The military vehicles on the Mall will be accompanied by a flyover involving an array of government planes, an extended pyrotechnics show and, of course, a speech by President Trump, who has dubbed the event the “Salute to America.”
But rather than spotlight the sort of united American spirit that Independence Day events generally celebrate, this show will largely be about Trump himself. And with that, it will display the contradictions that lie at the heart of his conception of U.S. military power.
The price tag of the event has already sparked criticism. The Washington Post reported that nearly $2.5 million has already been diverted by the National Park Service for the event. It is unclear what the total cost may be — a military parade that Trump had called for last year had a budget of about $92 million before it was canceled when the potential cost became public.
Trump has downplayed, but not denied, reports about the soaring bill. “The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.
But to the president’s harshest critics, the cost isn’t even the worst aspect of the show. Some have compared the plans for the event to the authoritarian displays in North Korea or China, meant to rally jingoistic respect for the nations and their leaders. However, while Trump’s grand party may seem a bit fascistic, it’s also quite farcical.
While Trump seeks to align himself closer with the military more than previous U.S. leaders, he often betrays a lack of military understanding. Before this week’s event, for example, Trump said he would be showing off “brand new Sherman tanks.” Sherman tanks were used during World War II; they were decommissioned in the 1950s.
This ignorance fits into a pattern of paradoxes that defines Trump’s views of the military. He consistently praises troops but avoided service himself. He’s placed military leaders in top political office, then ignored their advice. And he’s traveled internationally for military parades but then skipped ceremonies for the war dead.
Despite being commander in chief, it took Trump almost two years to visit U.S. troops in a combat zone — far longer than his immediate predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
These contradictions have a global effect. Much of Trump’s foreign policy is based on the idea that the United States must be the strongest, militarily and otherwise. However, while Trump revels in the pomp of military power, he seems unsure of exactly how he wants to use it.
Before he was lusting after military parades, many had taken Trump’s campaign talk as a sign of an isolationist bent. Ahead of the 2016 election, the American businessman said — inaccurately — that he had opposed the Iraq War and that as leader, he wanted to disentangle the United States from foreign conflicts.
It didn’t take too long for this idea to be disabused: In April 2017, Trump ordered a strike against Syrian forces that led many of his anti-intervention supporters (often members of the alt-right) to condemn him. It turned out Donald wasn’t a Dove, as had once been argued — though he wasn’t quite a hawk either.
Trump’s bipolar foreign policy views of military power are on full display at the moment, with dueling approaches in standoffs with North Korea and Iran: In North Korea, Trump threatened war and now seeks a nuclear deal, and in Iran, Trump walked away from a nuclear deal and now threatens war.
The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood has suggested that these strands reflect the influence of two figures in Trump’s orbit — national security adviser and long-standing uber-hawk John Bolton and Fox News talk show host and recent isolationist convert Tucker Carlson.
But Bolton and Carlson might be disappointed if they hope to sway Trump toward pure isolationism or interventionism. As Trump’s July 4 celebration shows, his foreign policy is based on his own brand of unilateralism.
Despite the tanks on the Mall, the July 4 event is proving more of a headache for the military than an honor. Indeed, military leaders have more reason than most to be wary of the event, despite their high-profile role.
CNN reports that military officials, some of whom have been asked to stand with Trump during the celebration, are concerned about violating Defense Department guidelines that prohibit uniformed troops from engaging in political activity.
So who is the event for? It’s not about Washington, the city actually hosting the event. The District of Columbia is fiercely Democratic and averse to Trump’s touch. City officials are already dismayed about picking up the tab for potential damage from the tanks.
“I don’t think we get anything out of it,” Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) told NPR in an interview Tuesday.
No, this event is about Trump himself. The U.S. president, who never looks happier than when he’s talking about himself on the campaign trail, will get to give a speech to the country from the Lincoln Memorial just as the race to the 2020 election begins in earnest.
Passes to the event have been distributed by the Republican National Committee and Trump’s reelection campaign, with big GOP donors and political appointees on the list. Rooms in Trump’s nearby luxury hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue are reported to be going for as much as $1,100.
Trump’s big show will use America’s military pomp as a backdrop to himself. To his critics, it’s another reminder of Trump’s foreign policy: big, brash and pointless. But to the American president, it will be a chance to celebrate something he favors dearly: his freedom to do as he pleases.
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