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The Atlantic Hit Piece Makes No Sense

On respect for the war dead, Trump's record speaks for itself—and it doesn't line up with Jeffrey Goldberg's spin.

Last Thursday the Atlantic’s editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote and published a scathing expose of Trump’s alleged comments concerning veterans, in which Trump was cited calling them “suckers” and “losers.” Referencing multiple but unnamed sources, the article successively catalogued several years of Trump’s disparaging comments. The Orange Man said mean things? What a scoop!

Like clockwork, the article’s publication sent shock waves across social media and primetime outlets. NeverTrumpers like Joe Scarborough and Russia-gate grifters like Seth Abramson furiously tweeted their outrage, delivering drug-like euphoria to their TDS-positive followers. The MSM predictably paraded former generals across their platforms, roundly condemning Trump’s alleged comments. So egregious were his transgressions, that even the “Hero of the Hudson”, Sully Sullenberger, slammed Trump as “selfish” and a “coward.”

The late baseball great Yogi Berra once quipped, “it’s déjà vu all over again.” While his humorous wisdom was in reference to back-to-back home runs off the bats of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, his observation could also be applied to the latest drama surrounding President Trump and his relationship to the military and veterans. But what is happening all over again isn’t Trump and his controversial opinions, it is the efforts of the war state and their media allies to sink Trump’s presidential hopes by portraying him as unpatriotic. Thing is, it hasn’t been working so well.

What was done to John Kerry in 2004 and Trump since 2015 are pages from the same rally-round-the-flag playbook. But while John Kerry’s campaign was torpedoed by the Swift Boat veterans and his Iraq war flip-flop voting gaffe, the USS Donald Trump has so far proved to be unsinkable despite absorbing much more severe and frequent attacks. What changed? Simply, the Blob’s narrative has been completely delegitimized by the passage of time and reality, and the average voter has taken notice.

In the presidential campaigning season of 2004, the George W. Bush team formulated a brilliant attack line against Democratic challenger John Kerry. The infamous gaffe, “I actually voted for it, before I voted against it”, would haunt his campaign and become the basis for his label as a flip-flopper on important issues. The legislation in question, as most recall, was an $87 billion supplemental military appropriations bill for Iraq and Afghanistan. Senator Kerry voted for an earlier version that paid for the appropriation by repealing certain parts of President Bush’s signature tax cuts. He would later vote against the final bill in protest of military policy in Iraq. As his campaign spokesman said in his defense, “better an inarticulate answer than an inarticulate policy that has cost American lives.” It didn’t seem to matter; the label stuck.

And even more damaging was the emergence of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Several veterans who served with John Kerry in Vietnam, with the financial aid of Republican donors, launched a political advocacy group to challenge Senator Kerry’s account of his wartime service, deny and correct his allegations of war crimes, and block his aspirations to become Commander-in-Chief. Their television ads were political superweapons, framing Senator Kerry as unpatriotic, dishonest, and militarily incompetent.

The tactics of these attacks operate via a simple rhetorical method. Veterans represent the nation in challenging and difficult service and are considered noble for what they volunteered or were drafted to do. Our culture traditionally exalts sacrifice and putting the nation before yourself. It represents the ultimate virtue. To oppose them in any way comes off as dishonorable and offensive to what they represent: not themselves, but the nation. Transitive property, opposing the troops means opposing America, not a good look for those seeking public office. Kerry’s voting gaffe falls in this category, while the Swiftboater attacks combined appeal to authority, in the form of other veterans, with Kerry’s alleged disrespect for their service record. This writer, for one, found this line of attack very persuasive as a first-time voter in 2004. I likely wasn’t alone, as George W. Bush easily won reelection.

Fast forward to the political candidacy of Donald Trump in 2015. As the Atlantic article revisits, Trump attacked John McCain’s record, saying he’s “not a war hero.” Then, as now, Trump was raked across the coals. What would sink most presidential campaigns just became another daily dose of controversy from Trump’s unorthodox campaign. Not only did he not apologize or repent, he continued his attacks.

