His choreography for tanks on the National Mall, war plane flyovers, his own televised address and a longer than normal red, white and blue fireworks display means that even Independence Day – for generations a rare unifying moment – will be politicized.
Instead of the “Salute to America” that he has proclaimed, Trump’s critics fear he’s really plotting a salute to himself.
His latest grandiose photo op appears to be a reflection of his own vanity, obsession with crowd sizes, craving for the spotlight, penchant for military hardware and his flirtations with authoritarianism.
But from the President’s perspective, he’s on to a winner. Cries of outrage from Democrats and the media at Trump’s hijacking of the July Fourth celebrations will not offend all Americans. For a lot of them, it may be a welcome display of the country’s strength.
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And by serving as the arbiter of patriotism – as he did during the controversy over kneeling NFL players – and as a strong commander-in-chief, Trump is also laying a political trap.
On national TV, he can pose once again as the patriotic and defiant scourge of elites who sneer at the values of heartland Americans – the strategy he used to win election in 2016 and on which he is banking to claim a second term.
In a pair of tweets Wednesday, Trump hinted that the evening’s themes will be closely aligned to his reelection message.
“Our July 4th Salute to America at the Lincoln Memorial is looking to be really big. It will be the show of a lifetime!” the President wrote.
“We have the greatest economy anywhere in the world. We have the greatest military anywhere in the world. Not bad!” he continued in another tweet.
Given that Trump has made his presidency an exercise in self-flattery and has rarely striven for national unity, the omens are not looking great for a heartwarming non-partisan evening.
As well as indulging his narcissism, the July Fourth event is highlighting his typical profligacy with public money, questionable ethics, a lack of transparency and a measure of chaos in the last minute organization.
The actual cost of all the extra security – a flight time for the aircraft used as Air Force One that is expected to buzz the crowd – has not yet been released by the White House.
“The American people deserve to know how much of their money the president is spending to turn their July 4th celebration into a de facto campaign rally,” three Democratic lawmakers said in a letter to the Interior Department.
In the post-9/11 era, presidents have generally entertained service members and their families at private events at the White House.
But Republican operatives are also handing out tickets to VIPs and donors as well as general admission entry for Trump’s speech in the rarified historic air near the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. orated his “dream.” Normally, the spot where Trump’s stage stands is one of the best spots to watch the July Fourth fireworks.
White House questions patriotism of critics
As with his plan to change Air Force One’s livery, the President is attempting to impose his own definition of patriotism and is using the military as a political backdrop – a familiar ploy.
“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!” Trump tweeted.
The President’s repeated veneration of America’s armed forces can come across as hypocritical given that he did not serve and agreed with Howard Stern that sexually transmitted diseases represented his own personal Vietnam. He’s also not shied away from attacking military heroes for political gain: He can’t let go of his feud with John McCain – even though the Arizona senator, Vietnam prisoner of war and war hero died nearly a year ago.
Though many find Trump’s showmanship distasteful, it’s often rooted in a shrewd political hunch. Images of the commander-in-chief framed by the Stars and Stripes will go nicely in the campaign video library he is building to help his reelection.
And anyone who dissents – including media organizations that are his favorite targets – can be branded disrespectful of the troops and unpatriotic.
“You know what happened July 4, 1776?” White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway asked a reporter in front of the White House Tuesday. “Because it doesn’t sound like you’re even talking about the patriotism that undergirds it.”
Trump has promised a unifying speech to all of the nation, as if his mere presence at the event was not carving yet another line right down the middle of the country. But when asked Monday whether he was capable of a July Fourth speech that unites all Americans, Trump appeared to indicate he would take the partisan tone that he can rarely resist.
“What the Democrats plan is going to destroy the country and it is going to be horrible health care, horrible health care and everybody’s taxes will go to 95%,” he said.
The President wanted his own parade
Trump’s idea for a big July Fourth spectacular appears to have originated on the Champs Elysees in Paris when he accompanied French President Emmanuel Macron to Bastille Day celebrations.
It may also be a way to placate his festering anger at reports that showed Barack Obama’s inaugural crowd in 2008 to be larger than his own. After all, hundreds of thousands of people show up at the July Fourth fireworks, clogging the Mall and surrounding streets.
The President’s plans for a vast American parade were confounded by spiraling costs and the logistical reality that the tracks of armored tanks would plow up Washington’s roads – the tanks in Trump’s July Fourth display will be on a static display – but he never let go of the idea of a big patriotic party.
Some critics blanch at the notion of the armed forces brought into Trump’s celebration. Retired four-star Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal suggested that the values of citizenship and service could also be observed by honoring Peace Corps volunteers for instance.
“Tanks, planes, they are things, they are not the sinew of the nation,” McChrystal told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.
McChrystal said that US armed forces proved their prowess on the battlefield: “I don’t think we need to bring them onto the National Mall to justify their effectiveness,” he said.
After a foreign trip in which Trump once cozied up to autocrats like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, his July Fourth parade may set off sinister echoes and raise questions about the optics of military might on the capital’s streets.
After all, military parades are a staple of dictatorships. In places like China, North Korea and the former Soviet Union, such displays were as much an instrument of domestic repression as a sign to adversaries of overwhelming military strength.
The military parades and pageantry that Trump also admires in France and Britain meanwhile are hardly a display of current power – they more often highlight the past military glories of long past colonial eras that are anathema to the values of July Fourth.