Last week, President Donald Trump walked himself into another PR disaster while giving a condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, the wife of Sgt. La David Johnson, who was one of four American soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger earlier this month.
“The president said that he knew what he signed up for…it made me cry because I was very angry at the tone of his voice and how he said it. He couldn’t remember my husband’s name,” Johnson told Good Morning America when they talked to her. “The only way he remembered my husband’s name was because he told me he had my husband’s report in front of him and that’s when he actually said ‘La David.’” Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a family friend who was with Johnson when the call took place, criticized the president’s tone as “callous and cavalier.” Trump, obviously, couldn’t let that go, and fired off a bunch of tweets about it, and in his infinite wisdom, is now feuding with both Wilson and Johnson.
Since taking office, Trump has wielded the troops as a cudgel against critics — the most prominent of which have been NFL players who decided for kneel during the national anthem last month, after Trump implored NFL owners to cut players (like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett) who knelt to protest against police brutality — despite not understanding or caring about anything related to the lives of people involved with the military.
In doing so, he’s shown not only that his invocation of “troops” is little more than a dogwhistle, while also pulling back the curtains on the lie that the government cares about the people who fight its wars. Moreover, his treatment of Myeshia Johnson and Rep. Wilson is evidence of his indifference to members of the military and their families when they refuse to serve as avatars for his jingoistic agenda, especially when they aren’t straight or white. In addition to his lackadaisical approach to comforting the people who’ve lost family members under his watch, undocumented veterans have been facing deportation for years while Trump and other politicians bloviate about the need to “secure the border,” and Trump has repeatedly pushed banning transgender military recruits.
Writer and Army veteran Nate Bethea summed it up best:
Oh wow, apparently "the troops" means white people, "the flag" means white people, "respect" means white people…never could have guessed— Nate (@inthesedeserts) October 23, 2017
It’s easy to brush all of this off as mere hypocrisy, but it’s more than that. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that Johnson, the soldier who was killed, and his wife are both black, as is Rep. Wilson. The Johnsons don’t fit Trump’s narrow definition of what a military family looks like, and neither do Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim parents of a soldier who was killed in Iraq in 2004 antagonized by Trump during the 2016 election. Both of the Gold Star families that Trump has publicly feuded with so far are non white, and it shouldn’t go unnoticed that his troop-supporting base has taken his side instead of these dead soldiers’ families’.
Trump’s respect for the military only extends to people in the military who look and think like him. People like Patton, who Trump compared Secretary of Defense James Mattis to when Mattis was appointed, or chief of staff John Kelly, who dutifully slandered Wilson days after Trump’s feud with her began. In reality, the military is much more diverse: according to U.S. military data, ethnic and racial minorities made up 40 percent of active-duty service members from 2015. When veterans come home, they’re afflicted at larger rates than the general population by things like PTSD and homelessness.
The latest controversy has exposed that the problem Trump had with showing the bare minimum of compassion for the Johnson family isn’t unique to this situation. While presidents don’t usually call every family that has lost someone, it has been customary for them to at least send a letter to military families offering condolences; however, The Atlantic reported that out of the 25 families of soldiers killed since January that it and other outlets have been able to reach, 11 had received neither a phone call nor a letter from the president. One man whose son was killed in August only received a letter on October 20 — after the controversy surrounding Johnson. “Honestly, I feel the letter is reactionary to the media storm brewing over how these things have been handled,” Timothy Eckels Sr. told The Atlantic.
The Johnsons don’t fit Trump’s narrow definition of what a military family looks like.
These problems go beyond Trump’s lack of tact when attempting to console family members whose loved ones his government has gotten killed. In August, Trump signed a directive banning transgender military recruits, a move that was transparently about pleasing the social conservative wing of the Republican Party. The move was utterly pointless; Trump cited the cost of medical bills for trans recruits, but a RAND Corporation study showed that cumulatively, that would cost between $2.4 and $8.4 million, or a fraction of the cost of one F-35.
Moreover, the government — Trump’s as well as his predecessors’ — has been deporting undocumented veterans for years. One man who fought during Desert Storm and was later deported to Mexico pointed out that, in a particularly ghoulish bit of irony, there’s one way he can find his way back to the United States: by dying. “I’m allowed to go back when I die," he said in an interview with The Washington Post in May. "One way or another, I’ll find my way back there.” (A bill to rectify this was introduced earlier this year by Democratic Rep. Raúl Grijalva and currently has sixty co-sponsors; all, however, are Democrats.)
We should take these deportations, the transgender military ban, and Trump’s utter indifference while talking to a woman who just lost her husband in an ambush in West Africa on the whole and consider: if the president has so little concern for the people who fight our wars, what chance do the civilians of countries we’re invading or throwing our empire’s weight around in have? That’s a question, unfortunately, which will outlast Trump himself.