A palpable ripple of joy coursed its way through the Democratic Party faithful after the Atlantic magazine published Jeffrey Goldberg’s piece last week about the disparaging comments President Donald Trump is said to have shared about American service members killed in action. “Losers” and “suckers,” Trump purportedly called them. Those who merely served got scorched, too. “That guy is smart,” Trump is alleged to have said after being briefed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Why did he join the military?” Trump denied the claims. “Everyone knows it’s totally false,” he said on Sept. 3. “And to think that I would make statements negative to our military and our fallen heroes, when nobody has done what I’ve done, with the budgets, with the military budgets, with getting pay raises for our military.”
By painting Trump—who ordinarily brags of his love for the military, and claims to have brought it back from an ammunitionless abyss—as a hypocrite, the Atlantic piece gave the Democrats a new opportunity to persuade the nation’s 20 million veterans, who voted disproportionately for Trump in 2016, to vote for them in the fall. And the party took it. Joe Biden immediately cast the president as a two-faced hater of the military and the party escalated its political outreach to vets.
But to make that strategy work, the party must convince veterans that Trump’s stance genuinely contradicts his pro-military, pro-uniform, pro-strength public persona, and that won’t be easy. Inconsistency has always been Trump’s version of consistency. He’s paid no political price for contradicting himself in the White House during his presidency, so it’s wishful thinking that a new work of journalism will turn Trump voters into Biden supporters. As Michael Kruse and Noah Weiland wrote for POLITICO in May 2016, Trump sported a both-sides-now persona well before he took the White House. He would claim not to be a politician but also claim to be one. He would be for and against gay marriage, for and against abortion, for and against small talk, a big reader and not a reader at all, “a nice person” and “no angel,” a fan of George W. Bush and John McCain and Hillary Clinton and not a fan of any of them, and for and against the Iraq War.
When Trump moved into the White House, he brought with him his talent for switching positions. During the campaign, he loved WikiLeaks. Inside the White House, he professed not to know much about it. He denounces the press as “fake news” but cites it approvingly when its findings are useful to him. In January, he praised the Chinese for their handling of Covid-19. By March, he was damning them. He opposes mail voting but votes by mail himself. He’s the war president, musing about nuking Afghanistan or North Korea. Then he becomes the peace president, continually stating his opposition to America’s endless wars. First, he was against mask-wearing, then he was for it, and most recently, he was urging Reuters reporter Jeff Mason to take off his mask at a White House presser. At one April news conference, New York Times reporter Peter Baker noted in a roundup of Trump contradictions, the president clearly announced he was going to place a “powerful” hold on money to the World Health Organization. Minutes later, when caught backtracking, he claimed that he denied a hold, only that he was “going to look at it.”
If Trump’s self-contradictions haven’t already bitten him, it seems unlikely they’ll suddenly do so now. For one thing, many of his supporters reside in the information silo that is the Fox News Channel, which whitewashes much of the “bad” news about Trump reported by other news outlets. For example, when Fox reporter Jennifer Griffin matched some of Goldberg’s Trump findings, a pair of Fox commentators denounced her work, one calling it “a hoax.” While it’s true that other Fox contributors praised Griffin’s work, it wasn’t near enough to dilute the president’s denial.
How committed to Trump are Fox viewers? In a spring 2020 poll, 78 percent of respondents who described themselves as “Fox-first” viewers said they found Trump to be honest and trustworthy. “Among the three-fourths of the population who don’t list Fox as their No. 1 news source,” the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake wrote, “just 15 percent say Trump is honest and trustworthy, while nearly 80 percent say he is not.” As long as this Trump-Fox symbiosis remains intact, with Fox reinforcing the Trump line and Trump pandering to Fox viewers, it’s hard to imagine any voters defecting because of a bombshell detonating well outside that bubble, in the Atlantic or New York Times.
A charitable view of Trump and his supporters would hold that they understand that some of his contradictions aren’t genuine contradictions. For example, when he talks about nuking Afghanistan, they understand that what he really means is that he’ll do everything in his power to protect Americans from ISIS. Similarly, when he insisted that Mexico would pay for his wall, what he was actually signaling was his allegiance to exclusionary immigration policies that he could deliver at little or no cost. Think of inconsistency as Trump’s consistency—his way of saying that nothing matters except the most recent thing to pass his lips, and that his word remains law until the next time he speaks.
While the president has categorically denied the Atlantic exposé, he came close to confirming its essence by proxy at a Monday news conference. Speaking from the North Portico, he denied the charges once more but also went out of his way to lay verbal siege to the Pentagon. The nation’s soldiers love me, Trump said, but not “the top people in the Pentagon.” The Pentagon brass wants “to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else, stay happy,” Trump said. The only good reason for Trump to slag the generals and admirals at this point would be if he thought the Pentagon was the precinct from which the “losers” and “suckers” leaks came. If so, this assault was probably his way of telling the brass to zip it.
It’s quite a trick for a politician to both run against and for the military. How long can Trump get away with it? On Monday, Trump essentially called the Pentagon’s generals pawns of the defense contractors, keen on feeding their profit margins. But then on Tuesday morning, POLITICO reported that the Trump administration wants Congress to grant funding flexibility to the Navy’s new fleet of ballistic missile submarines and the Space Force, which would make Trump the defense contractor shill, right?
Trump will continue to speak out of both sides of his mouth until he runs out of words. It’s up to you how closely you want to listen.