Teaching cadets in the age of Trump
After class, surrounded by the same dusty chalkboards I used as a cadet years ago, I quickly realized something was wrong.
By Jon Cheatwood
Best Defense guest columnist
After class, surrounded by the same dusty chalkboards I used as a cadet years ago, I quickly realized something was wrong. The cadet standing before me was sharp, if sometimes subdued during our discussions. Shifting under an unexpected burden and in hushed tones the question finally presented itself: What if I cannot accept a commission into the Army under this president?
Cadets at West Point are a dedicated group. Between physics and survival swimming, they have a full schedule. They also take a class on American politics, a course that I recently had the privilege of teaching. Over the last year, the young men and women streaming into my class did so during a period of political disarray, eschewing normal college life for military service. Unlike their peers at civilian institutions, apprehension over our current political discourse is tempered by the fact that cadets will soon find themselves in service to a nation whose social fabric appears to be fraying.
While teaching cadets at West Point will remain one of the great privileges of my life, it often involved navigating treacherous partisan minefields. Subjects provided to cadets throughout the course are frequently reinforced by discussions of current events, and for good reason: Men and women entering the military must understand the world around them and the society they serve. Sadly, what complicated our discussions of news driving the day was the commander in chief himself. While my colleagues and I were ever-mindful to check our individual political opinions at the door upon entering the classroom, we often found ourselves devoting attention to how we would address the president’s latest outburst or myriad scandals plaguing the administration.
Beyond the constant rants launched by the president were actions that worried me far more. As a former Army officer, I was proud of the professional, apolitical approach my colleagues and I brought to the study of American politics. Having set aside the uniform, I worry that President Donald Trump’s actions will undoubtedly complicate the future careers of cadets I taught. Trump’s frequent willingness to undermine American institutions and his politicization of the military should worry all Americans. It certainly worried me as I taught cadets over the last year.
We start the course by examining the formal institutions of American government, lessons that focus on the courts, bureaucratic politics, and the presidency itself. Trump’s frequent willingness to subvert the courts and federal agencies was difficult to explain to my cadets, who, like those hearing cases and implementing policy, were called to a life of public service. Efforts to undermine “so-called” judges or members of the U.S. intelligence community come at a time when trust in American political institutions remains on the decline. While roughly half of Americans expressed confidence in the Supreme Court as recently as the summer of 2002, that number sat at only 36 percent last year. Ideological differences undoubtedly exist in our nation’s highest court; however, the president’s attacks on courts at all levels serves only to further diminish public trust in a fair, just legal system.
Executive agencies remain a target of ire and mismanagement. From the firing of FBI Director James Comey to Twitter tirades directed at our nation’s intelligence community Trump continues to embrace outsider rhetoric that does little to advance his ability to actually govern. Equally problematic has been the administration’s inability to fill important posts across the federal government. Some of this may be due to the significance that Trump places on loyalty, but others tapped by the administration for positions of leadership have withdrawn their names for reasons ranging from domestic abuse to academic plagiarism. Two individuals picked to lead the Army itself have stepped aside.
Cadets joining the ranks of those working to advance America’s interests will not do so alone; they will work alongside diplomats, treasury officials, and countless professionals working to secure the homeland. Sadly, they are likely to find interagency partners under siege from a ranting executive and lacking duly appointed political leadership. In a crisis, if the president does not trust his own intelligence community it will be the next generation of junior officers that will bear the cost. The missions these men and women will take on will be more difficult to accomplish if they stand beside a hollowed out diplomatic corps.
We also explore modern media during our examination of informal actors in American politics. The cries of fake news from the Trump administration found a sympathetic audience amongst some cadets who seemed to distrust the media more so than I remembered during my time as a cadet. Confidence in the stories I presented during class frequently appeared to break along partisan lines. Pressed for time, cadets today encounter an increasingly fractured media environment where distinguishing fact from opinion is increasingly difficult. And while all administrations take issue with how stories may be framed by journalists, few have been as brazen in their attacks on the media as an institution. Trump’s 70 references to “fake news” on Twitter through the middle of August are disturbing. The president would like us to believe the media is the “enemy,” a claim that fundamentally misunderstands the role of a free press in our society.
Journalists decried by the Trump administration will undoubtedly be found alongside cadets as they enter the Army and deploy across the globe. They will be there to cover the nature of conflict and the character of peace. Their work provides the American voter with the information necessary to make decisions in our democracy. From our time in class, cadets understand that trustworthy media organizations hold themselves to journalistic standards such as accuracy and balance. It appears that Trump does not.
Unique to our study of American politics at West Point is the time we devote to understanding civil-military relations. Again, we see an executive whose actions continue to erode longstanding norms that support effective civilian control of the military. From remarks in front of Air Force Academy cadets that belittled Democrats to his graduation speech at the Coast Guard Academy decrying unfair treatment by the media, the president’s disregard for such norms risks politicizing the military. Cadets may incorrectly believe that such overt politicization is normal. It is not. Trump fails to comprehend that men and women in uniform swear an oath to the Constitution — not a president or party.
Senior officials in the administration, such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis, intimately understand the rules and norms that underpin civil-military relations. They also know that the support and public trust the military has enjoyed in recent decades is not guaranteed. If senior defense leaders continue to allow Trump to chip away at the apolitical nature of the military, no one benefits, certainly not the cadets who will soon join its ranks.
Cadets will look to the president for leadership in the years to come. But they will do so knowing that American political institutions, for all their flaws, remain a model for other democracies. In conjunction with a vibrant civil society, these institutions ensure that Americans have voice in our grand experiment of governance. A commander-in-chief who attacks these institutions is not worthy of the future service of these young men and women. Cadets understand that their respect for our civil-military tradition must be unwavering. Trump’s repeated willingness to politicize the military as an institution tarnishes its members’ future sacrifices.
Perhaps Trump’s actions will change. But his low marks thus far should worry all Americans.
Jon Cheatwood is a former Army officer who most recently taught courses in American politics at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He is a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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