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Two Bradley Fighting Vehicles flank the stage being prepared in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in Washington, ahead of planned Fourth of July festivities with President Donald Trump.Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press

When U.S. President Donald Trump takes the stage at the Lincoln Memorial to mark his country’s Independence Day Thursday, he will be surrounded by the might of the world’s most powerful military. Tanks and armoured vehicles will flank him. The Blue Angels, a Navy squadron of demonstration fighter jets, will perform aerial acrobatics overhead. An F-35 will buzz the crowd.

Normally an apolitical event, this year’s Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall has been taken over by the President. He has rebranded it A Salute to America, added a speech by himself and ordered up the hardware.

Mr. Trump patterned the show on Bastille Day in Paris, whose martial tone impressed him during a visit two years ago. Critics charge that the President is turning a publicly funded celebration into a campaign event as he revs up his 2020 election machinery.

“We’re going to have a great Fourth of July in Washington, D.C. It’ll be like no other,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office this week. “It’ll be special.”

The National Parks Service, which keeps a partial record of presidential activities on Independence Days past, shows only two occasions during which the sitting president held a military event in Washington that day: James Madison in 1812, shortly before launching an invasion of Great Britain’s Canadian colonies; and James Polk in 1848, months after winning the Mexican-American War.

“We have not typically had, as we didn’t feel we needed to have, a big military parade as the Soviets did in Red Square,” said Barbara Ann Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center on Public Affairs. “That is not typically how we celebrate our patriotism.”

There have separately been military demonstrations in the U.S. capital to mark wartime victories. The most recent, in June of 1991 after the Persian Gulf War, left a bad taste for some in the city: Tanks left tread marks in the asphalt on Constitution Avenue, while a bronze nymph statue in the Hirshhorn sculpture garden was dented by gravel whipped up by military helicopters landing on the Mall.

The exact scope of Mr. Trump’s military demonstration is unclear, as is its cost. The White House did not respond to requests for comment. Molly Block, a spokeswoman for the National Parks Service, which is in charge of the celebrations, said only that there will be “additional costs.”

The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, said the National Parks Service would be diverting an extra US$2.5-million meant to improve the country’s national parks to pay for Mr. Trump’s event.

“The cost of our great Salute to America tomorrow will be very little compared to what it is worth,” Mr. Trump tweeted Wednesday. “Nice!”

President Donald Trump stayed away from overt political messages in his Fourth of July speech in Washington. Instead, he spoke at length of the history and capabilities of the different branches of the U.S. military, and repeated his ambition to have Americans land on Mars.

Protesters plan to be just as colourful as the President’s show. One event near the Washington Monument will feature a 16-foot-tall robot version of Mr. Trump, sitting on a golden toilet and repeating his catch phrases, including “no collusion” and “stable genius.” The demonstration, by social-justice group Code Pink, will also include a replica of the balloon of Mr. Trump as an angry baby in a diaper made popular by protesters in London last year.

“I don’t like seeing tanks on our streets. I don’t like hearing bombers overhead,” said Medea Benjamin of Code Pink. “It makes me feel like I’m living in a dictatorship.”

Tina Hobson, an 89-year-old retired civil servant, is organizing a singalong at Thomas Circle a few blocks away as a counterprogram. She and a group of friends from the seniors’ complex where she lives plan to belt out a mix of patriotic standards and folk numbers, including This Land is Your Land and Yankee Doodle.

Ms. Hobson, who has lived in Washington since the Kennedy administration, said she could not remember another Independence Day celebration like this. “We don’t want a politicized and militaristic Fourth of July,” she said.

By Wednesday afternoon, two tanks had been wheeled into place by flatbeds near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. A military band practised Hail to the Chief as a crowd of tourists sweated in the humid 33 C heat.

Gary Gallagher, who travelled to the U.S. capital from Oahu, Hawaii, to take in Mr. Trump’s speech, said he was fully in favour of demonstrating American military might as part of the event.

“You have to deter people from attacking you,” said Mr. Gallagher, a 71-year-old retired psychologist who wore a baseball cap bearing Ronald Reagan’s presidential seal.

“We’re rebuilding. We’re showing off,” said Susan, a 51-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, who declined to give her last name. “Don’t mess with America.”

The exact message Mr. Trump is hoping to send isn’t clear: Despite his embrace of military symbolism, the President actually favours non-interventionism.

Prof. Perry, the presidential scholar, said the event is best understood in the context of Mr. Trump’s love of spectacle.

“This President, always wanting to make a big, splashy reality show, wants to do something dramatic,” she said. “This smacks of typical Donald Trump – P.T. Barnum showmanship.”

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