There will be plenty of quibbling in the hours ahead, but Donald Trump clearly just created a new batch of problems for himself with his comments Monday morning, in which he suggested that veterans dealing with mental health problems aren't "strong" and "can't handle it."
"When people come back from war and combat, they see things that maybe a lot of the folks in this room have seen many times over, and you're strong and you can handle it, but a lot of people can't handle it," Trump said to a veterans group in Northern Virginia. "And they see horror stories — they see events that you couldn’t see in a movie. Nobody would believe it. And we need mental health help, and medical. And it’s one of the things that I think is least-addressed, and it's one of the things that I hear the most about, when I go around and am talking to veterans."
Some suggested Trump was saying veterans who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are weak. Others suggested that maybe he just got his words mixed up and shouldn't be raked over the coals.
But what Trump did here is thoroughly Trump. He was talking about an issue in very general terms and was trying to express sympathy. He used the kind of platitudes that you would expect from an amateur politician — but he also stumbled into the kind of language that anybody who is familiar with these issues would know to avoid.
Veterans' allies work hard to fight against the idea that problems like PTSD arise because people aren't strong enough — especially given the culture of strength that exists within the military and lingering resistance to the very idea of PTSD.
The Veterans United Network ranks the idea that PTSD arises out of mental weakness as the No. 1 misconception about PTSD:
People often think that having post-traumatic stress disorder is a sign of mental weakness. In reality, even the mentally toughest human can be emotionally affected by something if they aren’t mentally prepared for an event, especially when it comes to combat. Psychological trauma is a product of the complex relationship between biological, psychological, historical and social factors. Thus, it varies greatly from person to person.
In contrast with other controversial Trump statements, this one wasn't Trump trying to be provocative or appealing to his base. Indeed, saying anything that would alienate veterans would be a very bad idea for any Republican politician, and even Trump knows that.
But he is betraying his utter lack of sophistication on policy issues. Trump's stock response on veterans issues is that things are very bad and that there are 22 veteran suicides per day (which isn't actually accurate) and that the Department of Veterans Affairs isn't doing a good job. But in this case, he was asked about specific ways in which he would address the veteran suicide epidemic, and he has no real response for that — because he has no real policy prescription that he can enunciate. So he wandered into territory that even he must recognize now was a bad idea.
The Trump campaign will surely complain about the way his comments are written up. But he messed up on Monday. And he did it because, in a lot of ways, he's still an amateur.