President Trump wants to see a United States Military parade—just for the hell of it, apparently—and this is a notably bad idea. That’s not because military parades themselves are intrinsically bad; though they do always carry at least the faintest whiff of militaristic overreach, there is sometimes good reason for marching your troops and your tanks and your deuce-and-a-halves around, mainly after you’ve won a great victory and you want to thank your troops in a notably and ecstatically public way.
But that’s not what Trump wants. Rather, he wants a parade because lat year he was beguiled by the French military procession down the Champs Elysees, a regular feature of that country’s Bastille Day celebrations. Celebrating a military victory is one thing. Wanting to see your troops march around because you’re envious of Emmanuel Macron is another thing entirely, and a decidedly more troubling one at that.
This does not mean, as some excitable commentators have suggested, Trump is an authoritarian or that America is becoming an authoritarian nation. But it is nevertheless unseemly. Years ago, Thomas Friedman was rightly derided for suggesting that the United States might benefit from being “China for a day” so that Barack Obama could act unilaterally without the checks of the Constitution. America’s being “China for a day” is a terrifying thing to contemplate. But is it not also deeply concerning that Trump might just want to feel like Kim Jong-un for an hour?
There are, of course, the inevitable overwrought reactions. California representative Jackie Speier, for one, said that the request for a parade shows that Trump is “Napoleon in the making.” These kind of histrionics are silly and unnecessary. Trump is not, nor will he ever be, Napoleon. But the choices of a constitutional republic like ours are very rarely if ever between good representative government and imperial tyranny. Our options are much smaller and more subtle than that: do we want to present ourselves as a republic of freeborn citizens to whom the government is wholly subordinate, or do we want the kind of aesthetic, and perhaps eventually the kind of country, put forth by pointless military parades?
One of the great moments in world history was when George Washington surrendered his military commission and went home to be a farmer. That kind of purposeful detachment from power, which stunned the world and should still stun it today, set the martial tenor for the American experiment. We should hew as close as we can to that proposition whenever possible, as Trump should now.