Just in time for Labor Day relaxed reading in the U.S., the well-known political journalist Jeffrey Goldberg dropped a bomb on Donald J. Trump’s re-election campaign with the head-line, “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’” While, Goldberg is known for his inside-scoop-intrepid reporting, the timing and the content of his article suggests that other forces are at play—it indicates that the generals are making a tactical move against their commander in chief. It suggests that the generals have had enough of Trump in the White House and want him out.
When he became president, Trump had few strong policy commitments, no well-defined policy agenda in both foreign or domestic policy and a vague notion of transactional governing. As result, in the first part of his presidency, Trump appointed policy experts in the area of foreign and defense policy. Additionally, Trump evidenced a special respect and admiration for strong character generals, such as Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster and the White House Chief of Staff, General John Kelly.
In the first year of Trump’s presidency, these three generals in particular enjoyed broad independence. For instance, Mattis was given more latitude than any other past defense chief, especially with policy regarding Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and all of Southwest Asia. And, in another example, in a major speech presenting the administration’s National Defense Strategy (NDS), Mattis made clear that he and McMaster were its authors and that it reflected their concerns about future threats to America, including elevating Russia as a main threat.
Incompetence or Malevolence?
But whether it emerges from inexperience or malevolence or some other source, it did not take long for Trump to undermine or throttle the policy practiced by his generals. Trump’s attempts to undermine or sometimes even reverse the generals’ policy objectives resulted in confusing outcomes and disorganized decision-making.
It also did not take long for everyone in the administration to understand that Trump preferred loyalty over competency, with the result that Kelly was replaced with Mike Mulvaney, who indicated he wanted “to let Trump be Trump,” McMaster was replaced by John Bolton, who regularly praised the president on Fox News (who nevertheless did not make it to 18 months in office), and Mattis was replaced by his deputy, Patrick Shanahan, who soon left in disgrace for personal reasons.
Unfortunately, it further became clear that the preponderance of Trump’s staff appointed because of their allegiance or their ability to flatter the president were poorly suited for their jobs and as a result many soon left or were fired. According to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who wrote a Brookings Institution report on the Trump White House’s “staggering” hiring and firing rate, “turnover creates disruption, it creates inefficiencies, it affects the morale.” The high turnover in staff contributed to the chaotic manner that the White House functioned, which in turn led to more staff leaving and a further inability to develop sound, coherent policy.
Or is it contempt?
Not only has Trump not followed the policy advice of the generals in his cabinet and frequently fired his generals because of their perceived disloyalty but he repeatedly showed contempt for anyone in military uniform, which the Goldberg article restates in stark terms. The most-blunt revelation relates to what Trump said to General Kelly at Arlington National Cemetery standing near the grave of Kelly’s fallen son, who died as a marine in Afghanistan.
Not listening, firing and holding his generals and their respective armed services in contempt, add up to the current reality that 59% of the U.S. officer corps have an unfavorable view of President Trump. Amongst all the active-duty troops surveyed in late July and early August 2020, 42% said they “strongly” disapprove of Trump’s time in office.
Retired Major General Paul Eaton enunciated what many in the military feel today: “Four years of disrespect, in thought, word and deed…We’re done here. This guy has got to go.”
Cult of Personality
We arrive at less than two months before the election with these facts: Trump’s foreign policy has more failures than successes, he has lost the support of a good segment of his own military and, as the Republican National Convention made clear, large portions of the traditional Republican Party do not support him. Most mainstream Republicans did not show up to the convention that re-anointed him, resulting in half of the convention’s headline speakers all sharing the name Trump.
What Trump’s campaign did accomplish during its August convention, however, was to effectively blur the traditional separation of government property from political campaigning via possibly violating federal law that bars the use of government offices as campaign props. The convention was further unencumbered by the usual unveiling of a policy platform.
In place of this customary convention document was unadulterated praise for Trump (even crediting him to other persons’ known achievements) and the reiteration of Trump’s narcissist claim that he alone can fix was ails America. This is exactly the sort of claims made by authoritarian leaders to legitimize their continued hold on power—that all good things come from them and that no one else can do what they do.
Democracy rests on the understanding that the institutions of state are strong and can be led by any number of able and well-intentioned men and women. We should all be wary of the personality types who tell us to pledge allegiance to them, and only them, rather than, as the expression of allegiance to the U.S. flag states, the “Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”