Earlier this week, President Donald Trump essentially rejected the legitimacy of ballots cast by thousands of military personnel serving overseas. “It would be very very proper and very nice if a winner were declared on November 3rd, instead of counting ballots for two weeks, which is totally inappropriate and I don't believe that that's by our laws” he told reporters at the White House Tuesday. “I don't believe that. So we'll see what happens.”
The 2020 election is a completely different ball game for military and veteran voters. The president recently commented that the troops love him, but the Pentagon brass don’t.
To begin with, counting ballots after Election Day is in accordance with election law and the rules and regulations established by the individual states for the conduct of elections. Furthermore, it’s how overseas military ballots have been counted for years. Either Trump fails to recognize that discarding ballots received after Election Day disenfranchises thousands of overseas service members, or he’s aware of that and believes he may be losing their support and would be better off if their votes weren’t tallied.
Trump generally enjoyed strong support from the military during his first presidential bid — even after disparaging the late Sen. John McCain for being a prisoner of war, saying, “He’s not a war hero” and “I like people who weren’t captured.” An October 2016 Military Times poll of active-duty service members showed that 40.5 percent still planned to vote for Trump, with 34.3 percent intending to vote for a third-party candidate and only 20.6 percent supporting Hillary Clinton.
But a Military Times survey conducted this August indicated former Vice President Joe Biden had 41.3 percent support from active-duty troops to Trump’s 37.4 percent. Third-party candidates came to just 12.8 percent — altogether, quite a shift from the 2016 poll. Another Military Times poll conducted earlier this month showed veterans 55 and older were more likely to vote for Trump, while younger veterans and female veterans overwhelmingly supported Biden.
The change is particularly noticeable given that members of the military generally lean Republican. Ahead of the 2018 midterms, for instance, 45 percent of troops polled intended to vote for Republican-backed candidates, in comparison to 28 percent backing Democratic candidates.
Military and veteran voters are not all homogenous, of course, and those who have supported Trump have done so for a variety of reasons, just as the Republican Party has usually attracted more military votes for a host of reasons. Among them are a belief that the Republicans are more supportive than the Democrats on defense spending and have greater respect for military culture.
Many of these issues were in play at the end of President Barack Obama’s term, when Pentagon spending was cut and troops were still involved in what seemed like interminable conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. So it’s likely that Trump’s promises of defense budget increases and the withdrawal of overseas troops after Obama failed to deliver provided enough justification for many military members to vote for the now-president despite his personal vendetta against McCain, a Navy and national hero.
So why is it that Trump is losing the military vote now? Since 2016, several major trends have helped turn the tide. The first is the treatment by the administration of our friends and allies, most notably the disparagement of NATO and its leaders. The second is the president’s relationship with autocrats and dictators.
Many active service members and veterans found Trump’s interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin both troubling and puzzling. What would cause the president to say he trusted Putin more than his intelligence professionals? And what did the president accomplish in his chummy relationship with North Korean despot Kim Jung Un other than a more unstable environment in East Asia?
More recently, there’s the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic by the administration and it’s devastating impact on military families. Additionally, there are the orders Trump gave the military to act on his personal behalf when he used force to clear protesters from Lafayette Park on June 1 so that he could have a photo op on the steps of St. John’s Church, accompanied by Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley later apologized for his involvement after the incident was roundly criticized by several senior retired military officers.
And, as presaged by his attacks on McCain, the president’s derogatory comments about our soldiers and sailors have only gotten worse. Last month, The Atlantic’s Jeffret Goldberg reported that Trump called Americans who died in war “suckers.” When the commander in chief was scheduled to visit an overseas American military cemetery, he mused to an advisor, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers,” before cancelling his visit altogether.
Those Americans paid the ultimate price to protect our country and our freedom. Despite what the president has to say, those Americans are indeed our heroes.
So now the 2020 election is a completely different ball game for military and veteran voters. The president recently commented that the troops love him, but the Pentagon brass don’t. His words reflect an attitude that the military is just another entity he can manipulate for political purposes, further harming the traditional relationship between the president as commander in chief and our nation’s military leadership and forces. In the vernacular and at its core, Trump is attacking the foundation of the civilian-military relationship.
All this is to say that Trump’s actions towards our service members have not gone unnoticed, neither by civilians nor by military personnel. Polling confirms just that.
Our nation needs a leader who respects our military and understands the great sacrifice of our servicemen and women, not one who thinks of them as “losers.”
Veterans and active-duty members of the military are intelligent, well-informed and capable of making their own decisions at the ballot box. I, for one, have decided that we need a new commander in chief. That’s why I signed onto a letter with more than 200 other retired generals and admirals endorsing Biden for president.
Many of us have decided that Trump has crossed a line. Our nation needs a leader who respects our military and understands the great sacrifice of our servicemen and women, not one who thinks of them as “losers.”