Trump Wants Tanks on the National Mall. What Could Go Wrong?

A show of military might to gratify the president’s ego—on Independence Day, no less—is yet another blow to republican virtue.

President Donald Trump speaks at a tank-manufacturing plant in Lima, Ohio, in March.
President Donald Trump speaks at a tank-manufacturing plant in Lima, Ohio, in March. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Hello, comrades! Happy Fourth of July, or should I say, Happy 45th President of July! How fortunate we are to see our Tremendous Nation’s military hardware as we celebrate the 240th-ish anniversary of something or the other, and the third year of our Amazing President! Of course, our Great Hero Farmers are going bankrupt and our Treasonous Justice Department is engaging in ongoing Presidential Harassment, but at least our New Sherman Tanks will be on parade!

Unless, of course, our Sherman tanks (after their arduous trip through the Time Tunnel) plunge through the Arlington Memorial Bridge and we have to fish them out of the Potomac. In which case, it will clearly be the result of sabotage by wreckers determined to ruin yet another celebration of the Most Abused President in All of Human History.

If only this were more of a parody. In fact, President Donald Trump’s plan to turn the Fourth of July into a gigantic ritual of reassurance for his spun-glass ego has now fully matured from a crackpot idea into an expensive, authoritarian, and truly weird hijacking of our most important national holiday. Armored vehicles have already been moved through the streets of the District, and we can only be relieved that there aren’t any Minuteman III nuclear-armed ICBMs near Washington, or Trump would probably be ordering the Air Force to cart one of those down Constitution Avenue, as well.

Instead of observing the Fourth like a normal president and engaging in some quiet ritual of civic virtue—swearing in new citizens, or visiting our troops, or perhaps just watching the fireworks and leaving his fellow citizens alone for a day—Trump has decided to order up a spectacle. Rather than honoring the day on which the Founders risked being hanged as traitors in order to proclaim a new republic, Trump will preside over a show of might meant to quiet the constant thunderclaps of insecurity that fill his every waking moment.

His choice of a military parade, replete with all kinds of weapons he does not understand, makes perfect sense. After being exiled by his own family to military school, Trump has repeatedly compensated for his subsequent evasion of military service by imagining himself as the reincarnation of George Patton. Other national leaders who ducked military service during Vietnam, from Dick Cheney to Bill Clinton, have usually had the good sense to be quiet about it. Even George W. Bush, who undertook the hazardous training of a fighter pilot, rarely drew attention to his careful choice to join the National Guard. When he showed up on an aircraft carrier swaggering around in a flight suit, more than a few of his admirers winced.

But only Trump, who continues to pontificate on his own courage and martial skill despite his obvious lack of both, is going to force the entire country to engage in a national exercise of play-pretend, with a pageant better suited for the leader of some tiny nation’s junta rather than the president of the United States. Trump will wear a suit and tie, but he will be acting out a role that calls for 5 o’clock shadow, meaningless fruit salad on his chest, golden-fringed epaulettes the size of mops, and a peaked cap with a comically high crown throwing a shadow over his aviator sunglasses.

Trump, apparently, was entranced by a French military parade celebrating Bastille Day. He does not seem to understand that national leaders in a democracy do not receive a parade, but rather preside over it. Whether it is a commemoration of the birth of French democracy or a celebration of the patriotic spirit and courage of ordinary Americans, a parade is for the marchers and the observers, and not for the residents of the executive palaces and mansions.

But forget democratic norms. Trump’s ordering of a garish parade in his own honor has blown through the romance of Bastille Day and past the stodgy opera of the Soviet May Day reviewing stand, and is now squarely in the North Korean “Because I feel like it” mode of self-congratulatory military festoonery.

This is an assault on fundamental American cultural and constitutional traditions. Making the military dance for the president’s pleasure is yet another abuse of our civil-military relationship. Appending a nonpartisan holiday to a political party—including the GOP distributing tickets to an event in our shared capital—is yet another insult to the public trust. A display of might to gratify the ego of the commander in chief is yet another blow to republican virtue in the service of petty would-be monarchism.

The tawdriness of the Trumpist Fourth takes me back to a better memory of our national holiday. On July 4, 1983, I was returning from the Soviet Union, where I’d been studying Russian. My international flight back was delayed, and it was deep into the evening when I finally boarded a regional hop for my last leg, from JFK to Hartford. It was a quick flight, but from the air I could see the fireworks in small towns across New York and Connecticut. After weeks of being bombarded by the cheap, shrill patriotism of the Soviet state, with all its fakery and forced grandeur, I was never so glad to be back home in a free country.

None of those small towns, as far as I know, was celebrating the president of the United States. None of them needed tanks shredding their streets. None of these celebrations was ordered up, and paid for with millions of taxpayer dollars, in a vain effort to fill the emptiness inside one unhappy little boy who was packed off to military school and never got over it.

This year, let us spare a thought for the men and women of the armed forces who must obey the order to march about in the oppressive heat of a Washington summer, and thank them for their service. And then, as better stewards of our republic than the current chief executive, let us say nothing further about Trump’s parade and consign any notice or memory of this embarrassing mess to the oblivion it deserves. It is the only proper response to the president’s insistence on this unpatriotic—and, yes, un-American—ritual of personal self-glorification.