As President Trump turned Washington’s Independence Day celebration into a political rally, complete with tanks and flyovers, I wondered what our first president would say.
So I visited Philadelphia’s wonderful Museum of the American Revolution and sat down in front of George Washington’s actual war tent and tried to channel our first president. The tent looks so small and fragile, it’s hard to believe it was his home and headquarters as he led the Continental Army to victory over the British.
Washington himself was famous for his modesty as military commander and as our president: When he took command he said “I do not think me equal to the command I am honored with.”
After his election as president, when throngs in Philadelphia greeted him like a new king, he snuck out of the city early “to avoid even the appearance of pomp or vain parade,” according to biographer Ron Chernow.
For Trump “vain parade” seemed to be the name of the game.
The president has been pressing for a military parade down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue ever since he visited France on July 14, 2017, and saw their Bastille Day celebration. (He was annoyed he had to abandon the idea of a military parade on Veterans Day because the city opposed it and the Pentagon said it would cost more than $90 million).
But the annual French parade commemorates the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, during the bloody French Revolution.
The United States has a different tradition. July Fourth is a holiday that celebrates liberty and freedom and family and patriotism and the public reading of the Declaration of Independence. The holiday normally brings throngs out to the Mall in Washington for music and fireworks and picnics, which are the stuff of similar celebrations in cities across the country.
Americans do not celebrate Independence Day with tanks and military parades.
Indeed, George Washington worked hard while president to ensure civilian control of the military. In that long tradition, the July Fourth holiday was never meant for displays of military might.
Now, U.S. military commanders are reportedly concerned that Trump is turning the military into a prop for his partisan purposes.
The idea that the president would use the crosses of dead heroes buried at the American cemetery in Normandy as a backdrop for a Fox News interview in which he slammed Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is obscene. Stand at that cemetery listening to a bugle play taps and look out at Omaha Beach, as I did two days before Trump’s visit, and you will know what I mean.
Of course, military parades are beloved in autocratic regimes or vicious dictatorships. In Russia or North Korea, whose leaders Trump enthusiastically schmoozed with last week, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un stand on podiums and review endless waves of missiles, tanks, and goose-stepping soldiers. Obviously, Trump is jealous.
His plans for July Fourth were essentially an attempt to turn the D.C. celebration into another photo op and campaign rally, speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Wonder what Lincoln would say about a president who said there were “good people” at the Charlottesville, Va., rally where torch-bearing neo-Nazis chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil.”
But back to George Washington. I think we know what he would have said about Trump’s July Fourth rally.
He would have warned against the kind of political partisanship that impelled Trump to debase the Normandy cemetery and is undermining democracy. “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism,” Washington said in his Farewell Address. He added: “But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”
Sooner or later, Washington cautioned, “The chief of some prevailing faction … turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.” Washington also gave this advice: “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”
The number of tanks on the Mall this July Fourth were few, because it was too hard to get them there on short notice.
But George Washington’s words should remind us of what this holiday really stands for: selfless patriotism dedicated to the ideals and principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution. And a respect for the military that precludes dragging it into politics.
If you want to remind yourself of what Independence Day really means, make a trip to the Museum of the American Revolution and meditate on Washington’s tent.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.