By J.D. Munch
On Wednesday, July 25, Donald Trump announced—on Twitter, of course—that he would be banning all transgender individuals from serving in the United States military. The move, on which Trump claimed to have consulted “my Generals and military experts,” came as a surprise to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the Secretary of Defense. While whom the military experts might be remains a mystery, the announcement has nonetheless struck yet another hate-filled note for a White House that continues to push an agenda of divisiveness and discord.
We do not yet know whether this will become an official policy, or what that policy might become. Nevertheless, it serves as one more in a growing list of examples demonstrating that this president has no interest in leading the nation as a whole, or in attempting to pretend that those who face oppression in our country can count the President of the United States as a friend. And the fact that this callous disregard for those serving honorably in our military comes from a coward and a hypocrite renders it all the more galling. Trump’s reckless tweet, like so many others, does nothing but make America weaker and harm Americans who already sit on the margins of society. And it comes from a man with a history of disrespect for those serving, and of fomenting hatred whenever it helps him with the lowest common denominators in his political base. We must resist his call of hatred and oppression for his own political gain.
Trump’s Glorious Service Record
At times, those who have served our country with distinction may be entitled to some deference in their opinions about what is best for our military. Perhaps this is why Trump claims to have discussed his decision with generals and military experts. Because as we know, Donald Trump avoided fastidiously any potential military service to the United States. This began with his four education deferrals—certainly nothing illegal, and a process that many followed at the time to focus on higher education without worrying about being drafted. Still, after making a conscious choice not to serve his country, the notion of his calling out transgender individuals who want to serve comes from a decidedly ill-informed place.
Of course, the young Donald Trump eventually did finish school, rendering him vulnerable to being drafted to serve in Vietnam. At this point, despite Trump having passed a physical two years earlier, he received a medical deferment from 1969 to 1972, which classified him as unfit to serve unless there was a national emergency. Most records that would shed light on why this was the case have been expunged, so we have only the basic information that he received a deferment, and Trump’s own shifting story of bone spurs in one or both feet that forced him out of the draft pool.
The kindest interpretation we can glean from this is that Trump was unable to serve. The sudden change in his physical fitness once he ran out of educational exemptions, though, gives credence to the theory that he, and others on his behalf, worked actively to help him dodge the potential call to serve his country. This would make him a man who, even as a young college student and graduate, worked to serve himself rather than his country.
Trump’s Disdain and Disinterest in Service Members
Vietnam offered a frightening proposition for many draft-eligible men at the time. Not wanting to go does not, by itself, make someone less of a person. But Trump worked the system to ensure others would go instead of him, an act of selfishness and cowardice. Those in less-connected families had to fend for themselves, and these actions ensured that one more person would have to go to war because Trump was busy helping himself.
For some, this personal history might lead, if not to shame, at least to a measure of respect for those who have served the United States. For Donald Trump, though, it only creates reasons to look down on those who did not find a way out of harm’s way. To him, those serving their country are beneath him, and any lip service to honoring the troops provides just another talking point, another bit of rhetoric useful to him in his efforts to grab more power.
More hints of this disdain for service members arose in Trump’s presidential campaign. In speaking of John McCain’s service record, Trump questioned whether McCain was a war hero, infamously declared, “I like people who weren’t captured.” A man who served his country proudly and with distinction, who endured torture at the hands of the enemy, was worth less to Trump than someone who could, like Trump, stay out of danger.
And as president, Trump has shown no more regard for the lives of American soldiers. When Trump green-lighted a raid in Yemen, Navy Seal Ryan Owens was killed. The raid was built on faulty intelligence, and thus led to not only Owens’ death, but the deaths of 20 civilians, including women and children. Trump celebrated this raid as a great success against terrorists, even though the raid did not yield any actionable intelligence and led to civilian and U.S. military casualties. And Trump didn’t even bother to leave dinner to order the strike.
Indeed, Trump’s preferred approach to his duties as Commander-in-Chief is to step back and give military leaders free rein. Some defend this by claiming it is the best approach, letting the military lead itself because the generals know best. But what it really does is give him a line of defense for the abdication of perhaps his most critical duty as president: leading the United States military in its defense against those who wish to do us harm. Trump speaks bombastically of toughness and courage against the world, but when the time arrives to make the hard choices, we can safely presume we will find him at a Trump resort for dinner or golf, avoiding responsibility for what our military does.
Using Hatred for Political Gain
Against this backdrop, Trump’s Twitter declaration should appall every American who cares about people or the country. Had he bothered to seek information on this issue, he would have learned that as many as 15,000 transgender individuals are already serving in our military. Where Trump avoided the potential of being drafted and pushed others out in front of him to risk their lives, these people have volunteered to serve, to risk their own lives for something they consider greater than themselves. But rather than recognize the sacrifices these brave Americans make, Trump demeaned them, declaring essentially that they are a burden to the military and unfit to serve in the ways they are already doing.
