When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.
—Provenance unknown; sometimes erroneously attributed to author Sinclair Lewis
You’ve got to give it to the guy. He sure has a set on him. President Trump is impenetrable and far from subtle.
On Tuesday, Americans were treated to the news that Trump has ordered the Pentagon to plan a “big” military parade. We should hardly be surprised. Our president—he of bone spurs and other Vietnam draft deferments—loves martial displays. We’ve already watched him gleefully sword dance with Saudi Arabian princes and marvel at a triumphant Bastille Day parade in Paris. He really liked the French procession.
In fact, according to a Pentagon spokesman, “The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France.”
The man possesses the military maturity of a sophomore from his alma mater, a New York military boarding school in the Hudson Valley, but he sure knows what he wants.
In the coming days, you’ll no doubt be treated to dozens of columns about Trump’s latest request, or, more accurately, his latest order. Expect much discussion of the logistical difficulties inherent in such a cavalcade and speculation about the parade’s monetary cost. But the crisis is deeper still.
The parade is just a symptom. It centers on persistent American militarism and our pariah status in the eyes of the world.
The Trump administration, like the two that proceeded it, possesses not even the semblance of a coherent foreign policy. Who needs strategy when you’ve got pomp, and who better to usher in the show than America’s first reality-TV president?
Make no mistake: This is spectacle, not strategy, pageantry, not prudence. In that sense, nothing better defines our unique militarist moment.
Everything is in play in the martial culture wars waged among Americans. The National Football League is a battleground. Soldiers a-marching and jets a-flying used to be saved for Memorial Day or Veterans Day. Now, it’s a regular Sunday spectacle. Presidents, politicians and “patriots” nearly faint with pride and adulation—a new, compulsory, American ritual. The few African-American players with the audacity to kneel in protest during the national anthem are pilloried, attacked from the very pinnacle of government. It’s a war, in our heads and in our hearts. Militarism is winning.
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Trump didn’t invent the misappropriation of military members for partisan political gain. Oh, no. That’s a well-worn trick of the trade. Heck, George W. Bush landed a plane on a damn aircraft carrier. Even Barack Obama was hardly above speeches and photo-ops with the troops. Still, you have to admit that only Trump could elevate this sort of spectacle into an art form, albeit a gaudy one.
Like so much else in Trump’s governing style, this is pure distraction. He’ll entertain the sentimental masses with shiny, low-hanging patriotic fruit while whisking Paul Ryan’s agenda (with a sprinkle of Stephen Miller nativism) through Congress. After all, there’s lots from which to distract in contemporary America. From militarized police patrolling the streets of black and brown neighborhoods to record income inequality, to sporting the highest per capita incarceration rate in the world, in a nation where black men are imprisoned at five times the rate of whites. Take your pick.
Zooming out a bit, how do you think America’s upcoming martial parade will play in the rest of the world, especially the Greater Middle East, Uncle Sam’s favorite playground of late?
Let’s take an imaginary tour. I’m not sure the people of Yemen—starving and disease ridden under United States-backed Saudi terror bombing—will find much to celebrate in the U.S. military. The Kurds, America’s erstwhile allies in Syria, might resent Trump’s decision to abandon them to the machinations of Turkey, their sworn enemy. Palestinians won’t be impressed either, seeing as this administration broke with the rest of the world and 70 years of precedent to unilaterally sign away their capital, Jerusalem, to Israel.
Afghans can’t be bothered with U.S. victory parades. After all, their capital city is suffering under regular bombing attacks, and a record number of provinces are now controlled by the Taliban. This after a 17-year string of U.S. military “victories.”
The Nigerians, South Sudanese, Somalis and Yemenis suffering under what experts call the catastrophic “four famines” are liable to ask whether the U.S. military couldn’t provide a bit less terror-chasing and a bit more humanitarian assistance before they and their families starve to death. And, finally, imagine the shock of millions of Mideast refugees blocked from entering the U.S. when they find out the American military is celebrating “victory” in the very wars (think Iraq, 2003) that destabilized their region.
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The truth is that most Americans, especially those in Trump’s peculiar coalition—war hawks, tax-cut-hungry CEOs, struggling Rust Belt white males and (strangely, considering their support for a thrice-married New Yorker) evangelical Christians—couldn’t care less about any other countries.
This is now the “America First,” “Make America Great Again” Republican Party, remember? No one in the president’s iron alliance of (40 percent of) Americans is going to worry about how the image of a U.S. military parade plays on the “Arab street.” Self-awareness is not a common American virtue, more’s the pity.
Anyway, the parade will come and go. America’s military will obediently spin its logistical wheels to give the president what he wants—a spectacle to match that of his favorite nemesis doppelganger in North Korea. Half the country will cheer our passing American “heroes.” The other half will grumble about Trumpian narcissism. When it’s all over, most everyone will ignore the creeping militarism that infects American society.
This veteran, for one, will pass on watching Trump’s carnival display. It’s a sad day indeed when one pines for the unrest of the late 1960s, when hundreds of thousands of peace activists, frustrated veterans and even Gold Star mothers regularly descended on Washington to protest an immoral and failing war.
Now, that would be a parade worth watching.