In a feature about Donald Trump’s infamous “Make America Great Again” slogan, the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty asked the president-elect about how “greatness” can be measured. What does he mean by “great”?
Trump responded by citing the sort of spectacles that were commonplace in autocracies like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia — military parades.
“Being a great president has to do with a lot of things, but one of them is being a great cheerleader for the country,” Trump told the Post. “And we’re going to show the people as we build up our military, we’re going to display our military.”
“That 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,” he added.
The portions of the interview published by the Post don’t indicate Trump mentioned anything else while discussing his definition of greatness. For Trump, making America great is about spectacles, not policy achievements, but creating and capitalizing on spectacles is what Trump’s brand of politics has always been about.
Trump made beefing up the military a theme of his campaign. In August, he told a crowd in Philadelphia that “we want to deter, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military dominance.” He’s since outlined a spending plan that would end the sequester on military spending and thereby add about $450 billion to the federal deficit over the next 10 years.
It’s arguable whether it’s a good idea to plow that sort of money into the military. While hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) argue sequestration has weakened the American military, the U.S. is already by far the biggest defense spender in the world. Last year, the fiscal policy-focused Peter G. Peterson Foundation, citing numbers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, put together this graph showing that the U.S. spends more on defense than the next seven highest-spending countries combined:
That debate aside, it’s telling that Trump’s immediate response to a question about his goals for the country is to discuss his desire for military parades, which haven’t been a significant part of American history.
As Time’s Ishaan Tharoor detailed in a piece about the history of military parades in 2009, they have historically been used by “rulers” who “projected their power through displays of strength and awe, going back to humanity’s first civilizations.”
“As empires dissolved into nation-states, these spectacles of power swapped their air of mysticism for a more tangible tone of aggression,” Tharoor writes. His piece goes on to cite this quote about the Nazi goosestep from George Orwell, who lived in England while it was besieged by the Nazis: “[The goosestep is] one of the most horrible sights in the world. It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face.”
“Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army,” Orwell added.
In 2013, David Waldstreicher, a professor of history at Temple University, told the History News Network that the reason military parades haven’t regularly occurred throughout American history is because the Revolutionary War itself was about removing standing armies from cities.
“American national liberty, at home at least, is associated with freedom from men in arms marching through the streets,” Waldstreicher said.
But Trump has repeatedly raised questions about his commitment to the traditional notion of “liberty.” In September, he praised Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin as “a leader far more than our president [Obama] has been.” During the campaign, Trump also commended former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein because he effectively “killed terrorists” without due process and expressed appreciation for the ruthless way North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un took power.
An ad the Trump team ran in the final months of the campaign concluded by claiming, “DONALD TRUMP WILL PROTECT YOU. HE IS THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN.”
That sort of rhetoric has prompted a number of scholars to compare Trump with fascistic leaders like Mussolini, who told Italians while he was in the process of consolidating power that “Italy wants peace and quiet, work and calm. I will give these things with love if possible and with force if necessary.”