Veterans’ Day is a good time to examine how U.S. political leaders relate to the military. This year, observers have suggested that President Trump uses Americans’ high levels of respect for the military as a kind of protective political shield. By placing retired and active-duty generals in prominent positions within the administration, they argue, the president has tried to deflect criticism over grand military strategy and particular military operations, such as that in Niger.
He has tried to shift political discussion about NFL players’ protests over police shootings by saying that by kneeling during the national anthem, they were disrespecting veterans. And when a reporter noted that Trump’s chief of staff, John F. Kelly, had made factual misstatements, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said it was “highly inappropriate” to get into a debate with “a four-star Marine general.” That last statement unleashed outrage from observers who follow civil-military relations.
But does the military look favorably on Trump?
In a word, no. In a recent poll, the Military Times revealed that although active-duty service members support Trump slightly more than civilians do — though not by much — more than half the officer corps sees him unfavorably. That may seem surprising. But a close look at the data reveals that military attitudes toward the president closely mirror civilians’ demographic patterns of support.
The officer corps is generally conservative — but doesn’t love Trump
It should not surprise anyone that some demographic groups are overrepresented in the military, many of them decidedly Republican-leaning. Military recruitment draws disproportionately from the South for reasons that include culture, convenience and economics. Moreover, the military has become increasingly insular; 80 percent of recruits say a family member previously served.
As a result, the military’s political attitudes — and particularly those of the officer corps, which is even more white, male and Republican than the military as a whole — have trended increasingly conservative since 1975, when the draft ended and the military became all-volunteer.
So why would the military not look favorably on Trump? On the surface, the Military Times poll is perplexing for two reasons.
First, support for Trump appears to be very low for an organization that traditionally supports Republican candidates by a 2:1 or 3:1 margin. Just 44 percent see him favorably, a much lower level of support than the military has had for Republican presidents in the past. For instance, even at the height of the Iraq War, 55 percent of the military supported George W. Bush.
Second, demographically, you’d expect officers to support the president more than the enlisted force. The enlisted force is racially more representative of American society, with African Americans slightly overrepresented at just over 19 percent of the force, compared to 13 percent of the United States as a whole. And enlisted service members are younger; 71 percent of them are under 30, compared to just 36 percent of the officer corps. Women make up only about 15 percent of the military, both among the enlisted force and the officer corps.
As a result, you should expect officers — who are more likely to be older white men — to support Trump more than a younger, racially more diverse group. Officers are also twice as likely to identify as Republican than the civilian population, and half as likely to identify as Democrats.
But the Military Times poll shows that only about 31 percent of the officer corps looks favorably on Trump, while more than half disapprove. Meanwhile, support for the president among enlisted service members remains comparatively high, at more than 47 percent. Why?
Education is the best predictor of civilian support …
The answer is simple: education.
Among civilians, education remains a critically important predictor of support for Trump, as we can see in a recent Marist poll conducted around the same time as the Military Times poll. About 44 percent of civilian voters who have not graduated from college support the president; this number goes up to 56 percent when we look at just white noncollege voters.
But only 34 percent of those who graduated from college see him favorably — and that drops further among those with graduate degrees.
… and the officer corps is exceptionally well-educated
Military officers are among the most highly educated groups in the United States. Only about 10 percent of enlisted forces have a bachelor’s degree or the equivalent. But you need a four-year degree to become an officer. In fact, almost 42 percent of military officers have advanced degrees in security studies, technical fields and/or the sciences. By the time an officer becomes a colonel, he or she is likely to have two or three master’s degrees from various training and education programs sponsored by their service. “Officer,” in other words, is almost a synonym for highly educated. So it may be unsurprising that officers support Trump about as much — or rather, as little — as highly educated civilians.
What’s more, officers receive three separate levels of professional military education as company and field-grade officers. These courses include lessons on ethics, leadership, strategy and civil-military relations. Officers are especially trained to avoid partisan behavior throughout their careers and to be wary of how a politicized military could affect democratic processes, although these norms are changing. Campaigning and political evangelism are strictly prohibited on military bases. Some officers do not vote at all, concerned that political leanings might compromise their ability to serve the commander in chief.
Maybe it’s no surprise that a highly educated officer corps with advanced instruction in ethics and leadership might not approve of a president who appears to be violating some of those norms.
The military may be more like civilians than we thought
Education level remains one of the best predictors of support for Trump. That’s what we see in the Military Times poll, as in comparable civilian polls. Members of the U.S. military are — like civilians — the product of their demographics and education.
Carrie A. Lee is an assistant professor at the U.S. Air War College. Any views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense or Air University.