The icing on the cake, really, was a Washington Post report on Monday morning that President Trump had revived one of the original impulses he had upon winning the presidency: Overseeing a military display including tanks on the streets of Washington.
This idea was part of initial conversations Trump’s team had as it was preparing for his inauguration but was ultimately nixed in part out of concern about the damage that could result from driving heavy military vehicles on the city’s streets. After attending a Bastille Day celebration in Paris in 2017, the president appears to have begun ruminating on putting together a more patriotic and militaristic display in the nation’s capital. This year, that vision will achieve some measure of fruition, with a goosed-up Independence Day celebration on the Mall anchored by a speech from Trump himself.
Oh, and maybe some tanks. Not driving on the roads, but at least visible. At least there to be pointed at and shown off like a vain bodybuilder offering tickets to the gun show.
While Trump’s inspiration might be France, it’s hard not to get the sense that he’s also hoping to evoke military displays popular among some of the friends he met with over the past week in Asia, leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Both of those leaders oversee regular displays of their nations’ military might, in part out of an insecure sense that they need to demonstrate their strength to the world.
As one expert we spoke with last year pointed out, America’s military strength is already well-known and our systems well-documented, so making overt displays much less necessary. When you think of a leader giving a booming speech while planes fly over and tanks line the streets, you don’t think of the United States. Trump apparently hopes to change that.
As we said, though, this is just the icing on the cake. The cake itself? Trump’s embrace of autocratic leaders like Putin, Kim, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey during his trip to Asia. Past presidents have maintained some distance from leaders who were openly hostile to democratic values and individual freedoms; Trump offers them praise and friendship and echoes their rhetoric. Tanks on the Mall might be the most overt way in which Trump emulates these leaders, but his political arguments are the more alarming way in which he does so.
Sitting next to Putin last week, Trump disparaged the news media, suggesting — laughably — that the U.S. had a problem with “fake news” that doesn’t exist in Russia. In Russia, the fake news is real and under Putin’s control. Like Trump, Putin complains about news outlets that offer criticism, particularly when it’s accurate. It’s not just about the media, but about an acceptance of the idea that those outside the government should have the right to weigh in publicly on what the government is doing. But for the media, Trump has claimed, his approval rating would be over 70 percent.
Both Putin and Mohammed have been linked to the murders of members of the media. Trump defended Putin on that charge during the 2016 campaign and defended Mohammed explicitly during a news conference over the weekend. Despite the CIA having determined that Mohammed ordered the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year, Trump praised Mohammed’s government for taking the killing “very, very seriously” by prosecuting 13 people at Mohammed’s direction.
Besides, Saudi Arabia has “been a terrific ally” who is “ordering equipment, not only military equipment, but $400 billion worth of — and, actually, even more than that over a period time — worth of different things.”
(That latter figure is not accurate.)
It was also during this news conference that Trump was asked to weigh in on Putin’s dismissal of the idea popular in Western Europe and the U.S. that governments should be rooted in democracy and individual freedoms — a concept known as “Western liberalism.”
"I mean, he sees what’s going on,” Trump said of Putin. “And I guess, if you look at what’s happening in Los Angeles, where it’s so sad to look; and what’s happening in San Francisco and a couple of other cities which are run by an extraordinary group of liberal people — I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
Trump — the leader of the government most responsible for bolstering the concept of Western liberalism in the world over the past century — was mistaking the discussion for one about political liberals in the American West. It seems safe to assume that without actually understanding the concept, Trump is unlikely to similarly champion it.
Beyond simply rewarding autocratic leaders with handshakes and attention during his trip to Asia, Trump actively praised them. After inviting Kim to meet him at the border between North and South Korea, Trump smiled as the North Korean leader approached. Trump once derided Kim as a “madman” who “doesn’t mind starving or killing his people.” Upon seeing Kim at the border, Trump greeted him as “my friend.”
He similarly praised the Chinese premier as his friend. Trump celebrated the Chinese Communist Party’s decision last year to eliminate term limits, allowing Xi to serve as president for life. It’s an idea that obviously appeals to the American president. Last week he tweeted an animation showing him running for president every four years until 2048 — at which point he’d be a sprightly 102 years young.
What appeals to Trump about being president for life almost certainly isn’t that he’d be empowered to enact all of his policy priorities. Instead, Trump likes the acclaim that comes from being president, the pomp and respect. (One reason he appreciates Xi and Mohammed is that each welcomed him to their countries with over-the-top ceremonies, something Trump alluded to yet again last week: “We have had a lot of time together, and we’ve become friends. My trip to Beijing with my family was one of the most incredible of my life.") He likes military displays because it reinforces American strength and therefore his own, as president.
There's another lesson from France that Trump seems to have internalized: L'état, c'est moi. I am the state. Not really in the spirit of the Constitution but a fair summary of Trump's approach to the past week.
During the Republican convention in 2016, Trump assured Americans that he alone could fix America’s political system. It appears that, in a weird sense, he may actually believe this.