July 5, 2019 – On March 12, 1938, the vaunted German army was to make its triumphant entry into Austria—the infamous Anschluss by which a compliant Austrian government surrendered to the Nazis without a shot.
A grand parade of the Third Reich’s might was scheduled for the Austrian capital Vienna but the army’s tanks were not as invincible as the generals bragged. They quickly broke down, clogging the roads, stalling the advance, and infuriating Adolph Hitler. And so, French author and filmmaker Eric Vuillard writes in his eloquent essay, The Order of the Day, “the German troops loaded as many tanks as they could onto railroad cars… the trains hauled away the armor the way you’d transport circus equipment.” The parade went on as planned.
It was that image of massive weapons as circus gear that flashed to mind this week when photos were released of tanks on railroad cars in Washington, DC, ready to be placed on display at our National Mall on the orders of Donald Trump. They were part of his plan to hijack the Fourth of July and make our nation’s birthday all about him—a “Salute to America,” featuring the tanks, military flyovers (including the Blue Angels and Air Force One) and a speech made by the man who calls himself, “Your favorite President, me!” The White House, the Republican National Committee, and the Trump reelect distributed VIP tickets.
As per The New York Times, “Pentagon officials have long been reluctant to parade tanks, missiles, and other weapons through the nation’s capital like the authoritarian leaders of North Korea and China. They say the United States, which has the world’s most powerful military and spends more on defense than the seven next largest military spenders combined—China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, Britain, and Germany—does not need to broadcast its strength.”
Many former military weren’t crazy about the idea either. Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, who commanded troops under George W. Bush, told Politico, “This looks like it’s becoming much more of a Republican Party event—a political event about the president—than a national celebration of the Fourth of July, and it’s unfortunate to have the military smack dab in the middle of that.” Retired Army Maj. Gen. William Nash added, “The president is using the armed forces in a political ploy for his reelection campaign and I think it’s absolutely obscene.”
(Mother Jones reported on Wednesday that soldiers assigned to the tanks and other armored vehicles plopped down among our national monuments had been given a card by the Pentagon about what to say to the public, including, “I am proud of my job and my vehicle/tank. I am glad to share my experience with American People.”)
Anyone who has ever spent a Fourth of July in Washington knows that it’s a festive fun day in the capital, albeit wilting hot and sopping humid, usually above politics, featuring a parade, a folk life festival, grand music, and fireworks. But this year, the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, usually a prime vantage point for watching the skyrockets, and the surrounding parkland were cordoned off for the invited guests so that they could watch our egomaniacal president and the first lady make a grand entrance across a red-carpeted stage at the spot where Marian Anderson sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” when she was barred from Constitution Hall by the DAR in 1939, and Martin Luther King, Jr., told an eager crowd in 1963 of his dreams for racial harmony and freedom.
Trump’s attempt to wedge himself and his reelection into the festivities—using, in part, taxpayer millions diverted from much needed repairs of the national parks—had the grace of that clown who tries to photobomb a group portrait in the high school yearbook, making faces and wiggling fingers in his ears. The speech, which many feared would be a partisan attack similar to the rants he delivers at his campaign rallies, turned out to be standard if dull rhetoric that sounded more like the third-place winning essay in an eighth grade civics contest than a speech by our putative chief executive. It went on at such monotonous length that CNN actually cut away for a commercial break, something I have never in my life seen happen during a presidential address.
Standing behind a wall of bulletproof glass so rain streaked it appeared he was speaking from behind a car windshield during a cloudburst, Trump was at his best when quoting the eloquence of his predecessors rather than the boilerplate of his speechwriters. (Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people ” was trundled out, but there was no mention of Abe’s “malice toward none.”) He lumbered through a rambling litany of moments in American history and named its greats, glossing over our sins, thanking all the branches of the military, and presenting notables in the audience who had been brought there, State of the Union-style, to be lauded for their achievements.
(One of them, Clarence Henderson, introduced by the president as among the first to participate in the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins in 1960 and cited by Trump as an exemplar of the success of civil rights, has in recent years been an outspoken Trump supporter and president of the North Carolina chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, a group that seeks, according to The Fayetteville Observer, “to grow the ranks of conservative Christian black Republicans.”)
Aside from the verbal slips he inevitably stumbles into when reading from a teleprompter (“ramparts/airports”) there was no groaner of an improvised joke or insult, although given his draft record, the call for young people to join the military was a little rich. That this failure to further embarrass the nation was cause for kudos from Republican leadership and some in the media gives an idea of how low we’ve let this man set the presidential performance bar.
But as conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin noted in The Washington Post, Trump misconstrues American traditions: “What should be a commemoration of human rights (‘All men … ‘) and the unwavering faith in the rule of law and in democratic governance in Trump’s hands becomes a caffeinated Armed Services Day. He manages to transform a holiday about the greatest experiment in civilian self-government into a garish military Mardi Gras.”
So why spend even a moment wringing hands over such an event when there are horrors perpetrated by this regime on an hourly basis that far eclipse some uninspiring oratory and slipshod pageantry? When Trump perpetually lies, makes policy mayhem worldwide, utters dark threats about the homeless and deportations and allows men, women, and children to cluster in overcrowded squalid cells along our southern border?
Why bother? Because, as Eric Vuillard writes of World War II in The Order of the Day, “Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps.” Because on the same day a company donated $750,000 worth of free fireworks for Trump’s Fourth of July party, he dropped a tariff on imported Chinese fireworks that same company had been lobbying against. Because every bit of graft like that, every small indignity inflicted, each gesture and symbol of disdain, are reflective of a greater, potentially fatal insult to democracy and a degradation of the greater good that was idealized by the men who signed the Declaration.
Because, Vuillard warns, “We never fall into the same abyss. But we always fall the same way, in a mixture of ridicule and dread.”
Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship