In January, President Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin planning a large-scale military parade for the streets of Washington. There are very many grounds for criticizing the idea. It’s still possible that Congress will prevent the parade from occurring by blocking the use of federal funds for it, and it’s unclear how Trump might resolve a possible scheduling conflict that could preclude his attendance. For the time being, however, it appears that the Pentagon is charging ahead with plans for a parade that will occur on Veterans Day—November 11th—and proceed from the White House to the Capitol. The timing of this parade is troubling, as it will hand Trump the opportunity to weaponize the event to help Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump will likely use the military parade as political ammunition. Democrats need to carefully navigate the trap Trump will inevitably set for them.
Sure, Veterans Day provides some cover for Trump by offering an ostensible reason for the parade—the centennial of the victory in World War I. But this timing will unfortunately propel the military right into the partisan trenches of the 2018 midterm elections. Consider the fact that the midterm elections will occur on November 6th, less than a week before Veterans Day. In practice, this will mean that much of the media hype, Trump’s touting of the parade, and the military’s preparation and staging will coincide with the final stages of campaigning. Indeed, with a military parade occurring in such close proximity to the midterm elections, the military will likely find itself squarely in the partisan fray it so steadfastly tries to avoid.
As president, Trump has repeatedly weaponized patriotism, and “the net effect is to rally his base and force opponents to choose between appearing to love America and opposing Mr. Trump,” writes Phillip Carter of the Center for a New American Security. Trump manufactured the perception that NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem and their supporters disrespected the military and were unpatriotic. The false choice was therefore between, on the one hand, lining up behind supporting the military (and Trump), and on the other hand, speaking out against him and backing NFL players’ legitimate concerns about racial justice.
When Democrats consider criticizing Trump’s military parade, they will similarly be forced into yet another catch-22. They could speak out against the parade, but then face the risk of being labeled as unpatriotic and disrespectful of the military. Or they could capitulate and support Trump’s parade, allowing him to cash in a political assist for Republican candidates as the midterm elections approach. It would be a win-win for Trump, and the military would be a tool to try to mitigate what looks to be an impending ballot box disaster for Republicans. It’s all too easy to envision Trump commenting on the parade, whether at campaign rallies for Republican candidates or on his unhinged Twitter feed. He may even make the repugnant and spurious claim that Democrats opposing his parade are specifically insulting the Medal of Honor recipients who apparently will be surrounding the president near the Capitol.
It might not work, but Democrats should try to thread the needle. They could, for example, criticize the parade but offer better ways to support the military, such as spending the money the parade would cost—estimated to be $10-30 million, but potentially as much as $50 million—on causes supporting veterans. And perhaps they might argue that Trump and Republican leaders in Congress could better honor the military by encouraging a frank public discussion about U.S. involvement in armed conflicts. And to bolster their credibility on the issue, Democrats might ensure that veterans such as Senator Tammy Duckworth and Representative Seth Moulton take the lead in advocating against the parade. But let’s remember that Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel rather than sit on the bench during the national anthem was a compromise with veteran and former NFL player Nate Boyer. How well did that go for Kaepernick? Trump still took advantage of the situation. At a campaign rally last year in Alabama, he called any NFL player who kneels a “son of a bitch” who “disrespects our flag,” and he will likely exploit the parade as well.
Trump has already taken almost every opportunity to politicize the military, and the date of his parade, Veterans Day, so close to the midterm elections, creates an environment ripe for further politicization. Democrats should shrewdly counter Trump’s narrative and not let him easily get away with co-opting the military parade for a potential Republican boon in the midterm elections. There are far better ways to honor the military than the parade. Plus, veterans and the military are not monolithic. Just as veterans have diverse views about the NFL national anthem controversy, so too do they disagree on the merits of the parade. Some support it. Many do not. So, it would be patently untrue for Trump to claim that Democrats who oppose his parade are snubbing the military and veterans. No matter how forcefully Trump sells this notion, Americans shouldn’t buy it.