For decades the national Republican Party literally owned the political debate over national security issues. Polls repeatedly indicated that American voters trusted Republicans more to properly handle military and foreign policy.
Republicans ruthlessly — and occasionally shamelessly — exploited this advantage. In his 1976 vice presidential debate with Walter Mondale, Republican Bob Dole infamously referred to “Democrat wars” and then he denied he had said it. “I figured up the other day,” Dole really did say. “If we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it would be about 1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.”
The implication was clear, if altogether sleazy: Democrats caused wars and Republicans prevented them. That logic mostly held until George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 on what turned out to be false pretenses. We still have troops there, but they long ago gave up searching for weapons of mass destruction.
Polls now show that Americans are tired of what the president calls “endless wars,” which predicated his slipshod decisions of the last month to abandoned longtime Kurdish allies and create a foreign policy in the Middle East that changes hour-by-hour, based on the latest Twitter messages from the White House.
Republicans once owned the “we support the troops” trope as well, even if they occasionally slimed an opponent with a service record. You could at this point Google “swiftboating” or just remember a U.S. senator from Georgia by the name of Max Cleland.
Cleland was a wheelchair-confined Vietnam veteran who was elected to the Senate in 1996. He lost an arm and both legs at age 25 when another soldier’s hand grenade exploded near him. He was awarded a Bronze Star and a Silver Star and spent much of his Senate career working on veterans and security issues. When Cleland ran for reelection in 2002 his Republican opponent, a nonentity named Saxby Chambliss, broadcast one of the sleaziest attack ads in recent political history.
Cleland, the veteran without legs and missing one arm thanks to his service to the nation, was depicted in the ad along with photos of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. The message: The Democrat was “soft” on national security. John McCain was one of the few Republicans to condemn the slander, calling it “worse than disgraceful. It’s reprehensible.”
Still, Republicans continued to claim the mantle of support for veterans, at least until Donald Trump shredded all pretense of trying to uphold that fiction.
It was a remarkable moment this week when a combat veteran of five deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, a career military officer with a master’s degree from Harvard who has also served abroad in three different U.S. embassies and on the staff of the Joint Chiefs, came to Capitol Hill.
By now everyone knows that Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who at age 3 emigrated from Ukraine with his parents, actually listened to the now infamous telephone call Trump held in July with the president of Ukraine.
Vindman confirmed, according to his written testimony, that Trump sought help from a foreign government to collect dirt on a U.S. citizen and political opponent. Vindman also confirmed what many suspected, the public version of the White House “transcript” of the call was incomplete.
Trump signaled in his very stable genius Twitter account that the military officer assigned to his National Security Council staff, who is the council’s Ukraine expert, was a nonentity who the president had never met, but was nonetheless branded “Never Trump.”
The Trumpian universe of apologists, enablers and sycophants took the cue and within minutes Vindman, who was wounded in Iraq, was trashed as an unworthy immigrant, a man with, as former GOP Congressman Sean Duffy said on CNN, “an affinity for the Ukraine, he speaks Ukrainian, and he came from the country, and he wants to make sure they’re safe and free.”
Or put another way, a guy who has chosen to make his career one of service to the United States, who has a twin brother who is also an Army colonel, who is an expert on that volatile piece of the globe, is somehow because he’s an immigrant a suspect patriot. And because Vindman believes the president acted improperly, he’s suitable to attack.
The reprehensible Laura Ingraham, a Fox News Trump toady of the first order, went even farther and without a scintilla of evidence. “Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the Ukraine, apparently against the president’s interest. ... Isn’t that kind of an interesting angle to this story?”
Ingraham’s guest, a lawyer named John Yoo, who will be remembered, if at all, for authoring the memos providing legal justification for George W. Bush’s “enhanced interrogation” methods, suggested Vindman might somehow be involved in “espionage.”
In fairness to Yoo, which is more than he offered a decorated military officer, he later tried to walk back his comments, saying they had been deliberately misconstrued. (Yoo also misspelled the colonel’s name three times in his statement, but then little mistakes are inevitable when you slander on the fly.)
For Trump, the American military is just another prop, convenient for a photo op or to soak up the deference the military affords any president. It’s the individual accomplishment and sacrifice he disparages and the list of people who have served that have received his insults is as long as his own military record is short.
No one in the Idaho congressional delegation — to a man deeply concerned about due process for the president — rose this week to defend a military man slimed in the rightwing echo chamber. And we’ll almost certainly see most Republican officeholders quietly go along with these outrages because that’s what they do in the Age of Trump.
Trump is like many Americans who enjoy the little rituals that indicate we support the troops. We gladly let them board a flight first and maybe even mutter “thank you for your service.” But most of us are as removed from Americans in uniform as Trump is from the bone spurs that kept him from Vietnam.
Trump — and most of his followers — value “the troops” in the abstract; it’s the reality of the principled, ethical Gen. Jim Mattis, or Gen. H.R. McMaster, Sen. John McCain, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Ambassador William Taylor or Lt. Col. Vindman that they hate.