I initially had trouble articulating my interest in President Donald Trump's grandiose Fourth of July “Salute to America” event. Maybe the event’s timing, one week out of Pride Month, felt like a callous promotion for a military that does not allow trans people to serve under their true gender. Or simply Trump’s deeply on-brand demand that military vehicles make an appearance, despite the risks the equipment posed to the area’s infrastructure — which sounds like a lost plot point from Boss Baby. I wonder if it would have been cheaper to present a few monster trucks instead. Wouldn’t that have scratched that same industrial itch?
However, amid reports of atrocities occurring at the border and migrant detention centers nationwide, focusing on one of the many absurd administrative stunts seems trivial. No GOP supporter that I know of said, 'You know what? I really liked Trump until this whole parade thing, but this is the last straw.'
Why, at a time of national turmoil and human rights depredation, couldn’t I stop thinking about a stupid parade?
Then it hit me.
The head of the current administration could not stop thinking about a stupid parade.
The last president to publicly speak on the Fourth of July was Richard Nixon in 1970. But, of course, President Trump felt the need to conveniently inject himself into a public celebration of a generally non-partisan holiday.
By framing “Salute to America” as a celebration of the military, any criticism he receives for speaking on Independence Day is spun as criticism of the troops. Moreover, as the event’s master of ceremonies, he attaches his image onto the military, customarily a non-partisan institution, solidifying himself as the utmost pro-troops candidate. Perhaps his speech didn’t insult Barack Obama or blackball democrats altogether; he still reaps the political points of this celebration as if it were a campaign event.
Trump’s infatuation with militarization is nothing new. Neither is pageantry of military weaponry in the United States. That doesn’t diminish this event’s obscurity. Past parades boasting military hardware were equally off-putting, but I wasn’t alive yet to be upset about them.
Tanks in domestic settings invoke a steady stream of lasting images, whether those images come from textbooks or memories. In one respect, these impressions relate to moments of U.S. victory, of wars ending and parties in the streets to welcome soldiers home. In fact, the last time the U.S. paraded military weaponry outside of Veteran’s Day was in 1991 following what was deemed a victory in the Persian Gulf War.
On the other end, military hardware at public events sparks images of authoritarian regimes –governments labeled "the enemy" by my public education and Call of Duty. When displaying industrial weaponry, context is what distinguishes between a society that supports its troops and a dystopia predicted by George Orwell.
In retrospect, initial media coverage of bureaucratic pushback against having military hardware on display at the event feeds into this fetishized demonstration of raw power. Time and time again the president gets his way. Except in this instance he had war machines to show for it.
Because the Fourth of July is upheld as a nonpartisan holiday, President Trump’s decision to speak gave him the advantage of pretending we are a united nation. Regardless of how divided the nation is, his extreme partisanship ensured the attendance of fanatical supporters– many sporting “Trump 2020” gear– which goes to show the event attendees had objectives outside of celebrating the United States history, or even the military for that matter.
“Salute to America” was a quasi-patriotic event meant to stir enthusiasm for the president’s re-election campaign. The added military angle and inclusion of military equipment exploits symbols of war to his advantage. Historically, these symbols appear in domestic settings after a victory– which hasn’t happened in my lifetime– or during times of war. Either way, this compulsion to bolster shiny military equipment reveals possible unsettling directions that the U.S. is headed.