As time goes by, it’s increasingly clear that there’s something limiting and false about the “just call balls and strikes” approach to analyzing the Trump presidency. Yes, you can praise Trump when he does right and critique him when he does wrong, but at some level that small-ball approach to evaluating Trump simply fails. He does good things, and he does bad things, but he does all things against a backdrop of impulsiveness, chaos, and divisiveness that undermines sound polices even as it does immense damage to the body politic.
Take, for example, the first version of his so-called travel ban. While I agreed with the fundamental policy goals — a slight moderation on refugee admissions, general re-evaluation of security-screening procedures, and a pause on entries from specific jihadist nations — the actual implementation was so chaotic and incompetent that it not only triggered national hysteria, it undermined public support for even relatively modest immigration reforms. Trump’s administration dropped a poorly written, poorly supported policy into the public square, interpreted it as cruelly and maliciously as possible, and has been on the defensive ever since.
I had travel-ban flashbacks this morning as I read Trump’s series of tweets announcing that transgender Americans may not serve “in any capacity” in the military. As a general matter, I agree with the policy. The American military has a specific and violent purpose. It pushes human beings to the limits of their emotional, spiritual, and physical endurance to defeat our nation’s enemies. Successful combat operations require not just physical and emotional fitness but also an extraordinary amount of unit cohesion.
Transgender Americans, though undoubtedly as patriotic as any other Americans, are disproportionately likely to suffer from mental illness, are more prone to attempt suicide, abuse alcohol and drugs at higher rates, and often require extensive medical care and comprehensive medical intervention during and after their “transitions.” An infantry soldier, for example, could be sidelined for weeks as he purports to transition from male to female — taking hormones that could make him physically weaker and undergoing painful, debilitating surgery that would prevent him from serving in the field and training with his unit for long periods of time. This is not a formula for successful military service, and while there are certainly extraordinary individuals who are able to serve effectively, that is no argument for opening service to a group that would collectively degrade military readiness.
Opening the military to transgender service members would repeat the terrible, social-justice-driven mistake of putting women in ground combat. Despite copious evidence that mixed-gender units are less effective in basic military tasks than single-gender all-male combat units — including in vital tasks such as marksmanship and evacuating casualties — the Obama administration powered through anyway. It imposed new, social-justice-based requirements on a military that will face enemies who don’t care about diversity but instead ruthlessly exploit weaknesses. Trump was right to step back from this new transgender brink.
But he did it exactly the wrong way. Not only did he reportedly blindside members of the military (he tweeted while Secretary of Defense James Mattis was on vacation) with the timing and nature of his announcement, his typical inflammatory tweeting was guaranteed to ignite yet another round of public fury. He virtually guaranteed that the next Democratic president would immediately reverse his policy, and he made any congressional debate that much more challenging.
Here’s what actual presidential leadership would look like. After permitting his respected secretary of defense to comprehensively study the issue of transgender service, he would draft a carefully written, factually supported statement describing in detail the military justifications for the policy. Then, with the full, prepared backing of the Pentagon, he’d approach a Republican-controlled Congress and write his policy into law — creating a far more permanent standard that couldn’t be quickly reversed by the next administration and wouldn’t jerk the military into a game of culture-war hot potato depending on whose party controls the White House.
But that’s hard work. It’s much easier just to tweet.
In fact, that’s the virtual motto of a Trump presidency that’s lacking in legislative accomplishments, falling inexcusably behind in presidential appointments (including judicial appointments), and finding itself mired in endless, self-defeating controversies. Sure, there are some “conservatives” who measure success merely by the volume of “liberal tears” spilled on Twitter, and by that measure Trump is a smashing success, but infuriating opponents while alienating the persuadable middle is a poor way to build a political coalition or to prevail in public debate.
Military readiness and military culture are matters of vital national importance. Transgender issues are among the most volatile and contentious matters in modern American politics. By badly handling the controversy, Trump can turn a short-term “victory” (if you can even call his tweets a “win”) into far more permanent defeat, one that ultimately renders the American military far more vulnerable to social engineering. President Obama subordinated readiness to a warped vision of social justice. Trump is subordinating effectiveness to impulse and convenience. Our military, and our nation, deserve better.