“In the councils of government,” Eisenhower said, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."
“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes,” he continued. “We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
Eisenhower’s comments were offered as a warning against something novel and emergent, a change he had seen as his own career had transitioned and as the country’s international position had shifted.
It was a statement that resembled one offered by President Trump on Sunday only in the broadest of strokes, despite Trump’s subsequent effort on social media to equate the two.
“It’s one of the reasons the military — I’m not saying the military is in love with me; the soldiers are,” Trump said during a news conference at the White House. “The top people in the Pentagon probably aren’t, because they want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy."
Trump has long claimed that his purported opposition to wars in the Middle East position him as outside the hawkish mainstream — as even some sort of pacifist. That's always been a dubious claim, rooted in his false insistence that he opposed the war in Iraq at the outset.
Here, though, Trump is doing something else. He’s attempting to rebut the still-roiling controversy over his having allegedly disparaged Americans killed in combat by suggesting that it is military leaders who are seeking to stop him despite his support from the rank-and-file.
The problem, of course, is that his first claim fails to withstand even the slightest scrutiny.
It’s clear by now that the stories of Trump’s description of dead soldiers as “losers” or “suckers” come at least in part from sources with extensive backgrounds in the military. Trump’s claim Sunday clearly suggests that he thinks this is the case, casting the stories (which he denies) as sour grapes from those hellbent on protecting the military-industrial complex.
Except that this argument depends on Trump undercutting military spending or the United States’ international footprint, neither of which he has done to any significant extent.
Projections from the White House Office of Management and Budget indicate that military spending will be up 29 percent over 2016 levels by the end of the 2021 fiscal year — an increase of $164 billion. That’s thanks to an increase of about $40 billion in research and development activity and procurement, but an increase of about $26 billion in military personnel and housing.
Far from criticizing military spending, Trump frequently touts it. He uses military contracts as an argument for supporting job creation, as in a video released by the White House last July.
That video was one of a dozen examples of Trump’s embrace of military spending collected by Defense News’s David Larter. It includes various occasions on which Trump celebrated defense contracts, embraced or employed industry figures and even an essay from Trump’s senior trade official explicitly advocating for how the administration has supported defense spending.
When Trump was slammed for failing to criticize Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump insisted that he didn’t want to threaten Saudi Arabia’s heavy spending on U.S. military equipment, which helped support American jobs. His estimate of what Saudi Arabia was spending was itself vastly inflated.
As he touts his opposition to wars in the Middle East, Trump has largely left the country’s footprint in places such as Afghanistan intact. (At the end of President Barack Obama’s second term, there were 8,400 soldiers in that country, about the number there now.) At the same time, the Trump administration has dramatically increased the number of drone strikes in Afghanistan (with an average of three times the number each year of Trump’s presidency as occurred in 2016, according to Bureau of Investigative Journalism data), Somalia (an estimated four times as many under Trump as under Obama and George W. Bush) and Yemen (where half of all U.S. drone strikes have probably occurred under Trump).
In other words, Trump wants to have his cake and eat it, too: be the antiwar president who is demonstrably tough against foreign actors, and be the anti-military-spending president who touts military spending as part of his jobs agenda.
And, of course, be the president revered by the military itself. On that point, at least, Trump has some supporting data.
It’s tricky to estimate how much support Trump enjoys from active-duty service members. Surveys by military-focused magazines such as Military Times try to capture the mood of the military, but they are constrained in ways that make it hard to assume they are fully representative.
Quinnipiac University regularly asks poll respondents if they live in a “military household,” meaning that someone in their household is a veteran, on active duty or a reservist. It's a broadly inclusive category, but it also offers one of our best looks at views of Trump among members of the military.
Compared with FiveThirtyEight’s average of general election polling, military households support Trump by about 14 percentage points more than do Americans overall.
His net favorability among military households is about 10 points higher than the RealClearPolitics average each month, though that has narrowed from more than 20 points in 2016.
Part of this is simply a function of the partisanship of the military-household respondents, who tend to be more Republican and less Democratic than the population overall, as measured by Gallup. That, too, though, has diminished over time.
Again, this is the focus of Trump’s remarks Sunday: offering those households and staunch supporters of the military broadly a target of blame for the recent stories about Trump’s comments. He’s focused intently on speaking to his base as president, which he clearly sees as including military families. He wants that group to see the allegations to be the fault of warmongers who are trying to drag him down, not as accurate descriptions of his own views.
That he makes this case by misrepresenting his actual approach to military spending is perhaps informative.