When President Donald Trump initially announced his plan to take over the usually non-partisan July 4 celebration in Washington way back in February, I wrote a piece with this headline “The utter absurdity of Trump’s July Fourth bash.”
Boy if I had only known!
“Big 4th of July in D.C. ‘Salute to America.'” Trump tweeted on Tuesday morning. “The Pentagon & our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this & showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World. Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!”
With the festivities now only days away, the full picture of what Trump has planned is coming into focus. And boy, oh boy, is it over the top. Among the plans:
* There will be tanks (M1 Abrams) other armored vehicles. “You’ve got to be pretty careful with the tanks because the roads have a tendency not to like to carry heavy tanks so we have to put them in certain areas but we have the brand new Sherman tanks and we have the brand new Abrams tanks,” Trump said on Monday. (Sherman tanks haven’t been produced since 1957.)
* There will be a flyover by the plane that is Air Force One. (It is only technically called “Air Force One” when the President is on board, which he won’t be.) The Navy’s “Blue Angels” will also be performing a flyover.
* There will a ground stop at Washington Reagan National Airport from 6:15 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. and then again from 9 p.m. to 9:45 p.m. to accommodate the flyovers and fireworks, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
* Trump will deliver a speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
The argument for this sort of over-the-top display with an exorbitant but indeterminate (as of yet) cost is simple: America is great. July 4 is when we celebrate our breaking free from British oppression. Why wouldn’t we make a big to-do over it?
“Do you know the Fourth of July is a celebration of this country’s independence, are you aware of that?” White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway asked a reporter on Tuesday morning in response to his question about the planned celebration. When the reporter replied in the affirmative, Conway said this: “You are? You know what happened July 4, 1776? OK. Because it doesn’t sound like you’re even talking about the patriotism that undergirds it.”
The dynamic, as Conway and the White House see it, is simple: If you are questioning why Trump is using July 4 to put on a show of military might, you simply don’t either understand what it means to be an American or you don’t love your country properly.
Which is, uh, well, problematic.
There’s a reason that no president before Trump has turned July 4 into, well, what Trump is turning it into. And that reason isn’t that they didn’t love America enough or understand what makes this country great.
Instead, they understood that there is a very fine line between patriotism and nationalism. (FWIW: Patriotism is, according to Merriam Webster, a “love for or devotion to one’s country.” Nationalism is a “sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”)
Everyone draws that line differently. But I return to the fact that lots of past presidents — Republicans and Democrats — have had the chance to do something like Trump is planning on July 4 and taken a pass, choosing instead to keep the day entirely devoid of any sort of political statement. Was that unpatriotic? Or was it a recognition that putting tanks and other military equipment in and around Washington, DC sends the wrong sort of message to both our allies and our enemies?
The parading of military has long been the stuff of dictators and authoritarian regimes — from Iran to North Korea to Russia. The leaders — military and civilian — in the United States have avoided that sort of thing because, well, the strongest guy in the gym doesn’t need to go around telling everyone how strong he is. It’s understood. Yes, we have massive military might. But we also believe in diplomacy, avoiding military conflicts at all costs and using force as only a last resort.
Trump doesn’t seem to grasp that nuance. Or he grasps it and either doesn’t care or doesn’t agree.
Either way, the images coming out of Washington, DC, on Thursday night will send a very different message to the country and the world than ever before on July 4. Trump knows that — and is thrilled about it. I’m not so sure the rest of us should be.