I’m not at all happy about Trump’s July 4th parade — replete with tanks, and a ticketed speech, no less! — and yet I can’t help but feel that most of its critics have got their objections the wrong way around. The problem is not that the presence of the tanks augurs an American dictatorship or that President Trump is signaling that he intends to become Chairman Mao. The problem is that events such as this one are the logical outgrowth of an executive branch that has become overbearing and imperial, in structure and in style, and of a culture that cares about the White House and its occupants above all other political concerns. Or, put another way: Trump’s tanks are a symptom of a bigger problem, not its cause. The disease is simply being taken to the next stage.
The more hysterical among Trump’s critics — many of whom, it must be said, love big government and its trappings when someone they like is in office, and seem more worried about six tanks in D.C. than about the executive branch’s tendency to go to war without congressional approval — have charged that the July 4th preparations have reminded them “of Russia.” But why go so far afield? They remind me of Washington D.C.; of the White House; of the presidency in the twenty-first century. The president flies around the country in a purpose-built, souped-up, military-staffed plane named “Air Force One.” And when he steps off that purpose-built, souped-up, military-staffed plane, he gets into a purpose-built, souped-up, military-staffed helicopter named “Marine One.” If it starts raining while the president is outside, a Marine steps in to hold an umbrella over his head. When he arrives at an event, a military band plays “Hail to the Chief” for him, a wartime song whose lyrics read:
Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all,
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfillment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!
Maybe they sound better in the original Chinese.
If I had my way, the president would be a quiet, humble person from whom we would hear nothing unless there were an invasion or an incoming asteroid. State dinners would be dull, and invitations would be limited to members of Congress and the emissaries of foreign governments. The State of the Union address would be replaced with a letter. “Hail to the Chief” would be retired in favor of the National Anthem — or maybe Ray Charles’s “America the Beautiful.” Cable news would not need to focus on the White House for hours each day, and there would be no need for adults to scream into the air in the quadrangles of Harvard and Yale when someone they dislike won an election, because the president would not be God and because any candidate who threatened to “go it alone” or to do anything a single inch outside of the Constitution’s strictures would not only be politically disqualified, but shunned from society. If I had my way, we would in effect have a chief bureaucrat — that is, a public employee with a specific job — and not an omnipresent politico-spiritual leader through which all is to be filtered.
This, suffice it to say, is not what we have. On the contrary: As the result of a gradual growth in prominence that has been turbocharged since the 1930s, the American president in 2019 is far more present in the lives of the citizenry than the British King was in 1775. Of course he wants to be the centerpiece of our July 4th parade. He’s the centerpiece of everything else.