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The hidden symbolism in Trump’s ‘military parade’

Since returning from France’s Bastille Day celebration in July, President Trump has mused about wanting a military parade in the United States—reveling in the opportunity to put the strength of the world’s superpower on display. Late last month, President Trump put his vision into action, stating, “I want a parade like the one in France,” and urging his administration to begin planning an event resembling France’s Bastille Day spectacle.

Unfortunately for him, the general public didn’t share in his excitement, as reactions from the international community manifest in a chorus of worried onlookers. Media detailed Trump’s announcement alongside sentiment reminiscent of fascist regimes, making connections to the likes of Russia, China, and North Korea far over France.

While it would be easy to dismiss this decision as no more than an impulse move fueled by the president’s desire to boost his ego, could there be more to the story? What if this announcement is another tactic in Trump’s messaging strategy? Let’s assume that this announcement is indeed another ruse that’s part of a much larger plan, and consequently, says more than what’s been said.

We must first define that strategy.

Trump’s messaging strategy is one that’s heavily rooted in symbolism implemented with the intention to illicit strong reactions from both the domestic and global audience.

It began with his “Make America Great Again” ideology taking material form in red hats worn by Trump himself and his supporters on the campaign trail, sustained with daily tweeting, and emphasized over and over again throughout his young presidency, as seen most recently at the Davos conference. Trump is relentless to diverge from his “America First” message.

It only seems fitting for subsequent actions to follow precedence and further glorify the United States as champion, of pretty much anything. At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric has positioned the U.S. in a certain cultural frame that’s more or less a negative one. Words inciting a military parade grind against a much more powerful context that forges deeper meanings than those that lie on the surface.

Which is why the international audience reacted the way it did, because the statement “I want one like the one in France” carries with it symbolic weight.

Unpacking the announcement, it speaks to a practice foreign to American customs. France’s Bastille Day parade is rooted in more than 100 years of tradition. The U.S. has typically strayed from this kind of nationally centralized spectacle to instead construct monuments in respect and homage, while keeping parades at the local level with air and water shows. The possibility of turning the streets of Washington into a stage for tanks and military arms rolling alongside our armed forces is automatically disorienting.

Additionally, France’s Bastille Day parade celebrates unity and often; the French President invites foreign leaders and military detachments as guests and participants to revel in proud observance together. Its tenure and celebratory nature don’t reflect Trump’s rhetoric. The global arena is skeptical to assume that Trump’s vision intends to celebrate America’s unanimity with the rest of the world.

This assertion can be argued given the cultural implications of Trump’s announcement. The message isn’t about a parade at all: it demonstrates Trump’s underlying appetite to assert political dominance during a time of fragile international relations, i.e., nuclear arms tension with North Korea, growing diplomatic strains with Turkey and the rest of the Islamic World, may we even say, fake news?

The parade’s unusual character and the laundry list of diplomatic tensions justify a worried audience to assume the parade that Trump envisions is quite the opposite of a friendly celebration. Instead, it will send a message to the world that’s far more powerful.

As the planning of the parade moves forward, strong opinions are bound to drive the narrative. What will be interesting is how Trump decides to respond, whether it’s with more might or swiftly turning to a more delicate approach.

Melissa Beaty, Keegan Bales, and Andrew Ricci contributed to this post.

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