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.