Elephants in the Room

This Election Has Become Dangerous for the U.S. Military

Trump is losing support among the troops. That’s just one reason why the military risks getting sucked into the campaign.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on Jan. 27, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, on Jan. 27, 2017. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Amid fresh controversy over U.S. President Donald Trump’s record of mocking veterans and war dead as “suckers” and “losers,” the U.S. military is right where it least wants to be: in the middle of the 2020 presidential campaign minefield. Backing its way out of danger will take some careful tiptoeing by military leaders, not to mention good order and discipline from the rank and file. Memories of the civil-military crisis in June, when Trump proposed sending active-duty troops to quell urban protests, are still fresh, and one careless step could result in a blowup.

Specifically, the military faces four threats that could draw it even further into the U.S. presidential campaign.

The first threat is that continued protests on city streets will once again raise the prospect of Trump deploying active-duty troops to support local law enforcement.  When Trump first went down that road in June, military leaders really did not want the regular military to get that assignment. A recent survey by the Military Times makes clear that this view is shared widely among career military professionals.  But such an assignment would not be unprecedented and Trump seems to believe he enjoys a political advantage in stoking the violence—and then taking a heavy-handed approach in response. Unfortunately, it’s reasonable to assume that this issue will return before Election Day.
Trump has politicized the military in a new and dangerously divisive way by claiming that the senior brass are warmongers.

The second threat that could draw the military even further into electoral politics is the Trump campaign’s reliance on portraying him as the flag-embracing, pro-military candidate. This portrayal is belied by evidence that Trump’s popularity with the military has significantly declined—a loss of popularity that’s easily explainable given the mismatch between the military’s professional ethic, which prizes norms and standards, and Trump’s disdain for all norms and standards. The threat is that Trump will overreact and overcompensate.

Shortly after the Military Times broke its story about Trump’s declining popularity among U.S. troops, the Trump campaign released a list of some 700 veterans who professed their support for his reelection. This tawdry practice of trotting out officers in support of a candidate, which has been a regular part of the presidential election cycle for both Republicans and Democrats since 1992, probably does more to politicize the military than help the candidate. Yet every four years, the campaigns seek to outdo each other with ever longer lists of senior brass.

This time, the Trump campaign did not trot out senior officers. Trump’s list of 700 veteran supporters is noteworthy for how underwhelming it was. With some 18 million veterans still alive and kicking, the inconvenient truth is that any presidential candidate—even Kanye West—could find 700 low-level veterans to sign an endorsement letter, as the Trump campaign has just done. The list was noteworthy for how few senior retired military were willing to put their names on it. As was the Republican National Convention, where the only visible military were low-profile. Perhaps both parties are keeping the heavy brass artillery in reserve for a future skirmish, but until now the striking fact is how junior, in military terms, Trump’s endorsers are.

To explain away his ringing lack of senior endorsements, Trump has politicized the senior brass in a new and dangerously divisive way by claiming that U.S. military leaders are warmongers opposed to the peacemaker Trump. Trump’s view that he is more popular with the rank and file than the leadership may even have a kernel of truth: Negative opinions about Trump probably correlate with military rank, since the higher ranks are more likely to come into contact with the way he acts as commander in chief and be turned off by his behavior.

The third threat is Trump’s history of anti-military statements, which are available to be dredged up and deployed as campaign fodder. This happened most vividly in the recent story by Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, alleging that Trump disparaged U.S. war dead at the time of the 2018 World War I centenary in France. Goldberg said his reporting is ongoing, suggesting more stories like this in the offing.

Of course, each new report of Trump mocking soldiers risks driving him to overcompensate in some other way that further drags the military into the daily campaign gyre.

But the really ominous threat is the fourth one: the prospect that the military will be asked to resolve a contested election by forcibly preventing the losing candidate from keeping or grabbing political power. Unlike the other three threats, there really is no precedent in U.S. history for the military playing this role. That, however, did not stop two prominent pundits from openly urging the military to prepare for precisely this mission a few weeks ago, or another law professor from reporting on the results of a war-gaming exercise that concluded the military might be pressed to intervene in a close election. Even though other distinguished voices have pressed back against this dangerous narrative, the concerns are palpable and likely to grow.
The really ominous threat is the prospect that the military will be asked to resolve a contested election.

Thankfully, the senior military seem quite ill at ease with their current predicament. The United States enjoys the fruits of having a powerful military and healthy civil-military relations—especially compared with other great military powers in history—precisely because the U.S. military has never gotten completely comfortable playing a partisan political role.

The military’s revulsion reflex when it comes to partisan politics is healthy for U.S. democracy. It should be allowed to quietly retreat from the campaign field while the civilians do the partisan fighting.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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