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Trump’s Tanks are Pedantic, Not Autocratic

Washington, D.C. is abuzz at the presence of U.S. military tanks at this year’s annual Fourth of July parade, at the express request of President Trump. This bizarre showcase of military strength – a fact otherwise unlikely to be questioned by our allies, enemies, or parade attendees – has whipped up claims of authoritarianism from the usual corners of the internet. 

While the demonstration is silly and childish, it is far from the Orwellian salvo that some are claiming. Including military armaments, from tanks to rockets, has been done at national parades in the past, notably in the Kennedy and Eisenhower Administrations; two presidents who knew a thing or two about the United States military. Neither was seen – at the time or in retrospect – as the next cracking ladder rung on the slide down toward autocracy, as seemingly every tweet and quip from our current president represents to some.

But beyond being merely trivial, the parade additions detract from energy, resources, and attention that could and should be better used elsewhere. The same National Parks Service that saw its funding run out during a recent government shutdown, leading to the irreplaceable destruction of the famed Joshua trees in the eponymous national park, will now dole out millions extra for the parade. Where government officials should be developing plans to utilize billions of dollars in new funding to address the humanitarian crisis at our southern border, they are instead attending to a parade run of show.

At a time when Americans everywhere should take the opportunity to reflect on our own privilege of living in the freest and, despite annual efforts by The New York Times and others to argue to the contrary, greatest country in the world, its also a cheap attempt at patriotism. We are not a proud people because we have big, shiny, lethal tanks, the way dictators like Kim Jong Un purport to showcase their own countries through such means. The legacy and current status of the United States needs no buttressing.

These developments are a self-inflected wound to good government and authentic patriotism. But this is not some bootstepping, fascistic display. Nor is it a Tiananmen Square redux – barring, at least photographically, the bad behavior of parade attendees. No one can credibly claim that President Trump’s efforts are meant to be some kind of deterrent to protests – surely he and his advisors know that these will induce more, not fewer, protesters – or a way to stifle insurrectionist activities.

Metaphors can be a helpful way to understand complex histories and communicate their import to modern events. They can also be given over to abuse and false parallels. Pretending a silly addition to a well-deserved moment of national good-natured revelry is our coming Kristallnacht, rather than a bizarre and insecure response that will do nothing but (understandably) amuse hosts of children and other spectators, is one such example.

Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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