National Security & Defense

President Trump’s Standing Is Slipping with the Military, for Good Reason

President Trump visits the Skyway Villa Mobile Home and RV Park in Paradise, Calif., November 17, 2018. ( Leah Millis/Reuters )
His repeated slights and insults are overshadowing the goodwill he once had.

Those who are very deep in the heart of the Trump base are familiar with a rote defense of the president. Don’t like his Twitter feed? Don’t like his press conferences? Pay no attention to what he says. All that matters is what he does. The rhetoric is mere style. The policies are true substance.

Like most bad arguments that gain a degree of traction, it’s based in a kernel of truth. Trump’s policies — as a rule — are better than his rhetoric. But that’s not a terribly high bar. Heaven help us if his policies tracked his Twitter feed. Yet when you’re president, there are times when style and substance blur, and there are even times when the very job of the president — as head of state and commander in chief — is inescapably laden with symbolism.

Is it a problem of style or substance when the president fails to visit Arlington National Cemetery? Is it a problem of style or substance when he allows weather to thwart his attendance at a ceremony in France honoring the immense American sacrifices in World War I? And what of failures so far to visit soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention his brazen (and wholly undeserved) insult of Admiral William McRaven, the architect of the Osama bin Laden raid, for failing to find bin Laden sooner?

It just so happened it wasn’t McRaven’s job to find bin Laden. It was his job to oversee the mission to kill the world’s most-wanted terrorist, and McRaven performed that job magnificently.

Last month — even before many of the incidents listed above — the Military Times released a poll indicating that President Trump’s standing with the military was declining:

Even worse for Trump, the percentage of troops who had a “very unfavorable” view of Trump exceeded those with a “very favorable” view by more than seven points (23.6 percent to 30.8 percent). More than half of all officers disapproved of the president. Interestingly, this was after a number of positive things Trump had done. He’d increased the defense budget considerably. He’d presided over the end of ISIS’s physical caliphate (though of course not over the end of ISIS itself). His administration had aggressively sought to reform the VA. In fact, in the same poll, a solid majority of respondents thought the military was better off under Trump than Barack Obama.

So why the slide? After all, when it came to the military, Trump was set up for success. He extolled the military throughout the campaign. Many service members were ready for a change after eight years of Obama, and there was little love for Hillary Clinton. Right after his election, he surrounded himself with generals, including Jim Mattis, a man who still has a whopping 73.6 percent approval rating with the troops. Trump started with a reservoir of goodwill.

He’s been draining it ever since.

He has repeatedly committed a cardinal sin of leadership. He’s demonstrated that his support for soldiers — and on occasion, even bereaved families — is conditional. He doesn’t necessarily “love the troops.” He loves the troops who love him. He turns on the troops who turn on him. Cross him, and all bets are off.

And while the stupid quarters of Twitter are fond of the “fair game” argument (get political and you’re fair game), most decent people are not. Most soldiers are not. They understand that they serve with people from across the American political spectrum, and what happens in service (much less in the ultimate test of combat) matters infinitely more than any person’s politics. It’s fair to rebut a person’s arguments. It’s out of bounds to cross the line into flagrant insults.

Moreover, the reluctance thus far to visit deployed soldiers is singularly unimpressive. His deployment of soldiers to the border in the run-up to the midterm election involved the dislocation of thousands of people for a mission of dubious worth that directly advanced his political interests.

And while Americans may rest easier when they read Trump’s erratic tweets because they know Secretary Mattis is in the Pentagon, soldiers understand better than most the chain of command. They know that when push comes to shove, it’s the tweeter — not the Marine — who’s in charge. As a naval officer told the Military Times:

To me, it seems like his presidency is a popularity contest for his ego. I think he rushes through decisions a lot based on emotion or helping his friends out. I’m just thankful I’m getting out of the military because him [Trump] rushing decisions could lead us into an unnecessary war.

Trump supporters scoff at such concerns, but here’s a sentiment they shouldn’t scoff at – from the SEAL who killed Osama bin Laden:

Good officers understand the concept of selfless service. They understand that the mission comes first, and that they will share the burdens and sacrifices of the men they command. Their commander in chief broadcasts a different message, that Trump comes first. And if that is in fact his ethos, then he’ll alienate the men and women he commands, no matter the size of the defense budget.

There are times when insults are more than just words. There are times when style and symbols matter as much as substance — in part because they communicate character and intention. Soldiers are looking at the character of their commander, and an increasing number simply don’t like what they see.

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