Why do I get the sense that fighter jets are Donald Trump’s biceps, warships are his pectorals and what he’s doing with his proposed $54 billion increase for the Pentagon is flexing?
Maybe because that’s a strongman’s way. Maybe because so much with him is preening. Or maybe because so little of his military talk adds up.
In a sweeping speech to Congress on Tuesday night that largely diverged from his splenetic norm, he laid out his vision for a better America, and a key part of it, he said, was “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.”
But he also lamented what he deemed our country’s military follies of recent decades, sowing confusion in a careful listener. If we were winding down, why were we building up? If caution was the order of the day, why did it require such lavish investment?
Trump’s address was an opportunity to change the narrative of his presidency from one of an administration in disarray to one of a man on a methodical mission, and to accomplish that, he donned a new kind of tie and a new kind of tone: less truculent, more inspirational. He began with a mention of Black History Month and a condemnation of hate crimes.
But his remarks didn’t have sufficient details or offers of compromise to turn the page or to erase all the nonsense to date. Just a day earlier, at a meeting with the nation’s governors, he maintained that when he was young, America was the proud victor in all of its wars.
Really? World War II wrapped up before Trump came along, and the Korean War, which ended when he was 7, was no unfettered American triumph.
Then came Vietnam, which found Trump in college and unable to serve because of a podiatric ailment so debilitating that he couldn’t recall which foot was affected when he was asked about it in 2015. Surely, though, he remembers how Vietnam went. It didn’t continue some glorious winning streak.
In Trump’s telling, everything about the America of yore was superior, everything about the America of today is wretched, and somehow, magically, he has solutions that even the most practiced hands don’t.
That was a theme of his military musings during his campaign, when he touted a secret plan for defeating ISIS that he conveniently couldn’t divulge, lest he trample on its secret-ness.
He subsequently ordered his top military advisers to come up with their own strategy, which makes a skeptical voter wonder what happened to his. Are the generals and he going to compare plans – I'll show you mine if you show me yours – to determine whose is mightiest? For now that’s still a secret.
Details aren’t his thing. He’s all over the place. One moment, his chosen generals are sages for the ages. The next, he fingers them for any flaws in the Yemen raid during which a Navy SEAL, William Owens, who was called Ryan, died. “They lost Ryan,” he said on Tuesday morning.
But on Tuesday night, before Congress, they were geniuses anew, architects of a brilliantly successful operation. I was moved to see the effect of Trump’s words on the SEAL’s widow, Carryn, who stood in the audience, tears streaming down her face. I was also floored by the opportunistic shifts in Trump’s take on those events.
He used his speech to complain once again that America was paying too much of the defense bill for our allies. He said that he was finally getting them to pony up.
If so, why do weneed to pump tens of billions of additional dollars into the military, especially when we already spend more on it than the seven countries that spend the next most combined?
We can’t afford the increase, not if Social Security and Medicare are off limits, not if he follows through with the tax cuts he promised, not if he’s going to embark on the infrastructure projects that he’s (rightly) calling for, not unless he’s willing to gag Paul Ryan and shove him into some Capitol broom closet while the debt balloons.
And that increase doesn’t square with all that Trump has said about being more reluctant to embroil us in military conflicts than some of his predecessors were.
I suppose he could argue that maximum military readiness is a deterrent, but does America’s count of aircraft carriers really give jihadis pause? The wars that we’re fighting aren’t traditional ones, and they hinge on the kind of diplomacy and foreign aid that Trump is giving short shrift. But then soft power doesn’t gleam or puff up the ego the way that new fighting equipment does.
His approach is provocative, antagonistic. He berates and bad-mouths allies in a fashion that threatens to push them away while promising a barrier along America’s southern border and an upgrade of our nuclear arsenal.
He’s saying that we can and will go it alone, and while that attitude may be emotionally satisfying to many Americans, it’s not at all certain to keep us safe.
I suspect that it’s emotionally satisfying to Trump most of all. He’s determined to cast himself as a figure of epic proportions and has to size everything around him accordingly.
Hence his (latest) grandiose description of his election in Tuesday night’s address. “In 2016, the earth shifted beneath our feet,” he said, going on to mix metaphors as they’ve seldom been mixed before. “Finally, the chorus became an earthquake.”
And hence his desire to upsize our armed forces. The military is one of his many mirrors. If it’s more muscular, so is he.