When Donald Trump holds an Independence Day celebration with fireworks, flyovers and battle tanks at the heart of American democracy on the Fourth of July, critics fear that he will be unable to resist turning it into a vainglorious and politically divisive campaign rally.
They are also demanding that the US president foot the bill for any damage caused to Washington’s roads, bridges and monuments by his “authoritarian-style” display of military pomp.
The US president will deliver an Independence Day speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial, which honours the president who won the civil war and helped end slavery and was the site of civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech a century later.
The Rev William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, tweeted: “Trump is creating a spectacle of tanks & missiles on the National Mall where the great protests for civil & human rights have been held at a time when 140 million Americans are poor & low income. He thinks this is the sign of strength, but it’s a damn narcissistic travesty.”
Trump was in exuberant mood about the event on social media on Wednesday.
“It will be the show of a lifetime!” he tweeted.
The event takes place in a politically hostile environment: Hillary Clinton took more than 90% of the vote in the District of Columbia in the 2016 election, whereas Trump secured just 4.1%. The Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the few outposts in the capital where his supporters are conspicuous.
And for decades, presidents have kept a low profile during Washington’s annual celebration of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, as typically hundreds of thousands of people gather at the National Mall for a nonpartisan concert and fireworks.
But ever the disrupter, Trump its putting himself centre stage this year. He tweeted on Tuesday: “Big 4th of July in D.C. ‘Salute to America.’ The Pentagon & our great Military Leaders are thrilled to be doing this & showing to the American people, among other things, the strongest and most advanced Military anywhere in the World. Incredible Flyovers & biggest ever Fireworks!”
The National Park Service is reportedly diverting nearly $2.5m in entrance and other fees, which are usually used to improve parks, to cover the cost, according to The Washington Post.
The celebration will feature military bands and flyovers from the US navy’s Blue Angels and Air Force One, the modified Boeing 747 that transports presidents, as well as M1 Abrams battle tanks. It could also include a B-2 bomber, F-35 and F-22 fighter jets and the Marine One helicopter, according to the Pentagon. Air traffic at nearby Ronald Reagan national airport will be suspended during the flypasts and the fireworks.
The fireworks display will be held near the Lincoln Memorial instead of its usual location by the Washington Monument. A ticket-only area in front of the memorial is being set aside for VIPs, including members of Trump’s family, friends and members of the military.
The display of military muscle is seen by some as a show not of strength but of weakness. In response to a photo of tanks on train tracks heading to the event, Michael McFaul, a former US ambassador to Russia, posted on Twitter: “This photo reminds me of parades I used to attend in the Soviet Union. Not the right look for the 4th.”
The White House has not said how much the celebration will cost. The Pentagon postponed a military parade planned for last November after it estimated it could cost $90m. Tom Udall, a Democratic senator, said: “The American people deserve to know how much of their money the president is spending to turn their July 4th celebration into a de facto campaign rally.”
In addition, the District of Columbia council has warned of the damage that tanks could do to city streets. It tweeted on Monday: “We have said it before, and we’ll say it again: Tanks, but no tanks.”
The Democratic congressman Don Beyer, who represents nearby suburbs in Virginia, wrote on Twitter: “The authoritarian-style trappings he demands, including tanks, will come at a great cost to taxpayers, and threaten significant harm to local roads and bridges. I am deeply concerned by the suggestion that the president’s insistence on displaying tanks could subject Arlington Memorial Bridge to strains grossly exceeding its weight restrictions.”
Beyer added: “If Trump is going to turn this event into another partisan rally to boost his own frail ego, he must reimburse US taxpayers for any damage he causes.”
Trump will deliver his speech as the 19ft-high marble statue of Lincoln, whose clarion call “to bind up the nation’s wounds” is carved into the memorial, looks on. He previously spoke there, amid chants of “Make America great again”, at a pre-inauguration concert in January 2017.
White House officials insist that he will avoid partisan politics and stick to patriotic themes in his speech, but opponents fear he will use the elevated, taxpayer-funded platform to lambast Democrats ahead of next year’s presidential election. Spokeswoman Hogan Gidley told Fox Business Network on Tuesday: “That’s absolutely ridiculous. This is all about a salute to America. The president is not going to get political.”