It is of course no surprise that President Donald Trump’s suggestion of a military parade in our nation’s capital won quick and widespread condemnation from his many critics within the nation’s capital. And at first blush, the idea of a Soviet-style military procession down Pennsylvania Avenue plays into an unhelpful narrative for the president. This is a man after all who is routinely accused of trying to recreate his own gilded banana republic right here at home.
But as his ideas go, and admittedly he’s had some doozies, this actually may be one of Trump’s canniest.
As with many of his Republican predecessors, Trump has effectively tapped into the sense among millions of Americans that pride in the United States is diminishing, not only abroad but at home. Many of his supporters share a sentiment that D.C., N.Y. and L.A. “elites” are embarrassed about our country and our achievements. This is why, as a candidate for the White House, Trump frequently lambasted President Barack Obama for his alleged global “apology tour.” It’s why he’s waded into the protection of confederate monuments and claimed that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln might be the next to go. This is why he literally embraced the American flag. It’s why he made such a big deal about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem, so much so that he’s almost achieving the unthinkable—turning some red-blooded Republican men against football.
The president’s State of the Union was pockmarked with so many tributes to American symbols—our flag, our motto, our anthem—that you almost expected him to bring out a freshly-baked apple pie and start eating it mid-speech. So much of what Trump does seem random, but all of this has a clear purpose. Trump understands, perhaps instinctively, that an appeal to national pride like calling for a gleaming, glorious military spectacle touches a nerve with many Americans.
Is an expensive display of American military hardware necessary? Of course not. But financial responsibility has never been Trump’s primary concern. As a proposal, it’s also not without some historical precedent, though typically these sort of things have followed an armed conflict. After the Civil War, for example, Washington, D.C., saw a Grand Review of the Armies. There was another military parade at the close of World War II. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush convened a National Victory Celebration parade after America’s win in the Gulf War. And, as Trump is aware, other nations that are not thuggish dictatorships—such as France—have put their military might on display for various occasions, such as Bastille Day.
Were he to pull off this event—ostensibly to commemorate the 100th anniversary of our victory in World War I (and who can argue with that?) but in reality to commemorate the greatness of Donald Trump—he would command center stage in the greatest tribute to the military most Americans have ever seen. News outlets will breathlessly cover the plans and preparations—and of course, the main event—giving Trump hours of free airtime while men and women in uniform visibly salute him. That’s a free commercial for him and the GOP—not to mention a timely and helpful distraction from the Russia probe or Cabinet members calling him stupid. Pretty smart.