For anyone paying attention to Trump or the resistance movement, this should not come as a surprise. This is a man who has attacked immigrants, women, minorities, and foreign nationals at every opportunity. He ran the most racist and sexist campaign in recent memory; he reveled in his use of personal money and power to force himself on women; he proclaimed Mexican immigrants to be rapists and murderers (while allowing that some might be good people); and he has now begun to work to unravel the gains our country has made in accepting LGBT Americans. Anyone who might not fit into the alt-right, white supremacist vision for America gets pushed aside, served up to those willing to follow hatred in a zero-sum view of people’s relative places in a human hierarchy.
But why? Whether Trump believes what he says is largely irrelevant; when we deal with a sociopathic, power-hungry megalomaniac, we usually see personal gain emerge as the reason for odious actions. And here, we have plenty. Trump, seven months into his presidency, has accomplished virtually nothing. He rages regularly against those he feels are working against him, whether by leaking stories from the White House or by standing up to his bullying bluster. Like many cowards, he wants desperately for others to see him as strong, and to get this, he needs two things: accomplishments for which he can claim victory, and distractions from the ethical disasters unfolding about his White House.
Most of Trump’s tweets serve a purpose toward the latter. And here, Donald Trump. Jr. was testifying about his attempts at campaign collusion with Russia on the very day Trump’s announcement came out. Add in the floundering health care bill, and Trump needed a diversion. Never one to shrink from an opportunity to hide his failures from the American people, he sent his transgender service tweets, which have now dominated the news cycle for three days. Mission accomplished, for now. With the recent failures of Republican attempts to take health care from millions, we can only assume follow-up tweets are imminent.
Here, though, we have an additional motive emerging, one that should sicken most Americans: the desire to push a bill that would provide funding for Trump’s long-promised border wall. Yes, the ultimate symbol of hatred and fear of those who are different seems to have played a direct role in Trump’s ignorant, hate-fueled announcement. The symmetry is as suitable as it is disgusting. The House bill in question essentially seeks to serve up a smorgasbord of Trump’s horrible promises to his base, but a piece of the bill that would disallow payments by the military for gender reassignment surgery formed a sticking point. To help save his wall, Trump happily took up the mantle—and ran far beyond what any but the most homophobic House Representatives might have sought by declaring a blanket ban. It fits the Trump declaration mold: why only stoke the embers of hatred when you can build a bigger bonfire?
Full of Sound and Fury?
In some ways, many seem tempted to breathe easily on this issue. The Pentagon has made clear no one is moving to implement Trump’s bluster as an actual policy. For now, transgender individuals serving in the military are not being rounded up or summarily dismissed. No action plan exists, no notion of steps that may come or even what policy, if any, might emerge from the tweets. Trump’s declaration sits like MacBeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Unfortunately (for many reasons), this particular idiot remains the President of the United States. If he were merely another Breitbart blowhard, we could let our disgust brew for a day or two and let it go. But this sick man’s Twitter rants bear the distinction of pronouncements from the ostensible leader of our country. Even if he is a leader in the mold of Major ____ de Coverley, the Catch-22 character whose only role was to march in the front of parades after others won battles, his statements reach millions—many of whom take what he says to mean something. In a world where transgender individuals have long fought to gain acceptance in their families, communities, and country, this callous disregard from the president serves as a violent, vicious blow. He has told as many as 15,000 serving the country, and countless others struggling with their own identities, that they are unfit. That they do not matter.
This is not leadership. Trump sees himself in danger of losing respect and standing, so like the young version of himself running away from the draft, he is pushing someone else out in front of him. His fragile ego and his cowardice in the face of controversy cannot allow him to simply face what lies ahead. Instead, he finds someone more vulnerable and breaks them down, all to protect his own weakness from exposure to the world.
Those resisting Trump cannot let this despicable act go. Trump’s pattern of tearing down others to climb over or hide behind them is a pattern of action that does not suit a leader, but rather a craven dictator clinging to power for as long as he can, at any cost. This country has a long history of standing up to tyrants, of fighting for the rights of those who cannot fight for themselves. We have often failed in that, and many have fought long and hard for rights, for recognition, for respect from their fellow Americans.
Donald Trump would take us backward, to a time and place when the strong abused the weak with impunity, when those who were different were forced to hide what made them unique and conform despite the psychological trauma inherent in doing so. And he would do so one careless, ignorant tweet at a time. We must continue to resist efforts to justify, excuse, or normalize this abhorrent behavior. Trump’s craven attacks on our transgendered population cannot stand. We must fight on.