Donald Trump needs to ramp it up. After he almost bobbled a glass of water and carefully descended a ramp at West Point, Trump tried to go on the attack against his detractors, claiming that his performance was fine and dandy. But Trump, a master of stagecraft for much of his presidency, is increasingly losing the optics battle, particularly as he engages with the military brass.
Or so goes the conventional wisdom. But what Trump’s critics are overlooking is that this is just the first stage in his struggle to corral the recalcitrant military leadership. Like his hero Douglas MacArthur, Trump is likely vowing, ‘I shall return!’ He knows that the military rank and file largely support him. Trump’s showered largesse on the troops and his bully-boy act goes over well. What Trump needs is a second term in order to force the military to obey him. He might get it. No doubt the current military leadership is chafing under Trump’s direction. The June 1 Battle of Lafayette Square, where Trump strolled over to St John’s church was supposed to play a central role in the dramaturgy of a president instilling law and order. Instead, it turned into a debacle. But if Trump did not emerge unscathed, he does remain unbowed. The White House is now planning a July 3 military flyover that it can exploit for campaign purposes. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley can express as much contrition as he wants, but Trump doesn’t care. He’s already moved onto the next act.
Indeed, even as the hue and cry over Trump’s move continues to exercise the media, he’s moving to subdue other government institutions. A case in point is the Voice of America, where conservative filmmaker Michael Pack is now head honcho. The top leadership at VOA have already offered their resignations. Once again, Trump is upending an old Washington institution. Trump is reckoning, as always, that his base will carry him through. He put it this way in 2019, ‘I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump — I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very, very bad.’
My guess is that if Trump gets re-elected it will indeed get very, very bad for the military leadership. Trump has steadily been seeking to gain control over the levers of power. He’s intimidated the FBI and Justice Department and the CIA. He’s rendered the Senate Republicans prostrate.
But the one institution that has successfully defied him is the military. For Trump this is no crisis at all but an opportunity to impose his will.
Writing in USA Today, Larry Tye suggests that, like Joseph McCarthy, Trump may have bitten off more than he can chew in going up against the military. But McCarthy was only a senator. Trump is President. According to Tye, ‘Trump, like McCarthy, could push back against the onslaught when it was coming from the press, protesters or political foes. But as the Wisconsin senator’s downfall makes clear, the armed forces are too big to bully.’ Are they? We may be about to find out.