Essay

It’s Trump’s Fourth of July Now

The president’s military parade only furthers his vision of a dumbed-down America that may no longer be up to the task of global leadership.

A worker washes one of two M1A1 Abrams tanks that are loaded on rail cars at a rail yard in Washington on July 2.
A worker washes one of two M1A1 Abrams tanks that are loaded on rail cars at a rail yard in Washington on July 2. MARK WILSON/GETTY IMAGES

You knew he’d get to a military parade sooner or later—Donald Trump has wanted one for a long time. Last fall, the U.S. president tried to bring military hardware into Washington for the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice but was rebuffed by D.C. officials. Oddly, the commander in chief of the most powerful arsenal in history seems to be suffering from a kind of missile envy, eager to imitate autocrats like Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin, who get to strut in front of their own bristling martial displays every year. 

But tanks and planes in downtown Washington on July Fourth? A Trump rally at the Lincoln Memorial? Many Americans are appalled by the flagrant politicization of their most sacred secular holiday—a day intended to enshrine the principles of American nationhood rather than the war fought to sustain it (despite the fireworks that top things off). But if there is one emerging reality in America today, it’s that Trump can continue to commingle the American Idea with the Idea of Trump and still not offend his many supporters. In recent days, while the 2020 Democrats fecklessly tore themselves apart over votes that their front-runner, Joe Biden, cast 40 years ago, Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee announced $105 million in political donations during the second quarter—far outpacing former President Barack Obama’s haul during the equivalent period.

Clearly, the simplicity of Trump’s message continues to be persuasive to so many voters: The world is screwing us. I’ll get you better deals. I’ll make America great again. And let’s not be shy about flaunting my—er, rather, America’s—might. “The Pentagon & our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this & showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!”

Vote Trump. 

It is an enticing sales pitch. It is also a siren song. For three-quarters of a century, the United States has benefited from a mostly peaceful international system unparalleled in its complexity and depth—a consensus-based system that Washington has sustained in large part by not rubbing the world’s face in its vast military power. Under Trump, with his flagrant efforts to dun allies and cuddle up to enemies, and his crude efforts to leverage America’s military and economic dominance in pursuit of deals (though he hasn’t put together many so far), this system could begin to crack apart. If Trump persists in his policies for six more years, the system may well prove, Humpty Dumpty-like, beyond the point of putting back together (though, to be fair, George W. Bush gave Trump a good head start in this endeavor). Other countries may reasonably decide it’s time to be nicer to big powers like China and Russia and to dramatically build up their own militaries and form their own alliances, excluding the United States.

Perhaps the real problem is that the lone superpower may no longer be up to the task of overseeing its own brainchild, the liberal international order. How the global free trade system works, how a network of military alliances keeps the United States safe (and actually costs less than if it were to deploy troops at home), how America has fended off global challengers by supporting these institutions—mainstream Republicans and Democrats were once more or less united on these points. But if the voters don’t support these policies, then the politicians will follow. And Trump rose to power by realizing this—by brilliantly exploiting the gap between the ever-increasing complexity of this world system and the stagnating level of knowledge in the electorate, thanks in part to a broken educational system. (“I love the poorly educated,” Trump once declared.) His alternative message—the simplistic, nativist appeal to nationalism—is so much more patriotic-sounding and comforting. 

Maybe this trend shouldn’t be too much of a surprise. The U.S. political system was challenging enough without the overlay of all this global stuff—but it used to be much easier for voters to understand. It’s noteworthy that prior to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the era that led to the New Deal and World War II, the U.S. federal government was still pretty small and issues of prosperity and security were far more straightforwardly a national affair. As David Halberstam wrote in his 1979 book, The Powers That Be, as late as 1933 just one building in Washington “housed the entire American military and national security complex, such as it was,” and the Interior Department drew a lot of reporters because at the time “Indians were one of the few major concerns of the federal government.” But after World War II, the issues of U.S. interest became a worldwide affair. A 2006 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis showed only small government growth from 1792 until World War II (with a spike during World War I) but then a relentless steady rise after Washington began running its global shop. It’s become really hard to keep up.

Even when governing America was simpler, the Founding Fathers deemed average Americans to be barely up to the task of maintaining a republic—hence the early limits on voting rights. Recall the famous anecdote about Benjamin Franklin, who, when asked by a bystander outside Independence Hall what kind of government the Continental Congress had just created, said: “A republic, if you can keep it.” 

Today, the United States is barely maintaining the legitimacy of that republic, much less the world system it largely created, and Trump is merely a symptom of this problem. Sure, the system needs fixing; many Americans, rightly or wrongly, feel that the resources devoted to the global order—and the relentless globalization of the U.S. economy—have cost them their livelihoods. And leading American politicians, most recently Hillary Clinton in 2016, have done a poor job of arguing the opposite case or adjusting to these new political realities. 

But Trump has rarely shown any evidence that he understands the larger issues at all or even the idea of America and what it stands for. Last week, when Peter Baker of the New York Times asked Trump if he agreed with Putin that “Western-style liberalism” had become obsolete,” Trump appeared to think that the Russian president was talking about political liberals like the ones he hates in California. 

No, actually, “Western-style liberalism” is what changed history. It’s the political philosophy the United States and its Western allies used to remake the world system after World War I and II. It’s the Enlightenment idea of free societies governed by the rule of law, all of them knitted together by international institutions.  

Today, in a way we haven’t seen since the worst days of the Cold War, these fundamental societal and political values are being called into question. Authoritarianism and nationalism have been reborn in the persons of Putin, Xi Jinping, Jair Bolsonaro, and others, mounting an ideological challenge to what has been (until now) the default victor of the Cold War—democracy. The only countervailing force to this, such as it is, is Trump’s America—and he is being barely helped along by the Atlantic democracies, where the European Union appears to stumble from one existential crisis to the next, Britain is paralyzed, France is in turmoil, Italy in rebellion, and even Germany’s moderate center is under assault from a new right that minimizes the Holocaust. 

If Trump does comprehend these ideological challenges, he doesn’t seem to care much about them. Late last year, two Senate reports made clear that Putin sees his hacking campaign as a permanent war against American democracy, not just one he wages willy-nilly, election by election. Putin, in other words, is not just idly predicting the obsolescence of Western-style liberalism—he is doing his best to help it along. No doubt he’ll do it again in 2020, though perhaps in more subtle ways that future Mueller reports (if there are any) may not be able to grasp. To Trump, this appears to be all good fun: “Don’t meddle in the election,” he told Putin waggishly last week in front of the cameras, as the two shared a laugh.

And many millions of American voters are with this president—and will probably stay with him no matter what he says or does. Happy Fourth of July. 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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