Donald Trump’s alleged comments that Americans who died serving our country are “losers” and “suckers” probably won’t matter—unless it is the first salvo in a larger battle.
If elections are about who’s on offense on who’s on defense, then the biggest thing about this military story may be another lost cycle for Trump where he’s responding to a story not of his choosing, and as he’s running out of cycles here to close a persistent gap in the polls—suggesting our amp-to-11 president is going to do something wildly over the top now to try and reclaim control of the conversation.
But there’s also a chance that this story could have legs—that it could be more than just a one-day story that is quickly replaced by the next outrage. Let me explain.
In a sane world, this revelation, on its face, would be devastating for Trump’s re-election chances (ironically, the fact that it only confirms what we already know about Trump makes it less powerful). Anyone who is paying attention (and hasn’t guzzled the Kool-Aid) knows that Trump is a bad person, and that the Atlantic’s report is very consistent with Trump’s Nietzschean weltanschauung.
Theoretically, this should be a wedge issue—the kind of thing that separates conservatives from Trump. Theoretically, this should drive a wedge between the Republican president and everything that conservatives say they believe in. Once upon a time, it was thought that the conservative movement was a “three-legged stool” that consisted of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and national security conservatives, all united to stop the Soviet Union’s advance. Under that paradigm (which clearly no longer applies), this revelation should be fatal.
Consider the perspective of one of the stool’s legs: social conservatives. Christians worship a savior who sacrificed his own life so that we may live. Never mind the notion that we are all God’s children, made in His image, we quote scriptures like, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” But what would Trump think of a savior who, instead of summoning a legion of angels to vanquish his enemies, was spat upon and mocked before being crucified? Who wore a crown of thorns? “Total loser,” Trump might say. “What a sucker. He could have had it all!” Today’s Christian conservatives are mostly looking for an earthly savior. This person doesn’t have to exhibit any sort of decency or character, so long as he kicks ass and “owns the libs.” Don’t count on this news to dislodge anyone who hasn’t already walked away from the Trump cult.
The fact that national security conservatives should be appalled by Trump’s alleged comments is so obvious as to not warrant much explanation. (Fiscal conservatives might, under normal circumstances, be worried about our insane debt level, but that’s another issue.)
Of course, the sad truth is that no revelation will matter to conservatives who have already rationalized their Trump support for a variety of reasons, including the premise that this is a tribalistic world and Trump might be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch.
Others simply don’t believe the media reports to begin with. Consider this tweet I got from a Twitter follower—a lawyer who was formerly involved in the Wisconsin GOP, and a self-described “Reagan conservative”—in response to my saying Trump is a bad person: “If this is in regards to the Atlantic article, am I supposed to believe that even though the MSM with their anonymous sources got Russia collusion wrong for 3 straight years, that this time with 2 months before an election the MSM & anonymous sources finally got it right? Um. No.”
This is not an anomaly. Consider Mollie Hemingway of the Federalist, who tweeted a similar argument. The media’s bias has created a permission structure, whereby conservatives can justify ignoring or nullifying any inconvenient news. Truth be told, the mainstream media has invited this scrutiny, and conservatives have started tuning out outlets that, for example, defend the concept of “looting.”
Progressives may scoff, but for my whole lifetime, the media has largely exhibited liberal bias. It goes back decades, but just consider some fairly recent history that (I think) helped lead to Trump. There was a sense that no decent Republican could overcome the negative media coverage by playing nice. John McCain, once a hero, became a guy who didn’t know how many houses he owned, upon becoming the Republican nominee. Mitt Romney, a thoroughly decent man, became a predator who gave forced haircuts, abused his dog, never paid taxes, and waged a “war on women.” This opened the door for Trump to not only quit playing by their rules (thanks, in part to emerging technology like Twitter), it also reinforced his “fake news” narrative, which essentially grants him a “get out of jail free” card with his base.
The fact that these most recent allegations are lodged by anonymous sources (albeit four of them), makes it even easier for Trump defenders to cast this as fabulism—as faked or invented quotes, made up by the liberal media. Not that it matters much. If and when sources come forward, they, too, new rationales will be invented to dismiss their claims.
In the 2016 election, there were numerous occasions when smart observers thought Trump had finally gone too far. His comments about John McCain and POWs were one early example. The Access Hollywood video was perhaps the ultimate one. Every time, Trump survived.
Could it be different this time? Possibly. Trump faces more obstacles this time around. Joe Biden is more formidable than Hillary Clinton, and—unlike in 2016, when maybe you could imagine Trump might magically fix everything—Trump has a (bad) record to run on. When you consider that Trump won three important electoral college states by around 77,000 votes last time, you realize that any little thing could make the difference. Even before this story dropped, Trump was losing support among members of the military. One could imagine this report accelerating that trend among active duty personnel and veterans. (It’s also worth noting that, just as this story hits, it has also been reported that Stars and Stripes, a newspaper for the military that has been around since the Civil War, is being shuttered by the Pentagon.
For this report to do more than just mess up a single news cycle for Trump, here’s what should happen: General James Mattis (Trump’s former Secretary of Defense) and General John Kelly (Trump’s former Chief of Staff) should both record commercials that warn Americans about the real Trump. For this to have maximum potential, it has to be done just right. It has to be them looking in the camera or at an interviewer. It has to reveal new information. It has to connect emotionally. The message can’t be “Trump is bad,” it has to include “He’s unfit to be president—and here’s why that matters to you.” And—maybe most importantly—it has to drop just before the election, so that this is the topic people are thinking about on election day and as they mail in their ballots before then.
Would they do it? It’s worth noting that Mattis has already said that “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us.” In response, Trump claimed that he fired Mattis (he resigned) and called him “the world’s most overrated General.” Kelly then came to Mattis’s defense, saying, “The president has clearly forgotten how it actually happened or is confused.” It’s not absurd to think that these two honorable men might now feel compelled to once again weigh in—to make this about honor and character—and not just about one lost news cycle for Trump.
If these allegations are true (and based on everything we know, I’m assuming they are), then Mattis and Kelly will have first-hand knowledge of the details. In that case, it would be their patriotic duty to accept this mission. This would take courage, but isn’t that their whole raison d'être? The least they can do is make sure Americans know the truth before deciding whether to re-elect a man who (allegedly) calls our heroes “suckers.”
Would it be enough? In the immortal words of Tom Petty, “even the losers get lucky sometimes.”