President Trump staged a dramatic return to the White House on October 5th with a helicopter arrival, ascension of the executive mansion stairway, and flag-framed salute to Marine One. His effusive praise of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center staff was likely meant to be music to the ears of servicemen and women. It remains to be seen what impact it had on his political base. I suspect it was meant to inspire the Armed Forces where he has seen his popularity with the active duty military fall fairly dramatically over the past four years.
According to the well-regarded Military Times poll conducted in July-August of just over 1,000 troops of all ranks, his support among the military is about 38% with a favorable view and nearly 50% holding an unfavorable view, including 42% who “strongly” disapprove of his time in office. The same poll has former Vice President Biden leading Trump by 4% points, 37% to 41%. This is particularly surprising given traditional support for the Republican party among the military; Trump’s repeated claims about how popular he is with the force; and his strong push to increase defense spending. President Trump has essentially reversed his favorable/unfavorable numbers over his four years in office, declining by almost 10% points in favorability, and increasing unfavorable views by 13%. All this before The Atlantic’s reports of Trump calling military dead in a cemetery in Europe “suckers and losers.” Conceivably his numbers are even worse now.
All of this tracks with my own personal observations and conversations with many active duty military members over the last few years. While the officer cadre tends to be even more unfavorable toward the President than some of the junior enlisted force, what is remarkable is the level of the reversal from 2016. The President is now finding himself underwater essentially across all ranks of the force. There are several reasons for this, none of which are reversible between now and the election.
First, despite constantly banging the drum about increased defense spending, President Trump simply misreads the motivations of the military. This is an all-volunteer cadre that has signed up to serve the nation because, by and large, they want to be part of something larger than themselves. They didn’t generally sign up for the money (and are not paid especially well), but rather because they care for the country and their fellow-citizens. Trump, who is nothing if not transactional, finds it hard to believe that he can’t just “buy the love” from the force with strong defense budgets. And the allegations that he has said those who serve and die or our captured, like revered Senator John McCain, are “suckers and losers” (which he unconvincingly denies) have hurt him as well. It remains to be seen what impact the recent New York Times story about the president’s taxes has on voters but I suspect that the vast majority of uniformed personnel pay more than $750 a year in taxes.
A second challenge for the President has is the way in which he has brought senior military into the administration with great fanfare, only to fire them all. It began with Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, his first national security advisor and continued with Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, his second – both fired by Trump. General Jim Mattis either quit or was fired as SECDEF (depending on whose story you believe) and then General John Kelly was fired as Chief of Staff and subsequently publicly excoriated by the President. Each of the narratives is slightly different, but viewed from the foxhole of the force, it looks like Trump has treated well-respected and highly visible military professionals poorly and shown them the door, often with accompanying insults. He has also accused senior military of being in bed with defense companies, saying “the top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t [in love with me] because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy.” This is deeply insulting to everyone wearing a uniform.
Third, the COVID-19 crisis and his mishandling of the virus, which my experience tells me comes across to the military as a refusal to take responsibility at the command level. This kind of behavior in the military would usually lead to “relief for cause,” or in civilian-speak, being fired. The military has a long tradition of accountability based on hard facts. If President Trump had early on admitted some missteps and moved to correct them by exerting national authority and leadership from the White House, from mask-wearing to national production of key equipment and a broader shut-down of the economy (i.e. following CDC guidelines nationally), he would have come across far better in military eyes. Instead saying “it’s up to the governors” strikes many in the military as an abdication of accountability, responsibility, and command authority. Making mistakes is one thing, but repeatedly saying it’s not my fault and “I don’t take responsibility at all” just doesn’t come across well to the military.
Additionally, the policy choices the President has made are often not in keeping with how most in the military see things internationally. The precipitous withdrawals of troops from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq smack of political choices. The military has no love of fighting, believe me. But our troops know that they have fought bravely and well in these unpopular forever wars. They know that we’ve already withdrawn 90%+ of our troops from the Middle East (the vast majority by President Obama). And they hate the sense that pulling the final tranche of troops out now will throw away all of their sacrifice and hard work. And they generally like our allies, who are so often denigrated by the President “for not paying up” – from NATO to South Korea. They don’t see themselves as mercenaries for hire, but partners to our allies.
Another set of issues that doesn’t help the President with the troops are his pardons for several accused war criminals, and especially an invitation for one of them, Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, to join him at Mar-a-Lago over the holidays. His actions do not fit with the ethos of many in the force. Objecting to the renaming of bases commemorating Civil War Generals and allowing isn’t broadly popular. It perhaps resonates in parts of the force, but overall it is not a “winning issue” in the military, where we stand proudly alongside our brothers and sisters, regardless of race.
Believe me, the active duty military desperately wants to stay out of the vortex of politics. The military wants to do its job, keeps its political views private, and serve the country surely and steadily. But the polls tell an accurate story, and the President is in trouble with the active duty force.