Little Rocket Man
The national emergency represented by the Trump Presidency began on its first day, January 20, 2017. The new President’s inaugural address, written largely by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, sounded all the themes of right-wing nationalism, populism, xenophobia, phony alarm, and blatant deception that we now take as the daily lexicon of the Trump White House. And the inaugural organizers took the opportunity, as so much subsequent reporting has made plain, to turn the various events into gold-plated opportunities for profiteering and influence-peddling.
Had Trump had his way, he would not have stopped there. Indeed, he wanted very much to add a dash of tin-pot militarism to the inaugural mix. In much of the coverage of this year’s Independence Day ceremonies in Washington, we’ve been reminded of how Trump has expressed jealous admiration for the military pomp that he has witnessed abroad, particularly at a Bastille Day celebration, in Paris, in 2017, and his hopes to bring that home. In fact, it is worth remembering that Trump had this idea from day one.
Just before his inauguration, Trump said in an interview that the “military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we’re going to be showing our military.” As the Huffington Post reported at the time, Trump and the transition team discussed the possibility of including missile launchers and tanks in the inaugural parade. “They were legit thinking Red Square/North Korea–style parade,” one transition source told the site.
Military officials, however, objected for reasons practical and ideological. They worried that tanks were so heavy that they would likely tear up the city streets; more important, they insisted that the sort of militaristic display that Trump was imagining was beyond the bounds of American tradition. Undeterred, Trump tried to pull off something of the kind last Veterans Day, but later conceded that the costs, as much as ninety million dollars, would be too much.
Finally, Trump has his way. Remember all the talk of making sure that the worst of the Trump Presidency not be “normalized”? Too late. Normalized it has become.
“The cost of our great Salute to America,” he tweeted, “will be very little compared to what it is worth. We own the planes, we have the pilots, the airport is right next door (Andrew), all we need is the fuel. We own the tanks and all. Fireworks are donated by two of the greats. Nice!” He is calling it the “show of a lifetime!”
Trump, who talks about “my generals” and “my military,” has decided to turn the normally pacific Independence Day ceremonies in the capital into a martially tinged self-branding exercise. We are watching him blow hard into the balloon of his own ego. Trump is also trying to conflate a patriotic celebration with his reëlection campaign. The White House is doling out passes to Republican donors, members of the Republican National Committee, and other supporters.
According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon leadership has reacted to the increased militarization of the Fourth by “hiding out and hoping it all blows over.” Trump, of course, has spoken for “his” generals, saying that they are, in fact, “thrilled.” He is not likely to hear any high-level public objections from the Pentagon. He has not had a Senate-confirmed Defense Secretary since James Mattis resigned, in December, when he could no longer influence or countenance Trump’s chaotic decision-making process. There are some signs of public unhappiness, however. One liberal-leaning veterans group, VoteVets, plans to give out thousands of U.S.S. John S. McCain T-shirts on the mall, the better to remind people of Trump’s vicious insults directed against the late Arizona senator, an American prisoner of war in Hanoi, and of the way White House aides tried pathetically to hide the destroyer from the President’s view during a state visit to Japan.
The increased military display on Independence Day is hardly the most significant piece in the miserable jigsaw that is the Trump Administration. In recent weeks, we have seen so many pieces: A credible charge of rape. The imminent collapse of Iran’s nuclear restraint, thanks to the President’s foolish abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal. Trump’s airy dismissal of the climate emergency at the recent G-20 meetings in Osaka. (“We have the cleanest water we’ve ever had. . . .”)
Perhaps the most significant event at the G-20 session came when Vladimir Putin used the occasion to declare, in a run-up interview with the Financial Times, that “the liberal idea has become obsolete.” Sounding much like Trump at his fearmongering worst, Putin said, “The liberal idea presupposes that nothing needs to be done. The migrants can kill, plunder, and rape with impunity because their rights as migrants must be protected.” Leaders including Emmanuel Macron of France and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, stood up to Putin and the idea that Russian-style authoritarianism was the wave of the future. By contrast, Trump voiced not a word of objection. Why would he? He is in total agreement with Putin. And, in Osaka, he stood with the Russian President and mocked both the idea of a free press and the notion that Russia had ever interfered in the 2016 elections on his behalf.
And so, on the Fourth, we will watch Trump, who evaded military service by pleading phantom bone spurs, spend millions of dollars of public funds in order to enact a fantasy of martial leadership. He is doing it to flatter his base. He is doing it to solicit the criticism of his enemies (the better to turn that criticism on its head). And he is doing it because he can.
“I do not despair of this country.” That is what Frederick Douglass came around to near the end of his famous 1852 Independence Day jeremiad—“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?” He was speaking that day to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, more than a decade before the Emancipation Proclamation. It is undoubtedly depressing to witness a would-be American authoritarian eroding yet another norm, pushing us one more step backward, on a day that should be one of celebrating the best of us and our history and, as Douglass did, imagining what we could become when liberty is expanded to embrace everyone. There is solace in knowing that the President, for all his bravado and cynicism, is acting largely out of a sense of what looms before him—a reckoning.
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