Here's Why Trump Has Lost So Much Support in the Active Duty Military

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan and President Donald Trump speak to American troops on November 28, 2019 at Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Erin Schaff / The New York Times)
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President Donald Trump and President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan speak to American troops on November 28, 2019 at Bagram Air Base outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit - Erin Schaff - The New York Times / Redux
President Trump staged a dramatic return to the White House on Oct. 5 with the helicopter arriving, the Executive Mansion stairs, and a flag-framed greeting to Marine One. His rapturous praise for the staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center was likely to be music to the ears of soldiers and women. It remains to be seen what effect this has had on its political base. I suspect it should inspire the armed forces, where its popularity with the active military has declined rather dramatically over the past four years.
According to the prestigious Military Times survey, conducted July through August of just over 1,000 Soldiers of all ranks, its support for the military is around 38% with a positive view and nearly 50% with an unfavorable view, including 42% the "strong" disapprove of his tenure. In the same poll, former Vice President Biden led Trump with 4 percentage points, 37% to 41%. This is particularly surprising given the traditional military support for the Republican Party; Trump's repeated claims about how popular he is with the troops; and his strong drive to increase defense spending. President Trump essentially reversed his positive / unfavorable numbers during his four-year tenure, lowering favors by nearly 10 percentage points and increasing unfavorable views by 13%. All of this before reports from the Atlantic that Trump was calling the military "idiots and losers" in a European cemetery. Maybe his numbers are even worse now.
All of this follows my personal observations and conversations with many active military personnel over the past few years. While the officer cadre tends to be even more unfavorable than some of the younger emergency services to the president, the extent of the reversal from 2016 onwards is remarkable. The president is now essentially underwater in every ranks of the armed forces. There are several reasons for this, none of which are reversible until election.
First, while President Trump is constantly beating the drum over increased defense spending, he is simply misinterpreting the motivations of the military. This is a volunteer cadre committed to serving the nation because, by and large, they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They generally haven't signed up for the money (and don't get special well paid), but because they care about the country and their fellow citizens. Trump, who is nothing more than a transaction, has a hard time believing that with strong defense budgets, he can't just buy love from the troops. And the allegations that those who serve and die, or our prisoners, like revered Senator John McCain, are "fools and losers" (which he does not convincingly deny) have also hurt him. It remains to be seen what impact the recent New York Times story of president taxes will have on voters, but I suspect the vast majority of uniformed workers pay more than $ 750 a year in taxes.
A second challenge for the president is the way he has enthusiastically brought high-ranking military officials into the administration to sack them all. It started with Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, his first national security adviser, and continued with Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, his second - both fired by Trump. General Jim Mattis either resigned or was sacked as SECDEF (depending on whose story you believe), and then General John Kelly was sacked as chief of staff and subsequently publicly condemned by the president. Each of the narratives is slightly different, but viewed from the troop's foxhole it looks like Trump mistreated respected and highly visible military professionals and showed them the door, often with accompanying insults. He has also accused senior military officials of lying in bed with defense corporations, saying, "The top people in the Pentagon are probably not [in love with me] because they don't want to do anything but wage wars with all these wonderful corporations who have favourited make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else happy. “This is deeply offensive to anyone wearing a uniform.
Third, comes the COVID-19 crisis and its abuse of the virus, which I have learned appear to the military as a refusal to take responsibility at the command level. This type of behavior in the military would normally result in “relief for an important cause” or in civilian language being dismissed. The military has a long tradition of accountability based on hard facts. If President Trump had admitted some missteps early on and tried to correct them by exercising national authority and leadership of the White House, from wearing masks to nationally producing key equipment to a broader shutdown of the economy (i.e., compliance with the CDC Guidelines at national level)) it would have come across much better in military terms. To say instead, "It is up to the governors" appears to many in the military as a waiver of accountability, responsibility and authority. Making mistakes is one thing, but saying repeatedly that it's not my fault and "I take no responsibility at all" just doesn't go down well with the military.
In addition, the political decisions made by the president often do not correspond to the view of most military personnel at the international level. The steep withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq is a whiff of political decisions. The military doesn't love fighting, believe me. But our troops know that they fought bravely and well forever in these unpopular wars. You know that we have already withdrawn over 90% of our troops from the Middle East (the vast majority from President Obama). And they hate the feeling that pulling out the last band of troops 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" - from NATO to South Korea. They see themselves not as mercenaries, but as partners of our allies.
Another number of issues that do not help the president with the troops are his pardons for several war criminals accused and, in particular, an invitation for one of them, Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, to join him over the holidays in Mar-a-Lago. His actions do not fit the ethos of many members of the force. Objections to the renaming of bases in memory of the generals of the civil war and their permission are not universally popular. It may resonate with parts of the armed forces, but overall it is not a "profit problem" in the military where we stand proudly next to our brothers and sisters regardless of race.
Believe me, the active military is keen to stay out of the political turmoil. The military wants to do its job, keep its political views a secret, and serve the country safely and steadily. But the polls tell an accurate story, and the president is having problems with active duty.

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