In a sane world, Donald Trump would never enjoy much political support from the military community. But then, a sane world is not what we’ve got. You might have noticed.
We are, after all, talking about a guy who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War, claiming five deferments for “bone spurs.” Thank God it didn’t affect his golf game. We’re talking about a guy who prior to running for president showed no interest in any form of public service. Weirder still, he went out of his way to insult John McCain, an actual decorated war hero. Which is to say, Trump doesn’t exactly have Dwight Eisenhower’s resumé. Yet 2016 election exit polls showed that among military voters, his margin of victory was about ten percentage points.
What’s that about?
Well, it’s possible to argue that the military is always more conservative than the general public. Or that Trump was running against a woman. Or that military families just loved “The Apprentice.” Or something else.
Let’s go with “something else.”
A better explanation is: much of the military is dominated by Southerners. Roughly 42% of its members are from Southern states, far above the percentage of equivalent populations in other regions. These Southerners didn’t have much use for Obama, however race-inflected that view was. They knew early on, too, that Trump was on their side, with his talk of large increases for an already astronomical defense budget, and—allowing again for the ever-present possibility of the race factor—with his dog whistle nods of approval to David Duke and the KKK.
Reflecting on this, I connected another dot linking Trump, the military, and the South; one which involves the controversy surrounding Confederate monuments, as well as public buildings bearing the names of Confederate leaders. This includes—meaningfully enough—ten military bases. Why is there, for instance, a Fort Bragg or a Fort Hood, both named for Confederate generals? They couldn’t find any U.S. heroes whose names were available? The naming of these bases obviously was accomplished or heavily influenced by Southern military men, whose sympathies and values were being expressed. Think of the bizarr-o nature of it: these people managed to create a mashup of actual American patriotism and air-brushed, denial-ridden historical nostalgia, a combination institutionalized in 1918 (Fort Bragg) and 1942 (Fort Hood).
It’s all a little scary for any American who acknowledges the reality that all supporters of the Confederacy were traitors.
But it gets creepier. As I sat in front of the television a few nights ago, watching Ken Burns’s extraordinary Vietnam War documentary, I almost choked on a sip of my effete, elitist, Yankee tea. Most of what I saw was to be expected: a film clip showing helmeted young soldiers stripped to the waist, brandishing weapons as they stood in front of a barrier of sandbags. What I did not expect to see was the banner that flew from the top of the barrier: the Confederate battle flag.
Did I spray tea all over the sofa? It was a close one. At that moment, a vague memory jolted into sharp focus. This was a thing. I had seen similar Vietnam War photos elsewhere, as well as others taken in more recent combat zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. In each case, the presence of the Confederate flag could not have been a couple of soldiers expressing some kind of personal esprit de corps; it meant that a commanding officer somewhere had permitted its display. A captain? A general? Whatever the case, that flag was speaking very clearly about who these people really were—and are–and what’s in their heads.
The summary truth of all this is simple and devastating: Not only is the Civil War not over now, but it is doubtful it will ever end, as long as the Republic endures. And the lynchpin, the focus of this reality, the heart of its nasty intransigence, is slavery’s legacy: racism.
As we circle back around to Mr. Trump and his relationship with the military and the South, it’s easier to understand his public statements about Confederate monuments and his dog whistle racism. In appealing to Southerners and a large segment of the military, he asks: How could anyone even consider “taking away our history and our heritage?” OUR history? OUR heritage? From the days of the “birther” movement, he must have sensed where much of his base of support rested. He has pushed hard to placate them at every turn, even going so far as to say that some “very fine people” were behind the Charlottesville white supremacist demonstration, an event featuring colorful side-by-side displays of Nazi banners and Confederate battle flags.
Is this a president who is “bringing us together,” as the Reverend Jeffress described him at the White House “Day of Prayer” on September 1st? Or is this a man who has decided opportunistically to capitalize on a gruesome, yawning, seemingly unhealable wound in the body politic?
And yes, those are rhetorical questions.