds last remaining unreconstructed hippy. She asked me scornfully one time why I put out all the flags. I still somehow believe there is hope in spite of Trump.

Asked what the flag means to him, Whitney replied: Partly my dad, who was a very flag waving kind of guy. It also symbolises for me what America can be, ought to be, should be, not always is.

His wife, Debbie Twyman, grew up in Independence, a Midwestern city of 121,200 people, 10 fire stations, one police station and one hospital which in the 19th century was the principal jumping-off point for three pioneer trails west. Only a decade ago, the city was branded as the methamphetamine capital of America (a dishonour it has worked to shake off). Neighbours tend to look after each other here, Twyman said. Its a small town big town. I can give you the name of everyone on the street and on July 4 theyll all be in backyard having hot dogs and burgers. They shoot off fireworks down the street and well be able to see them.

Twyman, 60, also a retired teacher, remembers as a child walking up the street with Independences most famous resident: Harry Truman, 33rd president of the US. He was a really kind man and stopped and talked to little kids like me. He used to tell me I should run for office and probably in my lifetime we would have a woman president.

I would like to think Im a patriot and I see the good things my country has done and hopefully will again. I am deeply distressed when I see children ripped from their mothers [under Trumps family separation policy at the border]. I say with knowledge of the man that Harry Truman would be horrified by this. This is not the world he fought for.

Craig Whitney and Debbie Twyman relax on their porch. Photograph: Julie Denesha for the Observer

Across the street, American and Italian flags fly side by side outside the home of Linda Robinson. Until last Monday her family was hosting a 17-year-old exchange student from Italy, named Gaia. She said: Exchange students say they want to stay in LA or San Francisco but Gaia said, This is the real America. This is the way it is. This is the way the majority of Americans live. Shes right: were not jet setters. They judge America by what they see on TV: a lot of Hollywood rich and famous. They think everyone has a giant car and a big house.

Sitting on the front porch, where a sign says America, my home sweet home, Robinson, 57, who does voluntary work, condemned Trumps lack of decorum but remained defiantly optimistic. I dont care what anybody says, I still think America is the best country in the world. Patriotism to me is standing by your country. Its like standing by anybody; you dont always agree with them but youll always love them. The core values are there. I think were a strong country and nobodys been on the same page ever but weve managed to exist together.

I think somehow America will survive. As soon as hes out of office, if we can find someone with manners and diplomacy, well calm down a little bit. After the election I had to calm my daughter down and told her: just take it one day at a time, hes not going to be there forever, someone else will come in and reverse everything he did. Sometimes in your life theres a dip. Were in a dip right now but I think we will rise again.

Along North Delaware Street, at the home of Stephanie Dean and family, the stars and stripes was flying a pole in the front garden, while two more flags rose out of plant pots either side of the door. She said: To me it symbolises hope that, when we arent divided, we can still come together to grow and learn and afford everyone the same rights.

Dean, 32, a pastor, added: Patriotism means taking pride in your country. Im an American but thats only part of who I am. Thats not a basket Im going to throw all my eggs into because that closes the door to other people. Its good to be proud of where youre from but its not the be all and end all.

A quiet American

Independence Square is dominated by a 1933 redbrick courthouse with classical pediment and columns beneath a clock tower and weather vane, surrounded by impeccably cut grass. Outside the west entrance is a statue of former president Andrew Jackson on horseback; outside the east entrance is a statue of Truman with spectacles, suit and tie and cane, standing on a plinth above a flower bed.

Jim Allin, owner of Fish Window Cleaning, squeegees a storefront window across from the Truman courthouse on Independence Square. Photograph: Julie Denesha for the Observer

The surrounding shops include an art gallery, law office, a seller of music equipment, a pet hotel and a physical therapist. But they are punctuated by a few empty lots marked for lease or with rent this space, one still advertising long gone raincoats and underwear. At one corner is Clintons Soda Fountain, an ice cream and milkshake parlour that was once a pharmacy where the young Truman worked, rather like young George Bailey in Its a Wonderful Life. Nearby is Wild About Harry, a mens gift and accessories shop, and the art deco Pharaoh cinema. At another corner is Up Dog, a classic diner with an imminent hot dog eating contest.

