WASHINGTON – The Washington Post’s scoop about President Donald Trump’s plans for a grand military parade in Washington brings to mind Evelyn Waugh’s classic satire about England’s upper crust in the early days of World War II, “Put Out More Flags,” named after a Chinese proverb:
“A man getting drunk at a farewell party should strike a musical tone, in order to strengthen his spirit and . and a drunk military man should order gallons and put out more flags in order to increase his military splendor.”
I love a parade as much as the next guy (though perhaps not as much as the president), but there are problems with this particular idea, as The Post’s Greg Jaffe and Philip Rucker note. Seventy-ton tanks “would chew up Pennsylvania Avenue blacktop,” big displays of missile launchers would make us look like North Korea, and the expensive parade would belie the Pentagon’s poverty pleas while perhaps also reminding people that the commander in chief sat out Vietnam with bone spurs.
There is a better way.
The obvious purpose of the parade is not to celebrate the troops, as the White House professes, but to celebrate Trump. Hence, his wish to have the parade before the November election (and the military’s wish to have it after). Given the real goal, the model that would best suit Trump has much older roots than a May Day or even a Bastille Day parade. What Trump needs is a Roman triumph.
The triumph was a public ceremony, including a parade, to celebrate as a near-deity the emperor or a triumphant general – complete with laurels, thrown flowers, adoring troops, war spoils and vanquished enemies in chains. It is, in short, just the sort of parade Trump would enjoy if done in his honor.
The ritual was originally meant for a returning general who had conquered territory and killed at least 5,000 of the enemy, but it was later changed to honor emperors and members of their families. Trump qualifies as a victorious commander, having vanquished enemies foreign (Islamic State) and domestic (Cryin' Chuck Schumer), and as an emperor, having said that those who don’t applaud him commit treason against the state.
First in the Roman triumph procession were the magistrates and members of the Senate; first in the Trump triumph would come Devin Nunes, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Tom Cotton and the other magistrates supportive of Trump. Next in the Roman triumph came the spoils of war: gold and silver, treasures, and paintings and carvings showing moments from the conflict. In Trump’s triumph, the spoils would include models of Trump hotel and golf properties, the nuclear football, a float with a very large button, and chunks of the border wall, carried by Mexicans.
Next in the Roman triumph, to the crowd’s jeers, came the captured prisoners in chains: leaders, soldiers and sometimes family members, to be put on display after the parade or executed. Trump’s triumph would feature all his foes, in irons: the “dreamers,” NFL players who kneel for the national anthem, women who alleged sexual misconduct by Trump, the fake-news media, Robert Mueller, James Comey, FBI agents, Puerto Ricans, Trump’s primary opponents, Hillary Clinton, Steve Bannon.
Next, in a cloud of incense, would come the Roman general, or emperor, in a chariot driven by four horses, holding a laurel branch and scepter and wearing a purple and gold tunic and a painted toga. A slave would hold a golden crown over his head. The emperor’s children and courtiers rode alongside his carriage on horseback, followed by the soldiers in togas and laurel crowns, shouting “Io triumphe” – Hail, triumphant – at their leader.
Trump’s triumph would use identical trappings, though he might eschew the toga for a more tasteful flight suit. Donald Jr., Eric Trump, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller and John Kelly would escort him on horseback. Instead of troops shouting “Hail triumphant” at Trump, handling that duty would be Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and other Fox News personalities.
Toward the end of the Roman triumph procession, two white oxen were sacrificed at the Temple of Jupiter and the prisoners killed. Trump’s triumph, by contrast, would pause outside the Trump International Hotel. Though executing his opponents could be problematic, Trump might stand in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue and shoot somebody, just for symbolism.
There’s only one problem with this plan, as I see it. In the Roman triumph, a slave would ride with the general in his chariot and repeatedly whisper into his ear, “Memento mori”: Remember, you are mortal.
For our parading president, this could be a dealbreaker.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.