Credit where it’s due: The president did not go full authoritarian on the National Mall on Thursday.
At his “Salute to America” event, Donald Trump did not reference his reelection campaign; condemn undocumented immigrants; describe journalists as enemies of the people; or attack Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Bette Midler while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial flanked by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and some of the world’s deadliest military hardware. Yes, this is a low standard, but the president has not always shown the same level of restraint in military settings.
Except for a few brief mentions of border security and the defeat of ISIS, there was almost no discussion of current events, debates, or controversies. The first half of the speech, delivered through a drizzle, though not the downpour that organizers feared and critics hoped would wash out the event, was fairly tame, patriotic boilerplate. It consisted mostly of Trump ticking off references to relatively uncontroversial people and events from “one of the greatest stories ever told, the story of America.” The Revolutionary War, Lewis and Clark, rock ’n’ roll, the Wright brothers, and the Super Bowl all got name-checked. (In what may or may not have been an intentional call back to one of his more bizarre utterances, Trump added some particular emphasis when saluting “Frederick Douglass, the great Frederick Douglass.”)* There were State of the Union–style callouts to distinguished guests, including Apollo 11 mission controller Gene Kranz and civil rights movement veteran and conservative activist Clarence Henderson.*
Trump then paid tribute to each of the service branches one by one, pausing for their official songs to be played and jet flyovers. He noted that they would soon be joined by the planned “Space Force.”
One can ask why the president should participate at all in what has traditionally been a nonpolitical celebration at the National Mall and raise concerns about the conflation of national greatness with military might. After all, the point at which a country’s leader starts freely using state and military resources to fight his political opponents is often considered a tipping point in democratic collapse. But in truth, the speech itself was fairly innocuous as Trump speeches go.
The origins of this event date back to July 2017, when Trump, impressed by the Bastille Day military parade he witnessed alongside French President Emmanuel Macron, decided he wanted to stage a similar one in Washington. “The marching orders were: I want a parade like the one in France,” a Pentagon official told the Washington Post. When a planned Veteran’s Day military parade was delayed last year, Trump blamed costs and the D.C. city government, but it was also reported that then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis was opposed to the use of the military for what seemed like a nakedly political stunt. Mattis is gone now—there hasn’t been a permanent secretary of defense since the beginning of this year—so Trump finally got his way, almost.
Trump got the M1 Abrams tanks he so dearly wanted for the celebration, but they were parked on the mall, rather than driven through the city. The tanks were a major flashpoint for controversy in the lead-up to the event, but the decision not to parade them around town may have been infrastructural rather than political. The last time tanks were driven on the streets of D.C. after the first Gulf War, they literally tore the city apart.*
News that Trump’s Republican allies had been given VIP passes made it pretty clear that this was a political event, no matter what the White House said. (The sheer quantity of MAGA hats on the streets of Washington this weekend were evidence that Trump’s supporters saw it that way.) But because the speech was less of a Trump campaign event than many expected, it’s not clear Trump violated the law by using taxpayer money to fund it. There is, however, still room for scrutiny of why millions of dollars collected from National Park entrance fees were diverted to a non-Park Service event organized by the president, not to mention the military resources involved.
All in all, it was a strange day in the nation’s capital with sideshows including a flag burning in front of the White House and the arrival of the famous Trump baby blimp. Barricades kept supporters who had not paid for tickets off the mall, and we already seem primed for another crowd size controversy. Trump will probably not be pleased with how the event looked on television, as he spoke through rain streaked bulletproof glass.
Trump closed his speech on a note of unity, describing Americans as “one people chasing one dream and one magnificent destiny.” But the event, which will likely be viewed by half the country as a patriotic tribute to men and women in uniform, and the other half as a corrupt, quasi-fascistic boondoggle, only highlighted yet again that as a people, we are anything but one.
Correction, July 4, 2019: This piece originally stated that tanks were last driven through Washington, D.C. in the 1980s. It was at a victory celebration for the first Gulf War in 1991.
Correction, July 5, 2019: This piece also misspelled Frederick Douglass’ first name and Gene Kranz’s last name.