THE sight of tanks on the streets in any country is always very telling. At its most “benign” it might simply be a Red Square/Pyongyang-style parade. At its most menacing, it usually heralds the start of a national emergency, coup d’etat, civil war or invasion. Either way it’s a discomfiting spectacle, and one not normally associated with fully functioning democracies.

Even seeing marching troops and military vehicles during France’s Bastille Day celebrations leaves me with a sense of unease, albeit that its history, tone and pitch is somewhat different from the extravaganzas of martial force put on by autocratic regimes like Russia and North Korea. For not only does the Bastille parade celebrate the 1789 fall of the notorious Bastille prison that for centuries symbolised royal authority, but says more about French citizenship and unity than it does about France’s military might.

What then to make of US president Donald Trump’s “Salute to America” yesterday during the country’s Fourth of July celebrations?

Ever since he witnessed the Bastille Day celebration in Paris in 2017, Trump has expressed jealous admiration for such military displays. Perhaps then it should have come as no surprise that The Donald would sooner or later get around to some kind of tin-pot militaristic grandstanding.

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Even as far back as his presidential inaugural parade, which for many Americans was already shaping up to be an inauspicious day in the country’s history, Trump and his cohorts were said to have discussed the possibility of including missile launchers and tanks in the day’s processions.

Yesterday Trump finally got his way, turning Washington’s normally pacific Independence Day ceremonies into a martially tinged self-branding exercise, complete with armoured vehicles and a flypast by stealth fighters.

Listening to America’s manboy talk these past days about what he had lined up for his “show of a lifetime”, I was reminded of the British comic strip character from The Beano in the 1960s and 70s, 12-year-old Alfie “Jumbo” Johnson who served as “general” to a remote control model army, navy and air force created by the eccentric scientist character Professor Carter.

Where General Jumbo and Trump differ of course is that while the former saw the military at his disposal as a force for good, fighting evil criminals and carrying out daring rescue missions, Trump sees “my generals” and “my military,” as a means to get himself re-elected. This after all was what yesterday was actually about. For in reality Trump’s “Salute to America” was nothing of the sort.

Instead what it represented was yet another crass example of his self-promotion in the face of a looming presidential election campaign. The fact that some $2.5 million was diverted from the US National Park Service to cover the costs of Trump’s military bash was what we have come to expect from such a self-serving narcissistic US leader.

As the well-known US journalist and deputy editor of Foreign Policy magazine Michael Hirsh pointed out a few days ago, it’s hardly surprising that many Americans are appalled by the flagrant politicisation of their most sacred secular holiday. As Hirsh says, the Independence Day celebrations are intended to enshrine the principles of American nationhood rather than the war fought to sustain it.

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The extent also to which yesterday’s celebrations were stage-managed by the Trump administration was evident in the fact that US soldiers participating in the events were, according to the online magazine Mother Jones, reportedly handed motivating instruction guides on what to say if approached by the media.

“I am proud to serve this Nation, and I am proud to be a Service Member,” an instructional card obtained by the magazine read.

“I am proud of my job and my vehicle/tank,” it added. “I am glad to share my experience with the American People.”

All this of course has a distinctly Trumpian ring to it that would also not be out of place in Putin’s Russia or Kim’s North Korea. Right now the three men have more in common in military terms that mere parades. Currently there is an awful lot of what one commentator wryly described as “missile envy” between the three leaders.

Just these past few days Putin signed a bill suspending Russia’s participation in a pivotal nuclear arms pact with the United States. The decree formalises Russia’s departure from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, from which the US announced its own withdrawal earlier this year. Meanwhile, talks between Trump and “little Rocketman”, as he likes to dub Kim Jon-un, suggest that the US administration is planning to retreat from its position of full “denuclearisation” of North Korea, talking now instead about a “nuclear freeze.” And so the missile envy goes on and the world becomes a more dangerous place.

As the New York Times recently pointed out, Trump’s trampling yesterday of a long-standing tradition of keeping the Fourth of July events non-partisan, apolitical even, tell us that far from being a Salute to America, the incumbent US president was giving himself a leg-up for his re-election bid.

You have to go all the way back to President Harry Truman in the 1950s to find a president who even participated in the formal Washington celebration, never mind make himself the centrepiece.

Back then in 1951, Truman spoke from the Washington Monument about the progress of the Korean War, but the only battle on Trump’s mind yesterday was the one he faces in the coming months to stay in the White House.

How telling it was yesterday that Trump’s administration was handing out tickets to the event to GOP donors and political appointees, while the Republican National Committee handed out passes for the “show of a lifetime”.

The worst thing about all of this is that such a strategy appears to be working well in Trump’s favour, with the same Republican National Committee announcing it had raised $105m in political donations during the second quarter, far outpacing former president Barack Obama’s haul during the equivalent period.

Yesterday the US military was at pains to tell Washington DC residents not to panic if they saw tanks on the streets for Trump’s Independence Day parade.

Sure, there was no cause for real alarm, but panic of a different kind might well now set in for many Americans given that The Donald is clearly and effectively gearing up for his next presidential bid.