If you want to Celebrate America before the biggest game of the NFL season, you’re going to need some kind of horn, the cheesiest you can find. Not the same kind of horn that the Yankees use to push their season ticket plans on television between Raymour & Flanigan ads, that’s more of a burbling Brahms-type thing, but the idea is the same. For an institution of sufficient importance, you’re going to have to get yourself a horn and you’re going to want to make some Revolutionary War-style sounds come out of it. It’s what America deserves, and in the years when Fox has the rights to the Super Bowl, it’s what America gets in the hours before the game.
When Fox has the broadcast rights to the Super Bowl, as it does this year, you had better believe those horns are going to be in play. This year, as in past Fox years, you’ll hear some patriotic tootling and snare drum rum-dum-dumming playing under footage of various NFL personalities reciting the Declaration of Independence as they walk through historic buildings, or while surrounded by troops and first responders and military hardware, or while towering over youth football teams. In 2008, Michael Strahan and a bunch of New York firefighters in their dress uniforms did their part while standing over the still-raw pit at Ground Zero. Usually it takes a long time for a tradition to become a tradition, and even more time after that for it to become opaque and abstract and rote in the way that traditions do. Fox’s determination to make Super Bowl Sunday a celebration of America skipped a bunch of those steps. It started out confusing and overdetermined and then pretty much stayed that way.
FOX started doing the Declaration of Independence bit in 2002, and like most of the traditions hastily whipped up in the churn and uncertainty that followed an authentic national tragedy, it stuck. Fox has preceded each of its Super Bowls since with videos of active and retired NFL personages intoning the words of the Declaration; in 2014, it debuted an original song commissioned for the videos, called “The Heart Of Independence.” You already know what it sounds like.
In 2002, the NFL was not yet the cultural juggernaut that it would become, and the decision to staple some patriotic bunting onto its biggest broadcast was… well, it was absurd on its face even then, and hilariously presumptuous in a way that gets less funny the more you think about it, but it was easier to understand. In the tumult of that moment, big civic moments like the Super Bowl seemed to take on extra meaning, if only because it seemed important that people be together. That wasn’t wrong, and as elemental human urges go that’s honestly a pretty good one. Naturally that basic human pull towards unity and togetherness was weaponized by every party that thought it could weaponize it, from the GOP on down to sports television executives, which served first to cheapen it and then turn it inside out.
Once you start singing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning of every baseball game, for instance, it’s tough to stop. Very quickly it becomes not about the song—it is, as Drew noted earlier this weekend, a lame song—but about the message that it sends. The reason that John Lynch famously hops on tables and sings “God Bless America” at parties is not because he likes the song that much. It’s because he wants to see who isn’t singing. It’s not an affirmative act, but a reactive one; it doesn’t come from a place of pride so much as one of censoriousness and anxiety. As celebrations go, it’s a painfully self-conscious and insecure one. It fits, that way.
John Lynch is both Fox and the NFL in this metaphor, which admittedly seems confusing now that I read back over it but honestly is nothing compared to CBP staging a “simulated security takedown” for Fox News as a way of Celebrating America. (“There’s going to be a lot of overwhelming force,” CBP agent Alex Rodriguez told Fox’s Tomi Lahren. “You’ll see that it’s going to compel them to stop. And if he doesn’t, we have means to actually mitigate that as well.”) At some point, it became customary to include an interview with the president as part of the pre-game package; because of where the country is now, after years of sour theater and bad faith and increasingly desperate spins of the dial to the right, that means Sean Hannity interviewing Donald Trump. “Will Hannity’s pro-Trump propaganda be on display with a wider audience?” Brian Stelter wondered at CNN. “Or will he do the right thing and ask the president some difficult questions?” Early Sunday, Fox & Friends released a teaser of the interview in which Trump, his appearance even more like that of a photographic negative than usual, tells a chuckling Hannity that Michael Bloomberg is short and now also he’s hearing, it’s unbelievable, Little Mike wants a box to stand on at the Democratic debates, which is okay, it’s fine, but it’s unfair.
After two decades of leveraging and re-leveraging the actual thing that has value here—a game, in this stupid and beautiful and preposterous sport, that people really do want to watch together—this is the celebration we’re left with. More than that, there’s the sense that it can only get bigger, broader, bloatier, that the people invested in staging it can only ever do more. Not because the show isn’t big enough, and certainly not because anyone is demanding more of this politics-of-no-politics pomp, or more fife-and-drum goonery, or more and more desperate reiterations of those first panicked gestures towards purpose and togetherness. The audience is less important than the gestures, and the gestures long ago supplanted and replaced the message they sought to convey. It can only get bigger, and only ever becomes more uncanny as it grows. The same could be said of the NFL in many ways, but all of this delusion and desperation together produces something wildly abstract and stilted; there’s an uneasy but undeniable comedy to the way it all expands without ever quite growing. All this trouble, for all these years, all because some powerful people were frightened that doing less would look like admitting defeat.