Giddy with an enthusiasm that resembles nothing so much as a small child breathlessly describing his birthday party plans, President Trump is finally getting something of the military parade he has long desired. Independence Day celebrations in Washington this year will layer over traditional festivities a campaign-style presidential address, Air Force flyovers, extra fireworks, VIP seating for GOP donors, and — most controversially — tanks. The whole shebang will run us unknown millions of dollars, and that's excluding any costs incurred if the heavy military equipment wreaks havoc on local infrastructure. Trump, predictably, insists the price is "very little compared to what it is worth," because we "own the tanks and all"!
Many are unconvinced of the value of the affair. Trump's subsumption of July 4th is a "misuse of the military as props for his own partisan ends and personal glorification," griped The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin. He is "raiding of the Treasury for his personal aggrandizement," giving "preferential treatment for rich toadies," and, crucially, "misconstruing ... American traditions ... to transform a holiday about the greatest experiment in civilian self-government into a garish military Mardi Gras."
This is not the way to salute our nation, Rubin and fellow critics argue. The Fourth of July should celebrate American principles of freedom and democracy, they say, and a gimcrack exercise in conspicuous militarism, wasteful spending, and presidential exaltation is wildly inappropriate.
Or is it?
Trump's party is jingoistic, expensive, shoddily planned, self-serving, and smacking of authoritarianism. It sounds terrible — and basically right for the state of the American empire. We may like to think our country is unsuited to this sort of display, but the evidence says otherwise. Unfortunately, a military parade may be exactly what America deserves.
We aren't very good at remembering it, but ours has become a nation perpetually at war. We have the largest and most expensive military in the world by a long shot, and we use it to police, occupy, and nation-build large portions of the planet ad infinitum. That other countries' problems are poorly suited to American military solutions — or simply none of our business — is often no constraint.
Thus we've been fighting in a litany of countries across the Middle East and Africa for nearly two decades, and a new war with Iran may be in the offing. Three successive presidents have been elected on promises to pursue a more restrained foreign policy, eschewing nation building and learning from past mistakes, and three successive presidents have delivered exactly the opposite. Some of our military's newest recruits were born after the 9/11 attacks. They will be deployed to a conflict that neither progresses toward victory nor admits futility and failure. They will be the latest grist for the grindstone of endless war.
Does a tank display seem so off-base?
The United States is also possessed of about $22 trillion in national debt, which works out to around $68,000 per citizen, more than double the median individual income. Our government is notorious for wasteful and unnecessary spending. Trillions simply go missing, while corporate welfare and cronyism see "money handed out to businesses based on political connections," boosting special interests at the expense of the taxpayer in general and, often, their smaller and less-connected competitors in particular.
Does an ill-conceived and overpriced event with special favors for the wealthy not represent us well?
And then there's the increasingly imperial nature of our presidency. The constitutional balance of powers has long since shifted dangerously toward the executive. Designed as a limited, administrative role, the office of the president has transmogrified into a role of nearly unfettered power. It bestows on its holder more pomp and authority than any individual should wield, and neither Democrats nor Republicans show any inclination to make the difficult structural reforms needed to cut the position down to size. To be president today is to be a political demigod, the object of faith and fervor better suited to religion.
Should our biggest national holiday not reflect this reality?
I sympathize with those who do not want Trump's militarist extravaganza to be our just deserts as a nation. In terms of the best-intended spirit of the holiday and the declaration it commemorates, I think they're quite right. But in terms of the truth of what our government is today, Trump's party is grimly fitting. If this "Salute to America" makes our country look like it has a militarist, incompetent, imperial government, perhaps that's because it does.