There are two misconceptions about President Donald Trump. First, that he runs a totally chaotic administration and there’s no method to his madness. Second, that he is a great supporter of the military. He himself frequently brags that the U.S. military has been rebuilt and is the strongest it has ever been.
The reality is different — and far darker. Trump is degrading and dishonoring the U.S. military. What’s more, he is doing so in a deliberate and systematic way.
That is why the news about Trump intervening in the case of convicted Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, overriding his commanding officers and ordering the Pentagon to let him keep his SEAL Trident, the Special Warfare insignia, is so important. What Trump is really signaling with this move goes far beyond pardoning a war criminal.
The method to Trump’s madness
For Trump, the degradation and dishonoring may be but a means to an even more unsavory end — a purge of top-level military brass.
Trump started insulting and humiliating America’s warriors even while still a candidate. The obvious goal was to probe the military personnel’s reaction.
We all remember those attacks, none more vicious (and surreal) than the one on the late Senator John McCain for being captured by the North Vietnamese. There also was the case of Trump insulting the Muslim parents of a slain American hero.
Of course, Trump’s remarks were condemned at the time, but not taken that seriously. They were seen as happenstance, tactical outburst of a man who would be far more disciplined once ensconced in the White House.
The U.S. military: Attacked by Trump, voting for Trump
What is perhaps even more stunning is that Trump’s transgressions didn’t even cut into his support among the U.S. men and women in uniform and veterans. In 2016, current and former service personnel preferred Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin. This represents a very curious form of “beaten man syndrome.”
Since becoming president, Trump has been more consistent, but in a different manner than political observers expected. Trump didn’t stop his attacks on the U.S. military. He just became more insidious in his attacks on the military.
A transgender ban set one group of soldiers against another, and the share of African-Americans among new recruits has been declining in recent years.
Honor is a crucial concept for any soldier. The motto Death Before Dishonor is what makes them put their lives on the line.
Trump: Dishonoring the U.S. uniform and flag
The current U.S. Commander in Chief has been systematically dishonoring the American uniform and flag. He sent soldiers to the southern border to fight unarmed, frightened refugees and little kids, barring access to safety to truly desperate human beings.
He betrayed the Syrian Kurds, their comrades in arms who had fought shoulder to shoulder with the Americans. He let them be ethnically cleansed while insulting them with shameless lies that they have a great relationship with Turkey’s Erdogan.
In negotiations with South Korea and soon with Japan, both strong allies, Trump is demanding that they pay protection money for their defense, turning American soldiers from heroes into mercenaries or thugs.
Why is he doing it?
Trump is not a brave man. He avoided service in Vietnam with a spurious bone spurs injury and the only danger he has ever put himself in was philandering around Manhattan at the time of AIDS, claiming that he should have received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Perhaps being a coward is why he likes to talk tough and is attracted to tough men, be it dictators like Vladimir Putin or “my war fighters” like Gallagher.
His latest pardons and commutations for soldiers convicted of war crimes give us another key insight into his thinking. The top military commanders have been opposed to such actions as vociferously as their position allows.
Richard V. Spencer, the former Navy Secretary, said after he was fired that it is the rule of law that gives Americans moral authority and distinguishes them from their adversaries. It confirms to soldiers in the field that they are on the side of good.
But enlisted personnel, especially men, are more likely to side with their fellow soldiers who were found guilty. And they are, by and large, still very loyal to Trump. Recent surveys showed that 60% of veterans at least are still squarely in Trump’s camp, whereas support for him among higher ranks has slipped.
After being absolved by Trump, Gallagher appeared on Fox News and dumped liberally on his superiors.
Trump clearly wants to set enlisted men against their commanders. He wants them loyal not to the Constitution but to himself personally.
This is a road well-traveled by other dictators. Before they can assert their power in an absolute fashion, they need to suppress potential sources of resistance. The military is clearly the most dangerous one of those.
Stalin purged his generals in the 1930s, and Erdogan did so with his over the past decade (another reason why Trump loves the Turkish President).
There is also the more “material” way to control generals: Putin and Nicolas Maduro bought up Russian and Venezuelan generals to make sure they won’t have an incentive to stage a coup.
Trump, too, got a taste of his generals’ recalcitrance when the ones he brought into his administration refused to do his dirty work.
And he is still incensed about Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman testifying at the impeachment hearings. Vindman demonstrated that honorable military officers are not going to lie and cover for Trump — and the President is still livid about that.
The Vindman experience suggests that the U.S. military still poses a danger to Trump’s course of subverting the U.S. Constitution and hijacking the U.S. government for his personal benefit.
Generals had better watch their backs.
This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together. Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. And sign up for our highlights email here.