WASHINGTON – Well, of course the president who claimed bone spurs to dodge the Vietnam War wants the biggest, bestest military parade ever, with lots of tanks and rockets and flags – zillions of flags – and fighter jets screaming overhead. Why is anyone surprised?
We should have seen it coming. And be careful, parade-watchers: As far as Dear Leader Trump is concerned, anyone who fails to cheer as the bands play and the troops march by will surely be guilty of treason.
It was entirely predictable to learn, thanks to The Washington Post, that Trump has been hectoring the nation’s top military leaders to give him a huge martial parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, complete with heavy weapons. Trump envisions a display of military might like the parades we used to see file past the Kremlin reviewing stand in the days of the Soviet Union – and like the somewhat less grim procession he jealously witnessed in Paris on Bastille Day.
Trump has already matched North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in dangerous, unhinged rhetoric. Now it appears he hopes to surpass his rival in linear mileage of meaningless military display.
It is hard to imagine any other president summoning his generals to demand not a better strategy in Afghanistan, not a detailed plan for success in Syria, but rather an elaborate entertainment that gives him an opportunity to be seen reviewing the troops. In this reality-show presidency, it sounds like the kind of extravaganza that one could imagine as a series finale. If so, bring it on.
Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued one of her customary useless explanations Wednesday. “President Trump is incredibly supportive of America’s great service members who risk their lives every day to keep our country safe,” she said in a statement. “He has asked the Department of Defense to explore a celebration at which all Americans can show their appreciation.”
We’ve had military parades in the capital before, but generally they have been staged to mark a victory – the rout of Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1991 Gulf War, for example. At present, we don’t have a fresh victory to celebrate – or even a vaguely recent one. Trump wants the pomp without the usual circumstance.
Again, why should anyone be shocked that Trump would care much about style and not at all about substance? The only question is whether the parade idea is evidence of his alleged political genius or his delicate and damaged psyche. I vote for the latter.
There is a semi-plausible argument that Trump could consciously use such a patriotic extravaganza as a wedge, the way he has used the NFL anthem protests. It could be a with-me-or-against-me ploy. If you support the parade, you love America; if you don’t, you don’t.
But a celebratory military parade with nothing to celebrate could also highlight the gulf between Trump’s campaign promises and his actions. He pledged to wind wars down and bring the troops home; he has done quite the opposite. A claim of final victory over the Islamic State – perhaps Trump’s most likely boast – would be made to look empty and foolish by the next terrorist attack.
Trump is more a creature of instinct than calculation. My guess is that both his narcissism and his authoritarianism are at play in his need to honor himself with a parade.
Despite his boastful tweetstorms, the president clearly realizes that his approval ratings are historically low. He is so unpopular that he will not even risk a state visit to London to open the new U.S. embassy there for fear of being humiliated by mass protests. The campaign-style rallies he so enjoys do not appear well-designed to advance a political agenda; they do, however, boost his spirits and massage his ego.
Imagine all the love he would feel while reviewing a miles-long parade whose participants all had the sworn duty to show him respect as commander-in-chief. He would be saluted and serenaded to his heart’s content. It would be an egomaniac’s heaven.
Trump’s big parade would also be a massive display of power – not so much the nation’s as his own. There is not a soul on earth who doubts the overwhelming strength of the U.S. military. I can think of one soul, however, who is insecure enough in his own authority that he accuses members of Congress who do not stand and applaud him of treason.
Trump seems shocked to learn that the legislative and judicial branches do not have to do whatever he says. The military marching bands do, though.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.