To give you an idea of what I think of President Donald Trump’s plan for the Pentagon to stage a “grand parade” in Washington, thus imitating the favorite symbol of muscle and manliness among petty dictators the world over, I need to go back to the grim period after September 11, 2001.
I was then an arts reporter for a small Southern newspaper, and the country music legend Merle Haggard was touring the area. During an interview, we turned to politics, and the creator of hit songs popular amid the conservative backlash of the 1970s, such as “Workin’ Man Blues” and “Okie from Muskogee,” said something that has stuck with me ever since.
“Why are we scared?” he said. “We’re America.”
I later understood this wasn’t mere machismo. From Haggard’s hard-bitten view (he was an ex-con, after all), fear signaled weakness, and given the U.S. was the greatest power the world had seen, we had nothing to fear. We freed Europe, beat the Nazis, and nearly bombed Japan off the planet, he said. What are a few little terrorists to us?
This took me by surprise. At the time, the George W. Bush administration was priming the country to invade Iraq by building up Saddam Hussein as if he were the next Führer. Meanwhile, the president gave important speeches about the global “War on Terror,” making it all sound Very Scary. Only years later did I see how right Haggard was. Yes, Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda murdered thousands. But never were they an existential threat to America as a nation. That was the case during an actual global war, not now.
In coming to understand Haggard’s realpolitik, I came to understand something else: the rhetorical utility of chauvinism. Chauvinism is one of those words that has lost its older sense. It’s usually associated with obnoxious men who refuse to see the value of recognizing fully the agency of women. But it wasn’t always that way—it used to mean fierce loyalty to country. It can take various forms, but I like George Orwell’s: a “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.”
In the dark days after the September 11 attacks, militarism was fast becoming synonymous with patriotism. To question going to war was to have one’s patriotism questioned. I was grateful Haggard showed me a way to confront militarism while wrapping myself in Old Glory.
“He’s not a politician,” Haggard told Rolling Stone in early 2016. “I don’t think he understands the way things work in Washington, that’s what worries me about him. I don’t think he realizes he can’t just tell somebody to do something and have it done. I think he’s dealing from a strange deck.”
Haggard died in April of that year. While we can’t know what he would have thought of the president’s plan to stage a “grand parade” in Washington, I like to imagine the country legend looking the president square in the eye and asking, what are you scared of?
The mightiest military the world has ever seen does not have anything to prove or anyone to prove it to. Yes, Russia is again rising, and China may be a military adversary a long way down the road. For now, however, America has nothing to fear militarily when it can drop bombs from space and hit targets the size of pie plates.
So why a parade? Trump appears to see his needs as synonymous with the country’s. He indicated as much when he said Democrats were acting treasonous when they did not applaud him during his State of the Union address. A grand parade would not be a demonstration of America’s strength, because everyone already understands it, but it would be a demonstration of Trump’s strength.
Which is in fact weakness.
Trump said he asked the Pentagon for “a grand parade” on par with France’s Bastille Day. I like to think that would have been a bridge too much for Merle Haggard. What’s to learn from the French. For God’s sake, they didn’t liberate us. We liberated them. A parade? We don’t need it.