The day after President Trump accused Democrats who didn’t clap for him at the State of the Union of treason, The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon, on Trump’s orders, is planning a military parade modeled after the Bastille Day parade Trump witnessed in Paris last summer. If Trump gets his way, the parade will take place on the Fourth of July, in downtown Washington and for no good reason.
Last year, Trump said he wanted “a really great parade to show our military strength.”
It is one thing to have a military parade after victory in war, as America did in 1991. It is another thing to have one just because the president wants to have one.
This is what the historian Daniel J. Boorstin called a pseudo-event — a non-spontaneous occurrence whose only purpose is to be reported on. Trump’s parade will project images of America but not its ideals. The image in this case — of ostentatious militarism — is not particularly appetizing in most parts of the world, nor particularly accurate.
Unlike, say, North Korea, America doesn’t have many military parades. We appreciate the military without fetishizing or flaunting it. Trump, however, is turning the military — and patriotic symbols in general — into an extension of his personality.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the parade would be “a celebration” of the military. More likely it will be a celebration of her boss. The tanks and fighter jets will serve as props, adding pizzazz and solemnity, there to showcase Trump’s machismo. Worse things can happen, but we should not make a habit of such pageantry, however well intentioned.
George Orwell wrote in 1941, “A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life. The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face. Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me,' like the bully who makes faces at his victim.”
Trump is a weak man posing as a strongman. He prefers gaudy displays of strength to actual strength. Appearances can be deceiving, which is why Trump likes them. He’s the sort of person who would forgo chemotherapy and die rather than lose his hair and live.
For him, the parade is more important than the military. This is not to disparage him. Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, “With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eye is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves.”
Trump’s ill-fated airline, the Trump Shuttle, featured faux-marble sinks, gold-plated fixtures, leather seats and chrome seat-belt buckles — none of which passengers cared about. Trump’s “diamond in the sky,” as he called it, failed because it prioritized luxury — or, rather, the aura of luxury — over utility.
This is what Trump’s parade will do. Rather than spending the money on the military, Trump is spending money to show off the military. He is making the military weaker in order to show how strong it is.
Just be sure to clap.