Who can forget the presidential debate on the eve of the South Carolina primary? Prompted by the moderator, Trump doubled down on past comments he made about President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Calling it a “big fat mistake”, Trump lamented the loss of lives and treasure, concluding that “we should have never been in Iraq.” Jeb! countered with an awkward defense of his family, even bringing his sainted mother into the conversation. Trump was met by jeers and Jeb by cheers, but when the votes were tallied it was a Trump landslide, winning 32% of the vote to Jeb’s 7%. Questioning the Iraq war in 2004 was dangerous politically; in 2016 it was advantageous. 

Perhaps, with the passage of time, the average voter became of the same mind as Candidate Trump. They witnessed more treasure squandered (6 trillion as of 2019), more lives lost (801,000), no stability or “mission accomplishment”, all the while being conditioned by the media to maintain course. President Bush’s claim in late 2003, that Iraqi democracy building was “worth our effort and sacrifice” turned out to be utterly false. When democracy is handed to Islamic countries, they vote for sharia law, not for freedom of speech and consumption of alcohol. Who could have thunk it? This change of heart was gradual. Ron Paul enjoyed tremendous grassroots support in 2008 for his heroic stand against forever war, and then Candidate Obama appeared to be inclined towards peace. The election of 2016 represented the tipping point, at least on the Republican side of the aisle.

That was Trump the candidate. Five years later his record as President can be analyzed. There is much to lament: U.S. troops are still in Syria, Afghanistan is about to celebrate two decades of nation building, U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s barbarous campaign in Yemen has not ceased, and the defense budget is as “yuge” as ever. However, as TAC columnist Peter Van Buren wrote recently, under Trump U.S. foreign policy is trending in the right direction. In spite of both political parties, the beltway Blob, the media, even his own confounding choices like John Bolton, Trump has managed to deliver on his instincts towards de-escalation. Troop levels are down in Syria and Afghanistan, no new wars have been started, and most importantly, U.S. military fatalities have fallen from 1,912 under Obama to 123 under Trump. 

How is it then, Mr. Goldberg, that fewer dead service members is proof Trump hates veterans? Is General John Kelly’s son Robert worth more to his country in his grave at Arlington or alive and well with his family? According to The Atlantic, it seems to be the former. In 2004 the method was hiding behind the troops while they were alive. In 2020 it’s hiding behind the troops when they are dead. The media is truly shameless. 

As mentioned above, the virtue and selflessness our volunteers display is, in and of itself, noble. But a critical distinction must be made. It is the idea of sacrifice that is noble, not sacrifice itself. There is nothing fundamentally good or desirable about young men and women being maimed and killed on distant soil. Not in World War II, and not now. Each death is the shattered life of a grieving American family. A mother’s son, a father’s pride, husbands, fathers, wives, friends, gone, forever. 

While visiting Robert’s grave, Trump allegedly said “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” The Atlantic presents Trump’s comments as proof positive he doesn’t understand or appreciate their sacrifice. Support the troops or else. But what worked magic in 2004 against John Kerry didn’t work in 2016 and it might now work again in 2020. Why? The first reason is Trump himself. Despite his crassness and superficial callousness, whether it was his own instincts, his transactional business worldview, or his political cunning in observing the electorate, Trump has done something remarkable. He has shattered the narrative maintained by the war machine by redefining what it means to “support the troops.” 

At Dover Air Force base in 2019, Trump hosted an emotional press conference where he claimed the “hardest thing” he had to do as Commander-in-Chief is sign letters for Gold Star families. He showed us that it is possible to support them while simultaneously questioning the “endless wars” they have been engaged in. The second reason is the electorate. Upon hearing his peace-like message in 2016, voters gave him a chance. Hit pieces like those published by The Atlantic will continue, as recently promised by Mr. Goldberg himself. Whether they will be enough to finally sink his movement will be known in just a few months.

As Richard Nixon said, the greatest title history can bestow is one of peacemaker. Win or lose in 2020, President Trump should be remembered not for being the perfect peacemaker, but for his genuine attempts at simply giving peace a chance against the overwhelming and well financed forces opposing him. 

Jeff Groom is a former Marine officer. He is the author of American Cobra Pilot: A Marine Remembers a Dog and Pony Show (2018). Follow him on Twitter @BigsbyGroom.