President Trump, the Commander-in-Chief of America’s armed forces, has reportedly directed the Pentagon to begin planning a military parade that would take to the streets of Washington, DC later this year. As critics of the idea have pointed out, the proposed parade is extravagantly wasteful, untethered to any precedent in American history, strikingly reminiscent of tin-pot dictatorships, and a comically transparent example of Trumpian self-absorption masquerading as an effort to “honor the troops,” commingling as it does our President’s vainglorious love of self with his obvious affinity for the foreign strongmen who can command their goose-stepping without regard to cost or public sentiment.
Convincing though such criticisms are, they miss what could be the costliest long-term aspect of Le défilé militaire Trump: the potential for the President to politicize support for the U.S. military and erode U.S. civil-military relations. That’s because, if the parade idea goes forward, Trump is sure to use the inevitable protests against the event to do what he does best: establish a new wedge issue to divide Americans on topics and institutions that previously enjoyed widespread support. Think the military is immune to Trump’s toxic knack for conjuring divisiveness from thin air? Think again. Or, better yet, ask the National Football League (NFL) Commissioner, Roger Goodell.
In an interview with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro on Saturday, Trump argued that parading military equipment and troops down Pennsylvania Avenue would be “something great for the spirit of the country,” and that “the generals would love to do it, I tell you, and so would I.”
While America’s active duty military leaders have, appropriately, remained silent on deliberations with their boss concerning the parade, service members and many other Americans have not. In an informal poll conducted by the Military Times, whose readership skews toward active duty service members, their families, and veterans, nearly 90 percent of respondents declared Trump’s proposal a waste of money and time. A more rigorous survey recently conducted by Quinnipiac University found that three quarters of voters, including a slim majority of Republicans, judge the estimated $10 million to $30 million price tag for the parade a poor use of government funds.
The parade idea has also generated pushback from influential voices on both sides of America’s political aisle. Rob O’Neill, the former Navy SEAL, self-described killer of Osama bin Laden, and Fox News contributor, has called the parade “third world bullshit” that will eat up weeks of service members’ time better spent on training to fight. Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana responded to the idea by noting that “Confidence is silent and insecurity is loud. America is the most powerful country in all of human history, everybody knows it, and we don’t need to show it off.” Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, meanwhile, said that a parade focused on “Soviet-style hardware” is “not who we are” and “kind of cheesy.”
Not to be outdone, Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern has called the proposed parade an “absurd waste of money” sponsored by a Commander-in-Chief who “acts more like dictator than president.” And left-leaning activists have pledged to disrupt any parade, in some cases vowing to place themselves in front of tanks, Tiananmen style.
Far from giving Trump pause, such signs of resistance may instead give him exactly what he seeks. If ever the President had a concrete notion of how to govern from the middle, he long ago gave it up. Instead, from assigning blame to “both sides” for violence at the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, to barring transgender service members from the military, to rejecting efforts to extend legal protections to so-called Dreamers, Trump has repeatedly staked out positions that have little chance of growing his low favorability ratings (much less advancing viable law or policy), but that do serve to rally his base.
Focusing on so-called “unexpected cultural flashpoints,” such as those presented by the Charlottesville rally and the decision by some NFL players to kneel during the national anthem in protest against police brutality, may be the only discernable governing plan that the President plans to take into the 2018 midterm elections. And while, as a political strategy, this approach seems unlikely to win converts, Trump has demonstrated time and again that he can use it to politicize and negatively impact cultural and governmental institutions.
The NFL has thoroughly absorbed this lesson in the past year. The league quickly lost its status as a relative bastion of apolitical fandom after Trump reacted to protests by suggesting that team owners fire players exercising their First Amendment rights. To their credit, NFL owners did not take the President up on his suggestion, and the league paid the price: Trump’s broadsides slashed the NFL’s net favorability rating along largely partisan lines. While Republicans’ views of the NFL rebounded somewhat throughout the winter, they again dipped when Trump used his State of the Union address to take a thinly veiled swipe at the league’s players on the same topic.
A similar story has played out with respect to Trump’s attacks on the FBI and Justice Department. While, until recently, most Americans ranked the FBI among the top federal agencies in terms of performance, Trump’s efforts to damage the bureau in order to weaken Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation have taken their toll. A poll taken earlier this month shows precipitous declines in support for the FBI, again along highly partisan lines.
Unlike his approach to the NFL and FBI, President Trump seeks to wrap himself in the mantle of the U.S. military, rather than to attack it. Nevertheless, if Trump’s behavior to date is any guide, the most likely outcome of his parade idea will be increased polarization surrounding one of the few American institutions that still enjoys the broad-based confidence of the American people.
Why? Because Trump can’t help but label those who oppose his policies as unpatriotic, and will no doubt seek to tar anyone who speaks against the parade in such terms. This deliberate conflation of patriotism with support for an unnecessary show of militarism will, of course, engender blowback of its own. Hyper-partisan media and Russian trolls will spring into action, eager to inflame passions.
The military, meanwhile, will be caught in the middle. Members of the U.S. armed forces are prohibited by law, regulation, and custom from most political activity, and yet, come parade time, they are likely to be thrust into the center of a deliberately crafted culture war.
Since America’s disaster in Vietnam and the reinvention of our military as an all-volunteer force in the 1970s, Americans have grown accustomed to a quiet bargain. Under the terms of this deal, fewer and fewer serve, and, in exchange, those who do are generally lionized. Thoughtful critics of this state of affairs—many themselves veterans—lament that the result is a growing divide between a professional warrior class and a distracted public.
A healthy way to bridge this divide would be to reinstate a form of compulsory national service, which would reconnect the American citizenry to those who fight in its name. But this outcome remains remote—and President Trump may soon force a change in civil-military relations of a very different, highly troubling kind.
Trump is, of course, far from the first U.S. President to seek to bolster his own position by making an outward show of his role as Commander-in-Chief. He is seemingly unique, however, in his capacity to break with longstanding norms that undergird America’s institutions. A President hell-bent on wielding the military as a political cudgel will take America into civil-military territory unseen since the tumult of the 1960s and early 1970s. That is the true cost of an unnecessary parade.