Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion and a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University who writes about authoritarianism and propaganda. Follow her @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
It was a July 4th in Washington DC unlike any other, just as President Donald Trump promised.
Tanks sat in front of the Lincoln Memorial, F-35 fighter planes streaked the sky, and military officials stood in attendance as he gave his “Salute to America” speech. Unsurprisingly, there were plenty of VIP seats for GOP supporters, which a Republican National Committee official defended by saying, “It’s standard practice for the RNC to receive a small number of tickets to events just as the DNC did under Democrat Presidents.”
July 4th has traditionally been a nonpartisan holiday, a time when families and communities come together knowing that they may belong to different political parties and houses of worship but still share a common and proud heritage as part of a country founded with an act of rebellion against tyranny.
Trump, though, is not a nonpartisan President. He’s called the Democratic leadership “an angry mob” and has made it clear he’s the advocate and defender of a Republican America only. And the leaders he praises are tyrannical ones, like Russian and North Korean leaders Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, who use military displays to convince their peoples of their country’s strength.
America, known around the world for its military might, never needed such propaganda ploys. But Trump, a reality-television veteran, knows that tanks on the streets of Washington, D.C., have a shock value that translates into millions of shared images of his celebration on social media – and that flyovers appeal to the child in all of us.
While Trump got the idea for his spectacle from seeing a French parade helmed by President Emanuel Macron, seeing those tanks roll through the streets of the capital evoked other comparisons. Former American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, retweeted a photo of the tanks in the days leading up to the event, saying that they reminded him of a Soviet Union parade, while Russian state TV mocked Trump’s display of “old, rusty tanks with peeling paint” as “election BS” and a failed attempt to “keep up with Putin.”
Trump’s use of the military as props in his nationalistic show raises ethical questions. Department of Defense directive 1344.10 prohibits members of the military from participation in “partisan political activities.” In the days prior, the Pentagon had reservations about the event for just this reason. And some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff declined to attend, citing prior commitments. Yet those military leaders who did attend, like Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, lent themselves to a partisan spectacle, given the GOP’s dominant role in the event and the presence of Trump’s political supporters in the VIP plateau.
The militarization of America has always been central to Trump’s political playbook, so it’s no surprise that the event centered on honoring the Armed Forces. “You should do it!” Trump said in urging men and women to join the military, as each branch got it moment in the spotlight.
Indeed, Trump has already begun to subordinate the military to his rightist ideological agenda, banning transgender people from serving, against the counsel of many military leaders. He has also sent troops to the southern border in his battle against immigrants, tasking them with turning away vulnerable individuals. And we all remember when he lashed out at a Muslim Gold Star family after being criticized.
July 4th has always been a holiday for the people, but this year the people are paying for an event that is inevitably making the Trump Organization money. The National Park Service had to redirect almost $2.5 million normally intended for the upkeep of community parks and green spaces for the celebration, while the Trump International Hotel – at the center of an ongoing conflict-of-interest scandal of the Trump presidency – will likely rake in profits from the many GOP high-rollers who choose to stay there as a means of currying favor with the President.
Those same VIPs are also the only ones who got to see the tanks up close, given that the space around the Lincoln Memorial has been cordoned off from the general public. That says everything about the real target audience of this festivity: those who bankroll his for-profit presidency and his 2020 reelection campaign. The “Salute to America” may have honored our military, but it was also a “Salute to Trump’s Political Allies.”
There’s an irony in Trump making this July 4th all about the military. Wars today are also waged in cyberspace, and Trump refuses to commit resources to defending our electoral process from the Russian interference via the internet, intended to benefit him in 2016.
This is not a leader who has our national interests at heart, unlike the many service members who embody patriotism every day as they risk their lives for our country. Trump can learn a lot from them.