In the 21st century, America has lost its trust in institutions. A quick perusal of Gallup’s data shows that trust in every major national institution has been on the wane since 2000. Except, of course, for the military. As of this year, Gallup reports that 72 percent of Americans polled had a lot of confidence in America’s armed forces. The military has been the great exception in the narrative about the erosion of trust in authority, as Kori Schake noted last December:
The data show a public enormously deferential to the military on issues of war strategy, and supportive of the military having a broader role than traditional civil-military relations allows for. The public does not share experts’ concerns about retired military officers endorsing political candidates or speaking at political conventions, because the public has outsourced its expertise to the military itself.
It is not surprising that Donald Trump has placed even more faith in the military. He has appointed several former generals to his Cabinet, and has delegated an awful lot of decision-making authority to them. Trump criticized NFL players kneeling for the national anthem by saying that doing so disrespected the military (it didn’t).
Seventy-two percent of trust is pretty high. But it is worth noting that this number was 82 percent a decade ago. I am beginning to wonder if Trump’s elevation of the military to such a high-profile role risks the reputation of the armed forces.
In Politico, Mark Perry looks at Trump’s generals and wonders if they are in over their heads:
[There are] growing worries that Mattis, Kelly and McMaster are most recently showing that military officers are ill-suited for positions that require years of nuanced political experience and a deft handling of public opinion. Each of the three were gifted combat officers: Mattis and Kelly were brilliant commanders during Operation Iraqi Freedom; McMaster is celebrated as a courageous tank commander during the first Gulf War. Now we are asking that these three show the same expertise they showed on the battlefields of Iraq in selling the budget of the largest institution of the U.S. government, defending a president who mishandled a phone call with a grieving wife and coordinating a complex and often balky national security bureaucracy. Perhaps we are expecting too much. Or perhaps Mattis, Kelly and McMaster are, to use a military phrase, “out of their lane.”
John Kelly’s erroneous attack on a Democratic congresswoman certainly did not help the public perception of him. Peter Baker’s New York Times story on Kelly sums up the political aftereffects of his high-profile statements from last week:
For all of the talk of Mr. Kelly as a moderating force and the so-called grown-up in the room, it turns out that he harbors strong feelings on patriotism, national security and immigration that mirror the hard-line views of his outspoken boss. With his attack on a congresswoman who had criticized Mr. Trump’s condolence call to a slain soldier’s widow last week, Mr. Kelly showed that he was willing to escalate a politically distracting, racially charged public fight even with false assertions.
And in lamenting that the country no longer holds women, religion, military families or the dignity of life “sacred” the way it once did, Mr. Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan, waded deep into the culture wars in a way few chiefs of staff typically do. Conservatives cheered his defense of what they consider traditional American values, while liberals condemned what they deemed an outdated view of a modern, pluralistic society.
One Special Forces operation gone wrong cannot and should not cause an erosion of trust in the military. But as Trump closely links himself to the military, he risks spreading his own polarizing effect on public opinion to the military as well. Over time it will be difficult if not impossible for national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Kelly to retain the aura of their military credentials if and when they act as Trump’s political surrogates.
In other words, there is a danger that Americans might start looking at the military through a partisan lens. Confidence in the armed forces will never decline to, say, congressional levels. But a 20 point decline would be pretty significant, and that would happen if those who oppose Trump start looking askance at the military.
Lest one think I am exaggerating this possibility, consider a recent Military Times poll that might raise a few eyebrows:
Nearly one in four troops polled say they have seen examples of white nationalism among their fellow service members, and troops rate it as a larger national security threat than Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a new Military Times poll . . .
Concerns about white nationalist groups were more pronounced among minorities in the ranks. Nearly 42 percent of non-white troops who responded to the survey said they have personally experienced examples of white nationalism in the military, versus about 18 percent of white service members.
When asked whether white nationalists pose a threat to national security, 30 percent of respondents labeled it a significant danger, more than many international hot spots, like Syria (27 percent), Pakistan (25 percent), Afghanistan (22 percent) and Iraq (17 percent).
But a notable number of poll participants also bristled at the assertion that white power ideology is a real problem.
If the military starts reflecting societal divisions, suspicion and distrust will soon follow.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is conflicted about this turn of events. There is such a thing as trusting institutions too much. Some skepticism of the military may well be warranted. Furthermore, it is unhealthy for Americans to trust the military and only the military among the country’s national institutions. At the same time, an America with low trust in all institutions is far from healthy as well. I would prefer seeing more robust levels of confidence in all civil society and governing organizations — provided those institutions earn that trust.
Maybe each of these issues will blow over. Maybe Mattis, Kelly and McMaster will do their jobs and restrain Trump, maintaining the military’s reputation among civilians. Maybe the problems polarizing the country will not affect the U.S. military.
Or maybe the military will become viewed by Americans through partisan filters. In which case, the U.S. armed forces will no longer be the exception to the rule.