It’s widely believed that the military is predisposed to lean Republican. In 2009, even with George W. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan looking grim, a Gallup poll found that 34 percent of active-duty personnel and veterans were Republicans, versus 29 percent Democrats; in stark contrast, among Americans who had not served in the military, Republicans trailed with 26 percent to the Democrats’ 38 percent.
That history suggests that President Trump, with his preference for former generals as senior appointees and eagerness to indulge in a martial strut at every opportunity, would have a leg up with members of the armed forces — and indeed he started his presidency with strong support in the military. But that has changed.
According to a Military Times survey conducted last fall, 50 percent of active-service military hold an unfavorable view of the president, compared to only 37 percent when he was elected. Officers especially disfavor him, with only a third indicating approval.
It’s not hard to see why. Mr. Trump has treated the military like a political tool, ignoring the chain of command, flouting traditions, and cynically using troops to symbolize his patriotism.
His cavalier attitude toward the military has been on conspicuous display during the pandemic. Last month, he said he would recall 1,000 graduating Army cadets to West Point, 50 miles north of New York City, the country’s biggest hot spot, for his commencement address, probably in June. Mr. Trump even said he was looking forward to a “nice and tight” formation of graduates devoid of the social distancing present at the Air Force Academy’s commencement in Colorado Springs, at which Vice President Mike Pence spoke.
More egregiously, the acting secretary of the Navy, Thomas B. Modly, with Mr. Trump’s “100 percent” agreement, dismissed Capt. Brett Crozier from command of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt for confidentially requesting its evacuation after a surge of coronavirus infections. More than 1,000 of the Roosevelt’s crew have tested positive for the coronavirus; one has died.
These incidents occurred after the broad Military Times survey was completed, and seem likely to reduce Mr. Trump’s approval within the military even more. But they were not surprising, coming after episodes that covered almost the entire spectrum of civil-military relations, from operational decisions to bureaucratic and legal dispensations to policymaking. At every turn, the White House manifested an instrumental, fair-weather — call it transactional — approach to the military.
In February 2017, Mr. Trump refused to take responsibility for a failed raid in Yemen that he had authorized; instead, he blamed “my generals” for the death of a Navy SEAL. Similarly, he was casually insensitive about the deaths of four Green Berets in Niger in October 2017.
Last November, apparently hoping to demonstrate his toughness to his political base and at the prodding of Fox News, he ignored the chain of command by reversing the Navy’s decision to demote Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a SEAL who was found guilty of criminal misconduct and who had publicly insulted Navy personnel. While views within the military were divided, the balance of opinion in the special-operations community seemed to be that the president had sensationalized what should have been a quiet internal matter.
In the realm of policy, Mr. Trump withdrew American forces from Syria last October, to the dismay of the Pentagon, U.S. Central Command and senior State Department officials, as well as the United States’ Kurdish allies, who were left largely defenseless against Turkish incursions. James Mattis, who was then secretary of defense, considered the move treacherous as well as strategically imprudent and pushed back.
When Mr. Trump declined to reconsider, Mr. Mattis — who had headed Central Command as a four-star Marine Corps general — and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to counter the Islamic State, resigned in protest. Some 58 percent of those whom the Military Times surveyed shared their disapproval.
While a Smithsonian/Stars & Stripes poll in January 2019 showed fairly wide acceptance of the president’s legally questionable use of the military at America’s border for immigration interdiction, 59 percent opposed his use of military construction funds for the border wall in the later Military Times survey.
Military personnel also looked askance at the president’s disrespect for Senator John McCain, who spent six years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam while Mr. Trump himself received five draft deferments. Remarkably, in the same survey, 47 percent of service members supported the impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump.
Nevertheless, Mr. Trump’s support within the military remains slightly higher than that of Barack Obama during his presidency. But he was a Democrat, and Republican presidents have been able to take the military’s approval almost for granted.
Mr. Trump apparently has been overconfident that his showy, selective and jingoistic approach to civil-military relations would ensure that support. What seems to have escaped him is that Americans in uniform tend to see the military as the federal government’s most capable asset, and frown on bureaucratic ineptitude. The Trump administration’s faltering handling of a deadly pandemic has not sat well with them.
In another Military Times poll of active-duty personnel, conducted in March, 51 percent had moderate or strong confidence in the military’s response to the virus, compared to 32 percent in the White House’s actions. More telling, if anecdotal, were the wildly divergent receptions that the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew gave the departing Captain Crozier, who got a rousing ovation, and Mr. Modly, who had impugned the ship’s captain as “naïve” or “stupid” and was met with sullen dismay.
In the end, Mr. Modly’s remarks led to his resignation, and after an investigation, the chief of naval operations, Adm. Michael M. Gilday, and James McPherson, Mr. Modly’s replacement, recommended that Captain Crozier be reinstated.
In the 1950s, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington prescribed military obedience to civilian leaders in areas of strategic or political discretion, and civilian deference to the military on operational and bureaucratic matters. That became the accepted framework. Mr. Trump, by interfering with the military’s internal administration while demonstrating strategic incompetence, has threatened to upend it.
In late 2019, after interviewing current and former senior military officers, the veteran reporter Mark Bowden commented, “I have never heard officers in high positions express such alarm about a president.”
In that light, the slow-motion train wreck in civil-military relations during Mr. Trump’s presidency makes some sense. Underlying the longstanding Republican tilt within the military is a solid, traditionally conservative sensibility that abhors abrupt and heedless shifts in accepted conduct. But in the last four years, the Republican Party itself has abandoned those norms at Mr. Trump’s behest. Like the majority of Americans, a growing number of soldiers, sailors and Marines see Mr. Trump as unworthy of being their commander in chief.
Jonathan Stevenson, senior fellow for U.S. defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and managing editor of Survival, served on the National Security Council from 2011 to 2013.