Trump parade wouldn't send intended message

I spend a lot of time watching military parades. It's not because I particularly like them − I find them tedious and jingoistic − but because often they are a source of valuable information about countries such as Russia, China and North Korea, where that's usually hard to come by. Analysts like me scrutinize both the military hardware on display and the leaders watching the parade.

Parades are massive propaganda efforts that these governments mount to convey a certain message both to their own people and to the rest of the world. Our job as analysts is to decipher the message Moscow, Beijing or Pyongyang is trying to send.

Last year, for instance, we caught a glimpse of Kim Jong Un's sister working frantically behind the scenes, which was one of the first hints that she was an important person behind the throne. This weekend, we see her representing her brother at the Olympics.

Squint hard enough at the details in a parade, and you may catch a glimpse of the future.

Parades in places like China and North Korea make sense only if we understand the broader propaganda context in which they take place. And from my experience analyzing parades there, I can predict how the military parade President Donald Trump wants to hold in Washington this year might play in Moscow, Beijing or Pyongyang.

President Trump suggests such parades would signal our military strength: "We're going to show the people as we build up our military. . . . That military may come marching down Pennsylvania Avenue. That military may be flying over New York City and Washington, D.C., for parades. I mean, we're going to be showing our military."

Yet a parade will not, despite what Trump may think, be seen as a sign of American confidence.

In North Korean state media and other sources, the line on the way the United States brandishes nuclear weapons is rather counterintuitive: Pyongyang doesn't seem to think we're acting tough. Instead, the U.S. posture is projecting a picture of what frightens Washington most of all. The North Koreans are fond of saying a "frightened dog barks loudest."

That theme − that the United States talks tough about nuclear weapons because we fear them − has been a constant among our adversaries for decades

In the same way, I fear Trump's parade may backfire. A massive demonstration of military might, especially if it includes some aspect of the nation's nuclear deterrent, is only going to convince Kim Jong Un and others that the United States sees its power flagging and is frightened. It's like telling a bully our biggest fear, except we're putting it on a float and rolling it through downtown Washington.

Trump and his ilk do not seem to grasp this. Trump has made a career of taking up residence inside his enemies' heads. His supporters openly celebrate flaunting democratic norms not despite the outrage they cause, but to elicit it.

"Triggering libs" is a call-to-arms for millions of red-hat wearing Trumpists: "One sure way you know (the parade) is a great idea," one such pundit wrote, "is by how upset liberals have already become."

Why can't they see triggering is precisely what Kim Jong Un is doing to them?

Jeffrey Lewis is a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, California.



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