In many ways this is an everytown; in others it is atypical. The dancer Ginger Rogers was born here. Truman moved to Independence when he was six and returned to humble retirement here after his presidency, which included the still bitterly debated decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan to hasten the end of the second world war. The Harry S Truman Library and Museum, which naturally has the US flag flying at the entrance, offers a study in contrast with the current incumbent of the White House.

Truman was the son of a farmer, worked various jobs, accrued debts, did not attend university, laboured on a farm, fought in the first world war (joining up as a bespectacled 33-year-old), opened a clothing store that went out of business and rose to the US Senate and then the presidency an embodiment of the American dream. After his stunning 1948 election win, he sent a telegram to the Washington Post that read: Despite your editorial opposition to the Democratic ticket, your news coverage of my campaign was fair and comprehensive. In a glass case the museum displays the sign The buck stops here that sat on his desk in the Oval Office. Close to the graves of Truman and his wife, Bess, a quotation is inscribed in stone: The truth is all I want for history.

Most significantly, the museum argues that Truman reversed the long American tradition of isolationism and chronicles his role in the Marshall Plan, formation of Nato, recognition of Israel and military intervention in Korea the stewardship of a post-war liberal democratic order that Trump now threatens to unravel.

Clifton Truman Daniel, who was six before he discovered that his grandfather had been president, remembers parading around Independence atop a fire engine one 4 July, in sweltering heat. He hopes that this years commemorations across the country will not be polluted by the political climate. If anything, I hope it would be a time for less disunity and, despite their political differences, people celebrate their shared history, the 61-year-old said by phone.

Park guide Alex Joeckel carefully folds a flag. Photograph: Julie Denesha for the Observer

What does the flag mean to him? Its a sense of pride but I would consider myself a quiet American. Im glad I live here as Winston Churchill said, Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried. I have a quiet pride: if you have a good system you should live it, not tell people about it. Dont thump your chest and shout, Were number one! My grandfather was proud of the values we hold dear but he was also a modest man and didnt feel had to beat anyone over the head with it.

A fine line

In Missouri, Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by half a million votes. Josh Olah, 23, an iron worker, said: Hes fine. Theres always problems with everybody. He does his job.

Sitting beneath the Truman statue and an American flag, Olah summed up the latter in one word: Freedom.

Eileen Weir, the mayor of Independence, said: I would say that the people in my communities supported to a large degree the Republican president and that causes me to really shift my thinking on some issues and understand what my community wants. I think the president has an opportunity to really make some great policy decisions.

I am concerned, as many people are, about the immigration issues but I think that he has made some good decisions on tax policy. Every president has wins and losses and Im rooting for President Trump that he has more wins than losses.

Weir, 50, who hopes to expand the citys 4 July celebrations, added: Independence is of course the home of Harry Truman, historically a very Democratic city, and we see that that is changing. I feel its my responsibility to respond to what the voters want and provide them what with what they want.

Linda Robinson, on her porch in Independence. Photograph: Julie Denesha for the Observer

But Trumps brand of flag-waving is a turn off to many here. Michael Thomas, 35, a nurse, said: Nationalism, fascism and patriotism: thats a fine line there. The Nazis were very nationalistic and patriotic. Trumps view is: If you dont agree with everything he says and wrap yourself in the flag, youre unpatriotic. I strongly disagree with that.

The stars and stripes has played many parts. It was carried by columns of Ku Klux Klan marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, hoisted by soldiers on Iwo Jima during the second world war and by firefighters in the ruins of the World Trade Center after the attacks of 9/11, burned by protesters against the Vietnam war and planted by the first men on the moon. It has also been commodified in hats, socks, ties, towels and underpants.

At sunset in Independence Square on Thursday, Thomas Reddell, 23, an insulation salesman, was wearing a vest patterned entirely out of the flag, with the stars on his upper right chest. He explained: Most of my family is in the military and Im grateful for what they do to allow us to be free and not have to worry about other countries bullying us.

His views on the current flag-hugging president were mixed. Donald Trump is arrogant. There are some things I agree with and others where I think hes a complete idiot. He spoke his mind and thats what America is about so Im proud in that respect, but he also makes us kind of look like assholes. Hes trying to divide us but I also understand that Americans are not going to let that happen.

Well have another president soon and hes not that significant. A president is for four or eight years but America has been great for 200 years, so one man cant change that.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jul/01/independence-missouri-harry-truman-donald-trump

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