In 2016, then presidential nominee Donald Trump was so confident in the loyalty of his supporters that he boldly claimed: ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters’.
Trump’s assertion has thankfully not been put to the test – but his most recent controversy, in response to an explosive article in the Atlantic, is certainly stretching the limits of loyalty for the president’s traditional voter base.
The report in question, published in the Atlantic earlier this month, claimed that the president called soldiers killed in combat ‘losers’ and ‘suckers’. He reportedly failed to attend a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018 as he did not want to spoil his hair, and, in the words of the article’s author Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead’.
Anonymous sources also recall Trump’s response to the death of celebrated war veteran Senator John McCain, who was taken prisoner in Vietnam and died in 2018. According to sources, upon McCain’s death Trump became furious as flags were lowered to half mast, telling aides, ‘What the fuck are we doing that for? Guy was a fucking loser.’
Following widespread condemnation, Donald Trump and White House staff have vociferously denied all claims made by Goldberg for the Atlantic. As is his wont, the president took to Twitter to defend his record, calling the story ‘fake’. At a press conference on Friday, he declared: “There is nobody feels more strongly about our soldiers, our wounded warriors, our soldiers that died in war than I do.”
The situation only deteriorated for Trump and his team when major news outlets and publications – including the generally pro-Trump Fox News – corroborated much of the Atlantic’s reporting.
Many veterans and service members are unconvinced by Trump’s denials. At this point in the campaign – with less than 60 days to go before millions of Americans go the polls – Trump simply cannot afford to lose the support of a demographic who helped secure his place in the White House in 2016.
Prominent veterans have vocally condemned Trump, in a move that could represent a serious blow to his campaign. David Weismann, a veteran and self-described ‘former Trump supporter’, encouraged his Twitter followers to ‘let Trump know how many people he has offended by calling fallen soldiers losers and suckers’, in a post which has since gained nearly 120,000 likes. Weismann went on to urge his audience to vote for Biden in November.
Veterans and service members were key to Trump’s electoral success in 2016; if Weismann’s tirade against Trump is indicative of a wider trend within the community, it could spell disaster for the president.
Before and for a while after his election, polling showed that veterans held a largely favourable view of Trump and the job he was doing as president. Certainly, the intense patriotism of the Make American Great Again campaign would lend itself to support for the military.
But even before the fallout from Goldstein’s report became clear, the president was shedding support from military communities. Polling from July and August by the Military Times saw 41.3% of veterans say they would vote for Biden in November, compared with 37.4% for Trump.
James Mattis, another one-time Trump loyalist who served as his secretary of defence until 2018, in June castigated the president, calling him a threat to the US Constitution.
This shift in fortune represents a dramatic fall from grace for Trump, who during the 2016 presidential race was polling ahead of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin among active-service members.
Four years ago, the Washington Post reported that swing-state counties with high numbers of veterans helped get Trump elected. This November, a tiny proportion of votes could again make all the difference. Veterans and service members make up a not insignificant proportion of America’s population – 13% – which until now Trump may have taken for granted as support for a second term.
The president and his campaign had recently been intent on pushing a ‘law and order’ message, positioning themselves firmly on the side of law enforcement following protests and rioting after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Biden was forced to wade in, denouncing rioters and distancing himself from their behaviours. Trump’s campaign strategy seemed to be working – he was defining the parameters of debate.
But the fresh furore over Trump’s alleged attitude toward veterans and service members has allowed Biden to go on the attack. In a speech made last week, the Democratic nominee furiously denounced the president, calling his apparent denigration of Americans killed at war ‘disgusting’. Biden went on to speak of his late son Beau, who was in the army, lending credibility to his response. Biden’s campaign followed up with a video entitled ‘Veterans React to Trump’s Comments from Atlantic Article’; the Biden team are clearly keen to push home the message that Trump holds veterans in contempt.
This isn’t the first time Trump has insulted veterans and service members shortly before an election. The president recently took to Twitter to deny ever calling John McCain, viewed by many Americans as a war hero, a ‘loser’. However, video footage from 2015 soon resurfaced of Trump saying of McCain: ‘I don’t like losers…He’s not a war hero…I like people who weren’t captured’.
Trump’s seeming contempt for McCain, who had been critical of the then Republican nominee, did not damage his campaign. Nor did his denigration of the parents of Humayun Khan, a soldier killed in Iraq, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2016.
Some service members are indeed expressing scepticism about the Atlantic report and ensuing furore. But even a small proportion of military votes lost to Biden could prove decisive in this year’s election.
Already trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls, Trump’s chances of re-election may be slipping further out of sight. The incumbent lost the popular vote in 2016, winning the electoral college by only a tiny margin, and benefitted from negative attitudes towards Hillary Clinton. Many Americans wanted to not cast a vote for Clinton as much as they wanted to vote for Trump. Biden’s familiarity and popularity suggest Trump won’t benefit from so-called ‘negative partisanship’ this time round.
The Atlantic report seems to have accelerated an existing trend, namely of a souring relationship between military communities and the president. As the Trump campaign continually firefights, they’re pushing decisive votes into Biden’s hands.