Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) sees the military in a dramatic leftward lurch that has hurt recruiting and combat readiness.
“They’re politicizing the military so much, they’re ruining our military,” Tuberville told reporters on Thursday, noting that the Army missed its 2022 recruiting goal by 25 percent. “Something’s going wrong in our military.”
These positions have placed Tuberville — whose military background consists of using war metaphors to inspire his teams during three decades coaching college football — in the spotlight as the leading conservative antagonist to the Defense Department.
It’s a particularly unusual twist because Republicans have for decades wrapped themselves in the patriotic mantle of supporting the military.
Republicans have spent months privately complaining about Tuberville. It was perfectly fine to play to the TV bookers at Fox News with complaints about a “woke” Pentagon culture, which most GOP lawmakers consider, at best, a narrow problem. But Tuberville has gone too far in actually picking a fight with the most trusted public institution in America, creating a one-man blockade of nearly 200 promotions among top Pentagon brass to critical military positions.
So, senior GOP leaders have begun to scold him in public. “No, I don’t support putting a hold on military nominations,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t support that. But as to why, you’ll have to ask Senator Tuberville.”
Democrats are torn between wanting to break Tuberville’s logjam and enjoying the political pleasure of appearing on the Pentagon’s side while painting the MAGA-embracing senator as an extremist.
“Look, this term ‘woke’ gets thrown around so much on the other side, I have no idea what they mean when they use it,” Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) told reporters on Thursday. “I stand with the people in our military who lay it all on the line to keep us safe, and I don’t think they deserved to be maligned in any way. And they defend the best of American values, a country that embraces all of us, across racial lines and ethnicity.”
Tuberville made things more complicated when he gave an interview to his local public radio station on Wednesday that criticized Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for trying “to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists” from the military.
In the Capitol on Thursday, Tuberville held several extended sessions with reporters explaining his position, at times embracing white nationalists but also rejecting racism.
“We can’t start distinguishing different types of people,” he said, in terms of supporting their right to serve.
Then, asked if white nationalists should serve in the military, he said, “Well, you got to define that first, what is a white nationalist?”
Reporters explained that white nationalists are white supremacists who support some Nazi views.
“You think a white nationalist is a Nazi? I don’t look at it like that. I look at a white nationalist as a Trump Republican,” Tuberville said, placing himself within their camp. “That’s what we’re called all the time, a MAGA person.”
Military leaders have long worried about extremist views in their ranks. The deadly standoff in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, came against a former Army engineer. Persian Gulf War Army veteran Timothy McVeigh led the plot to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 that killed 168 people.
A study by the Center for Strategic International Studies found that 6.4 percent of all domestic terror incidents in 2020 involved active-duty or reserve personnel, more than quadrupling the tally from the previous year. Hate groups actively target troops to become recruits while encouraging their own extremists to join the military ranks.
The presence of many military veterans at the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol further alarmed senior Pentagon officials and prompted Austin to create a counter-extremism working group in April 2021.
Confronted with these facts, Tuberville agreed that actual extremists don’t belong in the military — or even college football.
“On a smaller scale, I had to bring 120 young men from all over the country, to build a football team to win games to keep my job. It’s a very small scale,” the former head coach at Auburn and Cincinnati said, explaining his position. “You cannot have racists, okay, involved in anything that you’re doing. You can’t.”
Still, Tuberville thinks Austin, the first Black secretary of defense, is driving away potential recruits who support former president Donald Trump. He’s asked top Pentagon leaders questions around this topic at hearings for the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I’ve challenged several people on what they’ve done and how they’ve done it. In terms of what we’re teaching, the books that we’re making our military read to be trained. Yes, I have done that,” he said, to no apparent avail in terms of their answers.
“They make no excuses, and that’s wrong,” he said.
To be sure, the U.S. military has traditionally leaned conservative. A poll by Military Times in late 2020 found that 40 percent of troops identified as Republican or libertarian, just 16 percent said they were Democrats, and the remainder were independents.
By the spring of 2021, conservative Republicans latched onto a recommendation from senior Navy officials to place “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” which connects capitalism and racism, on its rotating reading list for sailors.
They peppered Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, with quotations from the book at a June 2021 hearing, prompting an angry response. “I am not going to sit here and defend cherry-picked quotes from somebody’s book,” Gilday said at one hearing, rejecting the “woke” label.
“We are not weak,” he added. “We are strong.”
The next night, Tucker Carlson began his Fox News show with an 11-minute rant focused on the exchange between Gilday and Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), part of the now-fired personality’s semiregular attacks on the military.
Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), who rose to the ranks of brigadier general in the Air Force, said Tuberville’s complaints are off-base in day-to-day life for the military, but that the Carlson effect has been real.
“I don’t believe it’s reality, but for people who have that perception, it is reality,” Bacon said, describing conversations in some conservative corners of his district. “Some multigenerational military families won’t let their kids sign up right now because this perception is out there, and some of it stems from the Tucker Carlson line of reasoning.”
Bacon said he warned Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about their new abortion policy offering travel funds and support for troops and dependents who are based in states abortion is now illegal.
Staunch antiabortion Republicans view that as a breach of the decades-old prohibition against federal funding of abortions. And that’s what prompted Tuberville to unilaterally announce he would place a hold on every military nomination or promotion requiring Senate approval.
Noncontroversial in normal times, such military promotions are approved in a large bloc over a voice vote. Democrats could overcome Tuberville’s hold by filing the normal procedures and holding full votes, but it would eat up weeks of time to process all of them now that the backlog is approaching 200.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), a senior Armed Services Democrat who has jousted with Tuberville over the military nominations, released a letter from Austin highlighting that another 650 positions will require Senate confirmation by year’s end.
One option could be to hold votes on some of the most important military posts, to try to embarrass Tuberville by showing him how few allies he has on this stand. But Democrats fear he would miss the point.
“Senator Tuberville is beyond shame,” she said.
On Thursday, Tuberville said that McConnell’s words had no impact on him and that he was waiting to hear from him, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) or top Pentagon leaders about his grievances.
But so far they have had little interest in negotiating with Tuberville.
“Crickets, crickets, that’s all I can tell you on that. It has been deathly quiet,” he said.
A previous version of this column misstated the war in which the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh served. He was in the Persian Gulf War, not the Iraq War.