The President and the Peril of Politicizing our Military

 

After his inauguration, President Donald Trump didn’t take long to boast of his purported political support from the military. In his speech to the CIA – given in front of the Memorial Wall that honors CIA employees who have died in the line of duty – he claimed that “the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military.”

As a former Army officer, I know that new officers and enlistees take an oath to “support and defend the Constitution,” not a particular president or party. Therefore, Trump’s comments struck me as jarringly improper. So when I learned that Trump would speak to soldiers at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in Florida last week, I wondered whether he would echo the claim he’d made at the CIA or demonstrate that he’d learned his lesson.

Just a few lines into his speech, Trump answered my question: “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we? And I saw those numbers, and you liked me, and I liked you. That’s the way it worked,” Trump declared.

There are two problems with Trump’s statements. First, they are misleading at best, false at worst. Second – and more importantly – politicizing the military risks undermining the public’s trust in the armed forces, an institution that enjoys greater public confidence than any other in the country.

I’m not sure what numbers Trump saw; the numbers I’ve seen are hardly “tremendous percentages” in his favor. On his military support, it appears that Trump exaggerates “big league.” According to Military Times polling, in October 40 percent of military voters supported him. By contrast, similar pre-election polls indicated that support levels for Mitt Romney and John McCain were 66 percent and 68 percent, respectively. A post-election Military Times poll suggested that 51 percent of military voters supported Trump, but even this statistic pales in comparison to the Romney and McCain numbers.

Perhaps Trump’s conclusion is based on exit polls indicating that 60 percent of voters who have served in the military supported him. But if so, he is either misinterpreting or deliberately distorting this statistic’s meaning. This figure includes veterans of decades past, so it is not a reliable gauge of those currently in the military. And even supposing this statistic were germane, it is roughly on par with veteran support for recent Republican presidential candidates – not the kind of “unbelievably” high support that Trump claims.

Even if Trump’s assertions were true, the president should not promote partisan loyalty within the armed forces. A public anxious about the future of its democratic norms needs to retain faith in the apolitical, professional institution of the military. Many Americans have already expressed concerns that Trump has packed his administration too densely with retired military brass. If Trump paints the armed forces as his political devotees, he risks eroding the military’s status as the most trusted institution in the country.

At the same time, the military must be careful not to embolden Trump’s rhetoric. A vehicle in a Navy SEAL convoy was recently seen flying a Trump campaign flag on a public highway, and some members of the military audience at CENTCOM applauded Trump as he bragged about his election victory. One has to wonder whether these occurrences arouse Trump’s self-aggrandizing tendencies, spurring him to continue claiming the military is in his political camp. Accordingly, military leaders should discourage this behavior, and any violations of military policy should be appropriately punished.

To be sure, presidential candidates in both political parties often present themselves as the military-friendly choice. Trump, however, is offering this political speculation not as a candidate but as the commander-in-chief. If Trump continues his embellished and alarming conjecture about his partisan support from the military, an already fragile society might develop the perception that its military is more loyal to Trump than the Constitution. This would be unhealthy for our democracy. As Trump simultaneously assails the independent judiciary and demonizes the press, his attempt to politicize the military should not go unnoticed. 

About the Author(s)

Benjamin Haas

West Point Graduate (2009), Former Intelligence Officer in the Army, Student at Stanford Law School Follow him on Twitter (@BenjaminEHaas).