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President Trump’s July 4 “Salute to America” sounded perfectly normal to many Americans. After all, the legacy American people have served in the military, respect it as a protector of our freedoms, and agree that the planes, tanks, technology, and equipment that we spend a mountain of money on are inspiring and visually compelling.
But the national freakout surrounding the event, said as much about the state of the nation, as the event itself.
Someone named Ruth Ben Ghiat said on CNN, “Trump’s use of the military as props in his nationalistic show raises ethical questions.” For her, the presence of a few tanks and some military flyovers were akin to the old Soviet military parades on Red Square. Truth be told, even as a kid I always thought those parades looked pretty cool and wondered why we didn’t have some of our own. Maybe I have one of those “authoritarian personalities” Adorno warned us about.
While critics suggest a military parade is one step removed from fascism, was that true of Dwight Eisenhower, whose inauguration featured tanks and other military equipment? Is it true today of France and Mexico, which also have annual and spectacular military parades? Indeed, it was France’s Bastille Day parade that inspired Trump to call for one of our own. For a republican regime, the military must act as a guardian of national sovereignty and freedom, and thus honoring the military honors those things it protects, as well.
In the runup to the event, there was fear Trump would make a speech for low partisan purposes, but he instead celebrated the American land, the American character, and the American story. As usual, he received tons of free media from critics on the Right and Left, and, rather comically, the tanks that raised particular scorn were only set up for static displays. The flyovers were similar to those at airshows and sporting events. Trump won this round.
Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right
The criticism from the Left was familiar and shopworn. They have said for decades that America’s self-concept as a heroic people, whose story is intertwined with justice, is a lie.
Nothing is allowed to be nonpartisan anymore. The things that used to unite us—our language, our songs, our flag, and our military—are all now objects of criticism. Unease with the military became a central organizing principle to the Left in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, where opposition to the draft and condemnation of alleged atrocities in Vietnam rendered the military a particular object of scorn.
This leftist hostility to a nonpartisan patriotism is why someone like Colin Kaepernick can recoil at the colonial flag of Betsy Ross. The historical America of our past cannot be honored, nor can the people who built it and trace their roots to it. For the Left, America is always and only becoming. It’s never an object of veneration, because its past is seen as a long list of crimes, and even now we are always unearthing new pockets of oppression, including made up categories like the struggles of “transgendered” people. To celebrate the country without qualification contradicts this thorough-going and demoralizing critique, which is the heart of the leftist program.
For the Right—or the neocon right at least—politics and the military are abstract, and the nation is only the embodiment of a creed. The people who embody it are irrelevant; indeed, the most recent newcomers are given even greater honor, as the nation is redefined as a “nation of immigrants.” For the neocons, the military is there to fight wars and conduct a “muscular foreign policy” to spread American values and protect other democracies. Thus, for them, it is more controversial to have our military guard America’s borders, even as they treat the military’s protection of borders in alien Iraq and Afghanistan as perfectly normal.
Just as the neocons love wars but don’t typically serve in the military, they also don’t want military parades because something like that might inspire nationalism. Nationalism is typically inward looking and defensive, rather than messianic and outward-looking. This is a threat to the neoconservatives’ desire to forge an American empire.
Americans, in fact, tend to be skeptical of these foreign wars compared to elites. They want a foreign policy that makes them safe, protects their prosperity, and keeps strange and hostile foreigners out. The nationalism of the neocons, by contrast, is that of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the American Empire astride the world in 1945, not the older and more tangible nationalism of the Founding or the nation’s first 125 years.
Our Independence Depends on Our Military Power
Trump’s patriotic nationalism is of the heart, and it focuses on the details. It’s the nationalism of a people and a land, not a mere disembodied creed. It shares much in common with our patriotic songs, which sing more of the “fruited plains,” “purple mountain majesties” and the “star spangled banner.” For most Americans, the military, far from being a mercenary force devoted to securing the shipping lanes of the Persian Gulf, is the guarantor of our freedom and the safety of our people. Independence Day is a perfectly appropriate time to honor them and especially their fellow citizens who stand up to serve.
The historical knowledge of most of these critics ends the day before yesterday, stretching at most to 1939. They seem to have forgotten that the Declaration of Independence was authored in the midst of a War for Independence, where the ramshackle Contintental Army and the Minutemen took on the world’s preeminent military power. The new nation maintained its independence in the decades shortly thereafter through military power, whether against the Barbary Pirates, hostile Indians, or British and French harassment of our merchant fleet. Our independence and our military power are inseparable.
Trump’s proclamation of American greatness and American independence was admirable, but one could not hear it without detecting a hint of something tragic. The widespread criticism shows that the old America that honored the president regardless of party, celebrated its people and national character, and recognized the role of the military chiefly to guarantee our national independence, is no more.
We live in a divided country that cannot even allow a perfectly ordinary and healthy celebration of the nation, the people, and its protectors to pass without massive and outspoken objection. President Trump’s weakness, if any, is that he does not seem to realize that the old America is gone and cannot be restored simply by force of will and assertion. He must not forget that there are enemies within the gates, and this goes beyond the swamp and the “fake news” media. They must be crushed, and their power is ruining the possibility not only of making America great again, but of having a nation in any recognizable form.
This is the 11th hour. But it was a lovely parade and speech, all the same.
Photo Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images