President Donald Trump speaks on July 4 in Washington, D.C.

President Donald Trump speaks on July 4 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Getty Images/Tasos Katopodis

Tanks might strike you as fierce and cool, or as nothing more than fetish objects for right-wing tweens and goggle-eyed “Armored Warfare” addicts. Either way, all Americans should agree: Tanks are singularly weird machinery for a Fourth of July pageant.

Muskets, gazebos, little Shriner cars, sure. But when it comes to Yankee Doodling around, brute machines of war are a downer — long considered too ugly, utilitarian, authoritarian and lethal for even our most jingoistic national holidays.

Well, not anymore. President Donald Trump, ever the psycho, rolled tanks into Washington on Independence Day, surely the first head of state to occupy his own capital to demonstrate its independence.

The parade and the run-up to Trump’s late-afternoon speech were ominous. Along Constitution Avenue, people wore Trump-cult garb and slagged-off private citizen Hillary Clinton, who is not running for office. Elsewhere, vocal devotees of the QAnon nonsense were expecting no less than the resurrection of John F. Kennedy Jr. At least one wore a T-shirt picturing that particular dead Kennedy in a MAGA hat.

You read that right. Hear that rumbling? It’s all 400,000 people interred at Arlington Cemetery rolling over in their graves.

As the public park close to the Lincoln Memorial filled with a vetted audience divided into castes by fences, the atmosphere recalled Trump’s sinister inauguration in 2017. Was menacing Stephen Miller “carnage” rhetoric on deck?

Or maybe Trump’s sniffing would start and, hoo boy, his geezer impairments would flare up again. Maybe we’d get a rollicking military history of the Bowling Green massacres (with a nod to Kellyanne Conway) or the Battle of Covfefe Creek.

Not this time. In the end, Trump gave one of his stilted norm core speeches, filled with plodding doggerel of American self-congratulation that sounded like Newt Gingrich blather — or maybe like an outtake from History Channel Kids. The speech managed to prove that, yes, Trump can read most words. It also suggested that the weak praise he routinely gets — “at least he’s not boring” — is unwarranted.

Most TV channels refused to carry Trump Tank Day, wary of giving airtime to what many feared would be a campaign infomercial. But the speech was all bore, no bile. There also seemed to be a tight quota for redhats inside the fences. The whole affair was curiously muffled. The effect was heightened because the president spoke to the people from behind foggy rain-streaked bulletproof glass.

More armor, then. Only one hulking Bradley fighting vehicle, an eyesore in camo colors, could easily be seen during the televised speech, awkwardly grrr-ing in front of the stage. Reports had it that another Bradley and two olive-drab Abrams tanks had also been laboriously dragged in, but stealthy crustaceans that they are, they were either too low or too evasive for TV cameras to pick up. (Lesson: Tanks are bad in shows because … they don’t show.)

Trump was on defense. He was in hiding — behind the gates, chain-link, vast security detail, bulletproof glass and tanks. If you want to preen, you get soldiers in elegant formation or a corny military band. If you want to hide, you get tanks. The show of force seemed more like protection for the president than pageantry for the republic.

Even Trump’s encomiums to the regular-people heroes shipped in for the occasion were sterile. But when did Trump ever seek to inspire when he could strike an Il Duce pose or two, surround himself with sycophants, and hide his cowardice behind a cartoon display of flag-molesting and bellicosity?

This surreal Independence Day brought to mind the confession of Trump’s butler, Anthony Senecal, who said he once was required to hire a bugler to goose the then-not-president’s ego by playing “Hail to the Chief” when the boss came home in a sulk.

This time, it’s likely our taxes will pay the ego-goosing that came largely from GOP courtiers handpicked by the Republican National Committee to applaud Emperor Trump’s new clothes from first-class seats near the podium. The American Way, evidently. The crowd looked wet and listless a good deal of the time. Almost no one appeared to know the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Having for weeks called for Trump’s impeachment, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash dominated the morning political media by declaring independence from Trump’s party. (Out West, an earthquake stole the day’s thunder.) You’d think Trump on his big day would bask in the hokum and let Amash go without a word. But, naturally, he tweeted snippily: “Total loser.”

It was seemingly one of the president’s stock why-I-oughta efforts to warn others in his circle against betraying him. But it’s all tired now: Trump came off as petrified. He was, as usual, firing blindly, cornered, a little hysterical and surrounded by tanks, as if he were America’s enemy instead of its president.

Virginia Heffernan wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


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