Military parades, “treasonous” opponents – do you sense a pattern here?
President Donald Trump is such a master of the politics of distraction that everything he says and does is assumed to be a diversion from something more important, the Russia collusion issue above all.
It’s certainly true that in Trump’s exotic circus of scandal and outrage, many stories that would have engulfed earlier administrations roll right off the back of the news cycle. Consider, for starters, his profiting while president from his resorts and golf clubs, his alleged payoff of a porn star, and the resignation of the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over conflicts of interest.
On the substance of policy, he can govern largely by stealth. Discussion of the decisions his administration has made on a range of regulatory, environmental, labor, health care and tax matters gets pushed to the bottom of the public agenda.
It will thus be tempting to dismiss Trump’s desire to have a big military parade as yet another ploy to change the subject. Trump knows perfectly well that many liberals are uneasy with massive demonstrations of military strength, so some who might raise their voices in dissent could draw back out of fear that he is baiting them and that they'll play into his hands. Trump clearly longs to be the lead figure on the reviewing stand gazing out on the tanks and missiles as a tribute to his own power, while casting his critics as unpatriotic foes of our men and women in uniform.
But this is precisely why his parade proposal should be treated as dangerous and not simply another bout of Trumpian ego enhancement. It comes within days of Trump’s charge that Democrats who did not stand and cheer him during his State of the Union address could be guilty of “treason.”
When a leader who often praises strongmen abroad defines routine political opposition as disloyalty to country and then suggests hauling out the military to march in our streets as he looks down from on high, friends of freedom should take notice. Those who challenge the portrayals of Trump as an authoritarian or an autocrat because our freedoms are still intact miss the point. In enduring democracies such as ours, liberty is eroded slowly by politicians who undermine the norms and practices that protect it. There is good reason why we have not made military parades a standard part of our patriotic repertoire.
Trump said he got this idea from France, our democratic ally whose Bastille Day military procession goes back 138 years. This gives him cover because spectacles of the sort Trump has in mind are associated less with free nations than with dictatorships in Russia, North Korea, China, and the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s.
The United States, born in republican opposition to royalist rule, has been properly reticent about flaunting our formidable arsenal, typically limiting such displays to celebrations of war victories. This is in keeping with a tradition that regularly honors those who sacrifice to defend our country, but resolutely limits the political role of the armed forces.
There is also an element of pragmatism in our shunning of martial ostentatiousness. Our military is, as Defense Secretary James Mattis has said, “the world’s most feared and trusted force.” There is no need to prove this with a pageant of might that is at least as likely to inspire resentment as respect – especially since it is now inevitable that even our friends abroad would see Trumpian excess in this break with our past, as Rick Noack noted in The Washington Post.
Mattis has done better than most Trump appointees in avoiding complicity with the president’s worst abuses. Perhaps Mattis has decided to preserve his influence by humoring Trump’s parade envy. Here’s hoping that instead, a Marine who knows what genuine battlefield heroism entails will find a way to sideline this very bad idea.
He might persuade Trump to contain his self-indulgence and spend the money a parade would cost on scholarships for the children of wounded warriors and those who have died in battle, or to help homeless vets. This is what real patriotism looks like.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last great general to serve as president, urged “an alert and knowledgeable citizenry” to mesh the “huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Trump’s parade is the antithesis of Ike’s prudence and his commitment to safeguarding our democracy.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.