When Donald Trump develops a fixation, he does not give it up easily.
Exactly one week before he was inaugurated in 2017, I interviewed the incoming president about the slogan that had defined his presidential campaign.
How, I asked him, did he plan to demonstrate that he had succeeded in his vow to “Make America Great Again”? How were this country’s citizens to measure something as value-laden as greatness?
“Because I’m going to tell them,” he replied.
Trump briefly mentioned bringing back jobs, strengthening the borders and improving health care. Then he grew more animated as he described an idea that had clearly ignited his showman’s imagination.
“We’re going to display our military,” he said. “We’re going to display it. The military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we’re going to be showing our military.”
Trump had to scotch the parade idea, after Pentagon and Washington, D.C. officials warned that it could cost as much as $92 million.
But his dream of a military spectacle will finally come to fruition on our nation’s 243rd birthday.
Some of it sounds, well, pretty great. There will be a flyover of military aircraft, including that instantly recognizable jetliner used as Air Force One, and a performance by the Navy’s elite Blue Angels team. I grew up an Air Force kid and love a good air show.
More unsettling is the president’s plan to have tanks in the streets — a dark and ominous image we normally associate with times of national emergency, or martial displays in authoritarian states such as Russia, North Korea and China.
Trump seems oddly taken with tanks. He has insisted on bringing them into downtown Washington, D.C., despite warnings that armored behemoths weighing more than 60 tons could make wreckage of the pavement and potentially damage the underground rooms of the Lincoln Memorial. Then again, it’s not entirely clear he has thought this concept through, given his announcement that the Independence Day festivities will showcase “brand-new Sherman tanks,” a model that went out of service in 1957.
But the truth is, all of this hardware is merely the setting for a stage. The star of Trump’s “Salute to America” will be ... Trump.
Here is how the president described his plan in a February tweet: “HOLD THE DATE! We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th. It will be called ‘A Salute To America’ and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”
If there was even a glimmer of doubt that Trump intended to inject politics into this most egalitarian and nonpartisan of holidays, it was erased when he decided to set up a special section of reserved VIP seating to stretch from the steps of the memorial to the halfway point of the reflecting pool. Some of the tickets are being handed out by the Republican National Committee.
Trump believes his predecessors lacked a certain pizazz when it came to proclaiming their own greatness.
Take, for instance, the commander in chief who led the nation during World War II. “You know, [Franklin Roosevelt] was a great promoter, but nobody would know that because he was very solemn, and you know, very regal,” Trump told me.
Then there was the one who was known as the Great Communicator.
“Ronald Reagan was a great cheerleader, but nobody thinks of him as a cheerleader,” Trump said. “Being a great president has to do with a lot of things, but one of them is being a cheerleader for the country.”
So how do presidents normally spend the Fourth of July? Or perhaps that question should be: How do normal presidents spend the Fourth of July?
Mostly, the modern ones have kicked back like the rest of us do. The South Lawn of the White House is a particularly nice vantage point for the fireworks display over the Mall.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama also marked the occasion by attending naturalization ceremonies.
“Throughout our history, the words of the declaration have inspired immigrants from around the world to set sail to our shores,” Bush said at the one he attended in 2008 at Monticello. “These immigrants have helped transform 13 small colonies into a great and growing nation.”
Great. There it was. That word again. And nary a tank in sight.