The Celebrate Freedom Rally and the betrayal of arts leaders in the United States

7 minutes to read
Kevin Doyle

On December 27 of last year, the Associated Press ran a news story that was picked up by newspapers and websites around the country. It bore the headline: “Trump, in Washington, stays close to home”. The article detailed the near-total lack of engagement by President Donald Trump with the local Washington, D.C. social scene during his first year in office. The article compared Trump’s hermetic behavior to that of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who throughout his eight years in office regularly left the White House residence to frequent local restaurants, schools, shops, performances, charity events, and sporting events. It’s a fairly good article by a veteran AP reporter. However, it contains one serious error.

Trump's coup d'etat in the Kennedy Center

In the opening paragraph, the journalist states that President Trump “hasn’t taken in a performance at the Kennedy Center” during his first year in office. This is grossly incorrect.

On July 1 of last year, President Trump visited the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. to attend the Celebrate Freedom Concert. This concert featured performances from the First Baptist Church Dallas Choir & Orchestra. It was part of a larger event billed as the “Celebrate Freedom Rally” organized by Celebration Concert Tours International (a for-profit, Christian-themed, booking and management agency based in Tennessee) and the First Baptist Church of Dallas (led by Senior Pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress). 

The Celebrate Freedom Rally taking place inside the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts represents a coup d'état of the cultural and artistic life of the United States.

The Celebrate Freedom Rally and Concert ran for over two hours and featured a mixture of both religious and patriotic songs, interspersed with quasi-religious political speeches from Tea Party Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Dr. Robert Jeffress, and President Donald Trump himself. Designed and marketed to honor military veterans and current members of the United States Military, the Celebrate Freedom Rally often drifted into different terrain. It celebrated religious freedom while espousing fundamentalist, evangelical Christian views and perspectives that demonize the role of government in the United States of America.

The Celebrate Freedom Rally taking place inside the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts represents a coup d'état of the cultural and artistic life of the United States. The July 1, 2017 event went largely unnoticed by American arts leaders. This is beyond astonishing. When it happened, the Celebrate Freedom Rally was barely reported on by American journalists -- to such an extent that now it cannot even be cited by the Associated Press (when Trump himself spoke at the event!). This is nothing short of remarkable and terrifying.

The Kennedy Center and the public funding of the arts

It required nearly 33 years to realize the Kennedy Center -- from the first congressional resolution in 1938 calling for a “National Cultural Center” -- to passage of the National Cultural Center Act in 1958 by President Eisenhower -- to the delayed groundbreaking by President Johnson in 1964 -- until the first live performance was held there in September 1971. During that time, what would eventually be called “The Kennedy Center” faced many fundraising challenges to cover its construction costs. Ultimately, fundraising was aided only by the outpouring of grief following the assassination of President Kennedy; with Congress finally stepping in to cover $43 million of construction costs; supplemented by an additional $23 million in donations from corporations, foundations, and private individuals. 

President John F. Kennedy himself [ October 26, 1963 at Amherst College, MA ] -- working in coordination with his wife, Jackie, and Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI) [ October 28 - November 2, 1963 in the US Senate ] -- is directly responsible for taking a vague concept like public funding of the arts -- one that had languished in fruitless speeches in Congress since the 1930s -- and helped to bring it into the mainstream; eventually becoming law with passage of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act of 1965.

For those who may not recall -- because it has been a tumultuous year -- President Trump began his first term in 2017 calling for the total elimination of the NEA and NEH. While he was unsuccessful, it revealed President Trump’s desire to erase from American history a right which took decades to argue into existence -- that Americans can and should expect their government to adequately fund the arts and culture. President Kennedy is one of the key figures who helped establish the very same cultural rights President Trump wishes to erase. That American arts leaders are unaware of what President Trump said and did during his first appearance at the Kennedy Center -- our national cultural center -- boggles the mind. We are not even interested in the art President Trump experienced -- specifically what music and songs were played (and by whom) during the Celebrate Freedom Rally. This represents an oversight of tragically epic proportions.

The Celebrate Freedom Rally and the betrayal of the arts leaders

Even if the Celebrate Freedom Rally organized by Concert Tours International was a “rental event” not part of any official Kennedy Center artistic programming -- it still authenticates and legitimizes extremely dangerous viewpoints not only about the role and function of government, but the very nature of the arts in America. What transpires during the Celebrate Freedom Rally offers insights pointing towards an extremely dire future for the arts in this country; an increasingly minimized and tangential role for the arts that will further curtail the arts’ impact on American’s lives and hasten the arts’ descent into such irrelevance until it becomes merely a decorative accessory. That American arts leaders have taken virtually zero notice of the Celebrate Freedom Rally represents a cognitive failure on a bewildering scale -- made even more frightening because of the lack of foresight and imagination already demonstrated throughout the 2016 Presidential Election.

If a coup d'état of the artistic and cultural realm took place -- either literally, or even symbolically, or just plain figuratively -- what did arts leaders and leading artists have to say about it? Our national cultural center hosted a sold-out concert event that was attended by our President -- who again in 2018 -- has publicly pledged to eliminate all federal funding not just for the actual, physical building he was standing in -- but for all funding of the arts, the humanities, and public broadcasting. 

What did American arts leaders have to say about it? What did leading American artists, actors, musicians, or writers say in reaction to the first occasion (in an official capacity) of President Trump setting foot inside what is supposed to be hallowed ground? There was plenty to say and satirize, to blog and post about, surrounding President Trump’s decision not to appear last December at the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. There was so much to say when Trump did not appear inside the building. What did the arts and entertainment sectors say when Trump did appear at the Kennedy Center five months earlier?

What to do?

The answers to these questions are not pretty ones. Our inability to even pose the questions stems from “a series of interconnected delusions” (to quote the late Neil Postman) that the American arts sector has operated within for far too long. There are a number of contradictions embedded in the American arts sector. They are a reflection of even greater contradictions running rampant through the nation as a whole. I would argue that if what little remains of a public funding system for the arts and culture is to be preserved -- it demands American arts leaders to finally confront these contradictions and examine their delusions. 

I believe Step One in that process requires a cold viewing of the entire Celebrate Freedom Rally and Concert. It is not a pleasant thing to watch -- to say the least --- but we are running out of time. The new e-mails have already arrived. They began to appear in your inbox during February 2018, after Trump announced his budget for fiscal year 2019. We’ve seen these emails before. They are identical to ones that appeared this time last year. It’s time to “Save The NEA” again.

Based upon the coup d'état that transpired on July 1, 2017 during the Celebrate Freedom Concert and Rally -- it begs the question -- what are we saving? Is it the real thing? Or is it a simulacrum? Why are we all still here? Are we operating within the arts system we think we are? Or have we all gone to sleep only to have the entire system terraformed overnight? Everything looks the same. Everything feels the same. Everyone we know in our daily circles and networks and blog posts sounds the same. But are we really? Are we using the same language and vocabulary as President Kennedy and Senator Pell? Is it possible that we are all just impostors? If Donald Trump’s first appearance at the Kennedy Center cannot even be remarked upon -- let alone challenged -- it might just be possible that the body snatchers coming to terraform our public funding system for the arts might have already started their work. To quote the late American actor Kevin McCarthy from his closing scene of the classic 1956 film -- “They’re here already!!” -- standing on the main stage of our national cultural center.