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Why Trump's parade will lead Republicans over a cliff

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

Markets are careening all over the place. Congress is struggling, again, to keep the Capitol open. The White House is at war with the FBI, and the special counsel’s investigation into Russian influence is about to touch off a constitutional crisis. If you’re the president, what’s your next bold move?

A parade, obviously.

Not just any parade. What President Trump has in mind — what he has, in fact, ordered the Pentagon to spend weeks of time and millions of dollars planning, if the fake Washington Post can be trusted — is a garish show of military power, with tanks and missiles followed by warriors in full regalia marching up Pennsylvania Avenue for no apparent reason, except I guess that parades are super-fun and often involve things like cotton candy and sparklers, and that’s a hard thing for a grown man to resist.

Actually, Trump got this particular idea in Paris back in July, when he visited Emmanuel Macron and witnessed a similar display. Because you know, when you think about military might, your mind immediately goes to France.

Critics of the president see in this the aspirations of a strongman. They point out that the whole thing has a certain Kim Jong Un feel to it, with Trump and his ruling generals solemnly reviewing the troops as they high-kick it past the White House. It’s a show of force that could only be interpreted as threatening toward adversaries abroad, if not to the investigators working a few miles away.

But I give Trump more credit than that. I don’t actually think he’s motivated by some secret agenda to install himself as a small-handed dictator. I doubt he’s read enough history to understand why a parade like this might make a lot of thinking people nauseous.

No, I think Trump’s real agenda is getting clearer every day, and his silly parade fits in perfectly. His goal is to govern at the dawn of the Cold War, in the 1950s America he knew as a boy, when it wasn’t so uncommon for presidents to march alongside tanks and batteries.

He’s stuck in a moment most Americans can’t remember, and he wants the rest of us stuck there with him.

You can see it in Trump’s approach to foreign policy generally. A year into office, he’s moving to restart the nuclear arms race that darkened the second half of the 20th century, and he’s seeking billions more to ramp up conventional forces, rather than modernize them, in case we have to fight another land war on the Korean Peninsula.

Trump’s personal taunting of the North Korean leader, his boast about the superior size of his “nuclear button,” brings to mind America’s bygone fixation with Khrushchev or Castro. All that’s missing is the black-and-white TV.

About the only way Trump’s foreign policy isn’t lifted directly from the Cold War is that he just can’t summon any real antipathy for the Russians, no matter how menacing they become. Go figure.

You can see it in the way Trump fetishizes the stock market as the only indicator of economic progress, as if we still lived in the moment when the state of General Motors and IBM told you everything you needed to know about the state of the American worker. You can see it in the way he champions protectionism, as if American manufacturers could still subsist without foreign markets.

You can see it in the way he throws around explosive charges of treason and disloyalty, in the mold of Joe McCarthy and Dick Nixon (not to mention Trump’s idol, Roy Cohn). You can see it, not least of all, in the way he baldly mythologizes pre-civil-rights America for the thousands of resentful white men who still wear the red hats at his rallies.

(And just by the way, you can hear it in the way he called Stormy Daniels, his alleged onetime paramour, “honeybunch.” Seriously. The last time someone used that term to refer to something other than breakfast cereal, man hadn’t yet walked on the moon.)

This is, after all, what making America great again was really all about. A more precise slogan would have been “Make America Eisenhower’s Again.” Minus the dignity and statesmanship.

It amazes me, still, that even now Republicans in Washington can’t seem to grasp the existential peril in all of this time traveling. Make no mistake: They don’t love Trump, and they wouldn’t prefer him as president. They’ve just decided, by and large, that protecting Trump from judgment is the likeliest route to protecting their majorities.

But I wonder if the Devin Nuneses and Paul Ryans of the world managed to put down their beers and weenies long enough to watch the Super Bowl last Sunday. If they did, they might have noticed that the companies who advertised to the largest single audience of the year wanted nothing to do with this Trumpian vision of lost greatness.

If Republican leaders sat through the commercials, they would have seen an almost endless array of multiracial faces, untraditional families and not-so-subtle messages about social progress and leaving the past behind.

For all the controversy stirred up by that boneheaded ad that had Martin Luther King hawking Dodge trucks, what was lost is that the company was clearly trying to repossess this limited concept of American greatness. However much that spot may have offended King’s admirers, its intended message was a rebuke of Trump’s core appeal.

So I ask you, Washington Republicans: Who do you figure knows more about where American society is headed? Would that be the most sophisticated corporations in America, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars on consumer research, or the president of the United States, whose approval after the customary State of the Union bump barely broke 40 percent?

Why don’t you call all those companies that market-tested the shih tzu puppy out of those Super Bowl ads and ask them whether Cold War nostalgia will be an especially sellable commodity over the next decade of American life?

This is a crisis for modern Republicans. The larger point, though, is that however much Trump’s 1950s fantasy may endanger his party, I fear it endangers his country more.

Every day spent thinking about more tanks and nukes we don’t need is a day closer to the moment when European powers and China are seen as the indispensable peacemakers on the world stage.

Every day spent obsessing over stock prices and tariffs (something plenty of retro Democrats do, too) is another day spent not thinking about how to maintain our influence in global markets or how to retool the social contract so we can compete in this century, rather than the last one.

Everybody loves a parade, right up until the moment it passes you by.

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