Donald Trump has issued a directive to the military to begin planning a military parade: hardware and members of the armed forces parading past the White House, the Capitol, and along the way past the Trump Hotel. All this, analysts seem to think, is simply to satisfy a childish fantasy about displaying power.
I think the prospect of military parades has a much deeper implication than that. While such parades have more traditionally been the preserve of dictatorships in the Southern Hemisphere, Trump now wants the same display of tanks and jets in Washington.
It didn’t take long after the White House confirmed that the directive is, in fact, true, for analysts to start comparing the current American political climate to that of ancient Rome. Distract the masses from the problems of the state, give them bread and circuses. The allusion to bread and circuses is a reference to ancient Rome; the writer Juvenal used the phrase to speak to the neglect of the citizenship to wider Roman concerns as long as their basic needs of food and entertainment were met. The implication was that the sense of civic duty was being eroded through the government’s ability to keep the population subdued in the face of national challenge by ensuring they were distracted by various and diverse amusements. Noam Chomsky suggested that “maintaining public attention diverted away from the real social problems, captivated by matters of no real importance” is one way in which authoritarian governments maintain their grip on power, especially in the face of challenge.
I think that the real implications of such displays of power are much deeper than simply distraction. It is a sign of bully power at work, and the consequences may be especially strong in the United States.
The Trump administration has been compared to the ancient Roman emperors, and those comparisons continue in the media with this latest distraction from the real business of state. The distractions available in ancient Rome included triumphal parades and also gladiatorial contests, which not only distracted attention from war losses but prepared people for more war, inuring them to pain and death and toughening them against such weaknesses as compassion. Seneca, writing in the first century, noted that pity was the “vice of a timid mind.” The Romans were not noted for their compassion, and while compassion did exist, it was not universally extended. The degree of compassion felt by a citizen was determined by the status of the victim: the higher the status, the greater the compassion, and the lower the status, the greater the indifference. The gladiatorial contests contributed to the hardening of Roman hearts to the needs of those who were weaker.
The projected displays of military hardware in the U.S. may serve the same function, not only distracting the populace from civic concerns, but also reminding them of raw power and emboldening them to shy away from such “weak” values as compassion and mercy, especially for those already marginalized. The implications are frightening.
Trump’s bid to Make America Great Again is simply an affirmation of the triumph of power, with a consequent loss of compassion. America may be on the road to becoming great on the world stage, but that greatness comes at a cost of being human, caring and looking out for others, particularly the weak. Jesus said, “Whoever would be great must be last of all and a servant of all.” I prefer the model that Jesus sets before us, both personally and societally.