by Adam Gopnik · February 7, 2018
The traditions that make the Bastille Day parade appropriate to France are completely absent here in the United States.
Photograph by Mustafa Yalcin / Anadolu Agency / Getty
One of the less pleasant tasks that we all have can be trying to maintain our intellectual integrity when it’s challenged—and nothing challenges it quite like Donald Trump. It’s unpleasant because it means trying to reconcile our instinctive, even reflexive, pleasures with our established principles.
For example, I’ve written about enjoying, and even having affectionate feelings for, the military ceremonies that are part of the fourteenth-of-July festivities in Paris. And yet, I reacted with disgust to the idea of Donald Trump sponsoring and creating a parallel parade on our own Fourth of July, or some holiday after. Was it just reflexive disgust at anything Donald Trump does or proposes? If so, it hardly seems an honorable way of parading the ideas in one’s own head. The pleasure of hating Trump’s ideas is not one that should be indulged too freely, for the simple reason that Trumpism itself is an ideology rooted in the pleasure of hating, and it ought not to be mimicked by those still hoping, at the end of all this, to have kept their minds at least partly intact.
So, is there a good reason for not wanting to have a parade marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, other than that Trump does want it?
There is. It involves old-fashioned conservative arguments about living precedent and national tradition. The French parade is exactly that: a national tradition. There are lots of things we do in the world that may not have any strong foundational argument but that we accept because they’re part of that kind of tradition. The monarchy in England is a good example. We all enjoy watching royal weddings, and the opening of Parliament, and even just the Changing of Guard at Buckingham Palace, without thinking that these things ought to be imported or, for a moment, thinking that they can be imported. “What they do is not what we do” is in itself a valid argument. The British ceremonials have a charm and glamour of their own—but someone who brought out the White House guard to change in imitation of the Buckingham one would look like a fool. Indeed, Richard Nixon, Trump’s predecessor in so much, did try to have the White House guard re-outfitted. Just like Trump, Nixon had come up with the idea after trips abroad, pining for a personal guard of his own as fancy as that of a Romanian dictator. He was mocked, not least by the guards themselves, and the whole thing was forgotten—though, at the time, much like Trump’s parade now, it was seen as a symptom of Nixon’s own pathetic brand of phony militarism. (This was so even though Nixon really had fought, and been decorated, in the Second World War.)
The tradition of the parade in France is not the tradition of a dominant military power, of the kind the United States is now, ostentatiously showing off its goods and wares, as if to sneer triumphantly at everyone else; it is just the opposite. The French parade is rooted in a sense of fallen glory—not in a sense of power but in a fear of impotence. The French parade is essentially a celebration of insecurity, which is one of the reasons that we have affection for it and excuse it.
France, it should be said at once, does have the legacy of a noble military tradition; anyone who mocks the courage of the French soldier is ignorant and a fool. The French endurance in the First World War is one of the great stories in military history; and even in the Second World War, as the military historian John Mosier points out in his fine book, “The Blitzkrieg Myth,” French soldiers fought with remarkable bravery in the face of the German onslaught, taking hundreds of thousands of casualties—until the French government basically gave up on them, and then the British gave up on the French government.
Nonetheless, the current form of the Paris parade goes back only to the eighteen-eighties—a significant decade, exactly the moment when the French military was in significant crisis, after the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian war, in 1870–71, and its long, bitter aftermath, including the Paris Commune and the difficult reëstablishment of the Republic. It was a time when Bonapartism—rule by generals—was a living threat, most notably in the cult of Georges Boulanger, the general who nearly pulled off what would have amounted to a coup d’état, in the late eighteen-eighties. The point of the fourteenth-of-July parade is that, by making the military so much a part of the life of the Republic—whose revolutionary and anti-monarchical, egalitarian birth is celebrated on Bastille Day—the Army becomes enfolded and subordinated to the Republican state. In this sense, the parade is a celebration of Bonapartism, meant to immunize the Republic against Bonapartism. That it is on the national Republican holiday is, in effect, one way of reminding the Army that it belongs to the Republic.
Bonapartism has—with the exception of a brief flareup in Douglas MacArthur’s day, quickly put out—never been a living threat to American democracy. We have just the opposite history: our greatest generals, Grant and Eisenhower, were essentially professional, procedural men who became (admirably) professional, procedural Presidents. The fear of a coup has almost always been far from American minds, and the military a subordinated agency. (It is not the least of the countless hideous ironies, and moral traps, of the Trump era that a certain number of frightened patriots might wish for a kind of coup by the generals, who sometimes seem more stable than the President—or hope that one has silently happened already. William James talked about the “moral equivalent of war,” raising the question of how one might imagine the moral equivalent of a military coup, without the coup actually taking place.)
What Trump seems to have been responding to, when he saw the military parade in France, was, at the atavistic level at which he responds to everything, exactly the glow of that underlying insecurity. A parade seems to compensate for insecurity by bloat, show, and trophy. That, after all, is the whole of Trump’s character: insecurity compensated for by bloat, show and trophy.
The good reason to oppose the parade is simply that it is not—in the old-fashioned sense—the American way. It is not just that a big military parade runs counter to our ceremonial traditions; it runs against our military traditions, in which the military is painlessly and unceremoniously seconded to the civilian. Our generals, in the tradition of Grant and Eisenhower (and Bradley and, for that matter, Colin Powell) don’t like showing off, because they are not there to look impressive. They are there to be professional. Professionalism is the ethic of the American military, and professionals do not parade their expertise. They project their expertise.
The traditions that make the Bastille Day parade appropriate to France are completely absent here. The French officer showily salutes the Republic; the American one has no need to. An American officer is proud of getting the job done, not of looking cool when not actually doing it. It would be a source of pain for American soldiers to be turned into an ornament for a would-be strong man—to be used as his trophies.
The negative response of retired generals to the idea of a military parade makes this feeling plain. General Mark Kirby said, to the Washington Examiner, “You could get past all of those arguments and just say one thing: It’s not who we are as a military. The United States has a different military culture. We do not portray ourselves walking down the streets. Instead, we do the parades on main street in the middle of Idaho during the Fourth of July with flags taped to kids’ handlebars. That’s the kind of parades we have. “
Does it matter? A good case can be made that it is not worth investing a lot of emotion or energy on this issue. Almost the only ideological consistency that Trump and Trumpism have, after all, is the urge to troll liberals, and, the argument goes, liberals should not take the bait and allow themselves to be so trolled.
But the symbolic dimension of democracy is hugely important to its perpetuation—that was one of the lessons of Reaganism that liberals on the whole failed to understand. Nothing is more important for liberals than to reclaim patriotism, and love of country, for their own. People want patriotism. If they are given only bad nationalism in its place, they will swallow that instead, and come to make it part of their diet. Opposing the wrong parades, and planning the right ones, is part of the task of a patriotic progressivism as it marches—or meanders—forward.
The New Yorker · by Adam Gopnik · February 7, 2018