What Would Hamilton Have to Say About Trump’s Ginormous Military Parade?

This article first appeared on Dorf on Law.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders has confirmed that the Pentagon is drawing up plans for a huge/tremendous/biggest-ever/insert-Trumpian-adjective-here military parade modeled on (but better/huger/tremendouser/biglier than) the French parade that the Maximum Leader witnessed during his Paris vacation last summer.

Because I am engaged in a semester-long project of reading the Federalist Papers cover to cover with my seminar students, I couldn't help but wonder what Alexander Hamilton would think about this idea.

Understandably, much of the initial criticism of Trump's proposed military parade has called attention to the fact that such parades are characteristic of North Korea, the old Soviet Union, and other dictatorships, ultimately displaying force to cover weakness. In apparent response, the administration has said that Trump's parade will be a way of showing appreciation for our troops, rather than displaying military might as a means of intimidation. And yet . . .

1) That's not credible. Here is the story about what exactly impressed Trump in Paris and his goals to "top" it in Washington:

“It was a tremendous day, and to a large extent because of what I witnessed, we may do something like that on July 4th in Washington down Pennsylvania Avenue,” Trump said. “We’re going to have to try to top it, but we have a lot of planes going over and a lot of military might, and it was really a beautiful thing to see, and representatives from different wars and different uniforms.”

Macron rode in the Bastille Day parade standing upright in an open-top military command car, surrounded by hundreds of military guards on horseback. The two-hour spectacle included tanks rolling down the Champs Elysees and helicopters and fighter jets flying overhead.

Trump said he wanted the U.S. to have “a really great parade to show our military strength.”

2) If the point of the exercise were to show appreciation to US troops, one would think that the funds for the parade are being misdirected. Every dollar spent on Trump's parade is a dollar not spent on providing medical care and other services for service members and veterans.

3) Perhaps most interestingly, as Hamilton emphasizes in Federalist No. 8 , even honoring our military service members for their brave service is a double-edged sword that carries with it the risk of undercutting democracy.

As documented by Lin-Manuel Miranda as well as actual historians, Hamilton was a hero of the Revolutionary War. Establishing a pattern that would be followed by some other American military heroes (think of Eisenhower's military-industrial-complex speech or John McCain's efforts to rein in torture by the Bush administration), Hamilton used the credibility that his heroic military service conferred to call into question policies that would, in his view, give too much power to the military.

GettyImages-814226274 (From left) French Defense Minister Florence Parly, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Donald Trump and Melania, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron, Senate President Gerard Larcher and the President of the French National Assembly Francois de Rugy look at members of the 5e Regiment de Dragons (5th Dragoon Regiment) parading on a Leclerc tank during the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2017. The parade on Paris's Champs-Elysees commemorated the centenary of the US entering WWI and featured horses, helicopters, planes and troops. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty

In my last Hamilton-Versus-Trump entry, I quoted Federalist No. 8 . It bears repeating. Hamilton warns that:

in a country, where the perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it, her armies must be numerous enough for instant defence.

The continual necessity for his services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionably degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil.

The inhabitants of territories often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees, the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors.

The transition from this disposition to that of considering them as masters, is neither remote nor difficult: but it is very difficult to prevail upon a people under such impressions, to make a bold, or effectual resistance, to usurpations supported by the military power.

Hamilton made this point in the service of a broader argument in response to fears that the new national government would be too strong and thus end up oppressing the People in ways similar to the British under George III.

Hamilton's core argument is that war would be more likely in the absence of the Union than with a Union under the Constitution, and thus ratification of the Constitution would prevent a semi-permanent garrison state, which would be the greater threat to civil government.

Indeed, in Federalist Nos. 1-29, this subject--the relative likelihood of war with or without the Constitution--preoccupies Publius more than any other subject. And notably, in the essays on standing armies as well as more generally, the concern is not so much how to avoid the depredations of war itself, but how to avoid the secondary effects--the breakdown of civil liberties and civil government--to which a state of constant military readiness can lead.

Whether Publius was right or wrong in his/their predictions has been an interesting topic of discussion with my students, but I want to set it aside for now to observe a sub-theme that is taken for granted.

Hamilton (like Eisenhower, McCain, and others after him) valued and respected military service and military valor, but was clear-eyed about the possible abuses of military power.

Trump is not—or if he is, he is clear-eyed in his desire to abuse military power.

Michael C. Dorf is the Robert S. Stevens professor of law at Cornell University. He blogs at DorfOnLaw.org.

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