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Tanks, But No Tanks

Trump's self-aggrandizing July 4th parade is neither in good taste nor the spirit of the holiday—and Congress should ensure it never happens again.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

Two thousand and sixty-eight years ago, a Roman magistrate named Julius Caesar crossed a river in Italy. The Senate long forbade its proconsuls from commanding Rome’s legions outside of their respective jurisdictions—especially into Italy itself, where the Rubicon marked the legal and physical demarcation of senatorial power. Caesar’s decision to cross that boundary in 49 BC sparked a civil war. While the Republic was already in decline well before then, the fateful move hastened Rome’s transition to autocratic rule.

President Donald Trump’s Fourth of July plans, by comparison, don’t pose a similar threat to the American constitutional order. The United States military spent the week transporting tanks and other military equipment into Washington, D.C., for a grandiose military-centered celebration organized by the White House. Trump will cap the celebrations with a speech at the Lincoln Memorial. It will reflect many of his personal shortcomings: His conflation of military power with American greatness, his disdain for the nation’s civic values and small-“r” republican culture, and his unquenchable thirst to always be at the center of American political life.

Though treating the Pentagon like a personal Hot Wheels collection is hardly the worst of Trump’s sins, the sight of tanks rolling down D.C. boulevards in peacetime will still be disquieting for many Americans. In this case, however, it’s a malady that can be easily remedied by Congress. Trump’s misuse of his power as commander-in-chief should prompt lawmakers to enact curbs against future abuses. Banning presidents from deploying military forces inside the District of Columbia without congressional consent would be an excellent start.

Trump first got the idea for Thursday’s events after attending the Bastille Day parade in Paris in 2017, where he was apparently awed by the French military display on the Champs-Élysées. Another country’s traditions don’t necessarily mesh well with American political culture, however. In France, the parade symbolizes the strength of republican government after the collapse of the Bourbon and Bonapartist restorations in the late nineteenth century. The Founding Fathers, by contrast, generally resisted the creation of standing armies, which they associated with dictatorship and the British crown. The early American republic maintained only a token military force in peacetime, and instead relied heavily on state militias for national defense.

That doesn’t mean the United States is unfamiliar with the practice, of course. Large military parades usually followed the end of major wars. Two-hundred thousand soldiers in the Union Army marched through Washington in May 1865 after the conclusion of the Civil War, though Abraham Lincoln’s assassination muted the festivities. The most recent event took place in 1991 to mark the U.S.-led coalition’s victory in the Gulf War, though even that parade drew criticism from some veterans who viewed it as a Republican political stunt. Beyond victory parades, tanks and other military hardware only appeared during the now-defunct Army Day and the occasional presidential inauguration.

Some conservative observers have cited these past parades to rebut concerns about Trump’s endeavor this week. To them, those critiques are driven more by animus toward this president than any genuine concerns about dictatorship. “In sum, what really is all this crock of criticism about the use of the military in a Washington parade, not to mention the appearance of the President of the United States at the center of Fourth of July ceremonies?” perennial Trump defender Jeffrey Lord argued in the American Spectator on Wednesday. “It is nothing more than the latest in Trump Derangement Syndrome propaganda.”

But times change, and so do the aesthetics of military power in civilian life. Large-scale military parades these days evoke the totalitarian aesthetic of North Korea or the Soviet Union, where aging despots would demonstrate the perseverance of their regimes to the world. The sight of tanks rolling through a nation’s capital can symbolize freedom and democracy, but more often than not, the display heralds its violent suppression: Think of the Red Army’s arrival in Budapest to crush the Hungarian Revolution, or more recently, the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Trump insists that the parade is meant to honor the American military. That’s a dubious assertion at best on multiple levels. His personal role in the Fourth of July festivities, which presidents have typically avoided (at least since a sputtering effort by Richard Nixon in 1970) so to not politicize them, suggests that the procession is more about Trump than anyone else. There are also far better ways to honor American troops than by forcing them to wear a full dress uniform in the Washington humidity and 90-degree heat on a federal holiday.

More importantly, Independence Day is not about the troops. The Fourth of July does not commemorate a major Continental Army victory or the end of the Revolutionary War. It marks the birth of American self-government, the shedding of British colonial rule that was all too often enforced by musket and bayonet. It’s not surprising that Trump fails to appreciate the irony. He rarely shows interest in the nation’s democratic traditions or practices, except insofar as they validate him or delegitimize his opponents. A man who welcomes foreign interference in American elections and embraces foreign dictators is incapable of understanding why the Fourth of July matters or what it represents.

Even if he did, federal lawmakers would be well within their authority to stop future presidents from turning the capital into a gaudy showcase for military hardware on the Fourth or any other day. The Constitution unambiguously places the District of Columbia under the control of the federal government, and therefore, Congress. And while the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Congress has passed laws like the Posse Comitatus Act to constrain when and how those forces can be used on U.S. soil. Lawmakers would be fully justified in placing checks on the president’s ability to deploy armed soldiers for his own Caesar-like glorification. Indeed, there are few ways to better commemorate the American Revolution than that.