As someone who served five years in the United States Army, 14 months of that in combat, I’ve struggled over the past few years to understand Donald Trump’s relationship to the military. Does this man love us, or does he hate us?
There’s the side of Trump that was reared in a military boarding school – the man who wanted his inauguration to culminate in a scene ripped from Red Square, with long-range missiles paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. There’s the president who’s surrounded himself with flag officers, retired and active, in any office he can find space for them, and one who – at least ostensibly – revels in the solemn responsibility of military strikes. And there’s the Trump who repeatedly claimed on the campaign trail he would be “so good at the military, it will make your head spin,” that no one loved the troops more than himself, and that the feeling was mutual.
But then there’s the Trump who, just this week, engaged in a protracted back and forth over how he told the pregnant widow of a fallen Green Beret her late husband “knew what he signed up for.” His administration also banned non-citizen legal permanent residents from joining the Army Reserve, a practice dating back to the Revolutionary War. And thanks to a report in The Washington Post, we learned the president promised a Gold Star father $25,000 from his personal account in June, but hadn’t delivered on that promise. (The White House now says that check is in the mail.)
Looking back over the past two years, there’s more: disrespecting the wartime POW service of John McCain, fantasizing about shooting an Army sergeant held captive by the Taliban for five years, repeated instances of military charities not receiving promised donations, smearing another Gold Star family of color, insulting uniformed leaders and pledging to fire them all, ridiculing combat veterans with PTSD, kicking uniformed personnel off the National Security Council, abdicating responsibility for troop strength in combat theaters, disrespecting the retired four-star general and Gold Star father who runs his White House, shaming the National Security Council on live television, pledging to kick transgender troops out of the armed services, blocking a prominent veterans’ group on Twitter, attacking John McCain again, waiting nearly two weeks to remark on the death of four Special Forces soldiers in combat. Going back further still, we could note Trump’s Vietnam draft-dodging, how he referred to sleeping with models as his “personal Vietnam” and his attempt to kick homeless veterans off 5th Avenue out of disgust.
At some point this week, as Trump was using the dead child of his chief of staff to shield himself from the criticism of the aforementioned Gold Star widow, it became clear to me that there’s no ambiguity in how Trump views us. Trump does not love the military. Rather, he views the military as an entity he absorbed through a corporate acquisition. Just as has been the case with his Trump Organization employees or cabinet members or endorsers during the campaign, he feels he must have dominance over the military. It belongs to him now, along with the American forces’ most valuable yet intangible assets: the honor, loyalty and respect Trump so desires.
Or at least that’s what his words and deeds tell me he believes. Just as other wealthy men acquire priceless art or rare vintages because they are things that can’t be bought with money alone, the military and the respect it enjoys appear to be fetish properties for Trump to now show off to the world.
And that’s the point for Trump. For all his wealth and power, even after rising to the most powerful office in the world, there is one thing he lacks, and money can’t buy it: respect. Whether he is negotiating with fellow heads of state, global business leaders or the Manhattan elite who shunned the trust-fund rube from Queens, Trump yearns for the kind of esteem enjoyed by the most respected institution of a country that increasingly lacks respect for institutions. The ridicule he chafes at from Twitter, cable news and even his own party gnaws at him. But, in his mind, if he surrounds himself with military men (and they are all men in Trump’s orbit), their honor will become a part of him – like how a tech giant buys a startup just to integrate a single valued feature into its product.
Unfortunately for Trump, however, honor is not transferable. And what he views as “respect” or “loyalty” is what the rest of us know to be the demands for submission of a petty and insecure approximation of a man.