On Monday, President Donald Trump called Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher “one of our ultimate fighters.”
The President was responding to the controversy caused by his public push for Gallagher, who had been demoted for posing next to an ISIS corpse, to be reinstated and to keep his coveted status as a member of the elite group of SEALS.
“I have to protect my warfighters,” he added.
Trump’s decision, which led to the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, is indicative of the sort of fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of toughness and honor Trump has about the military and law enforcement in the country.
Whether it’s insisting he would go beyond waterboarding prisoners to his repeated calls for the police to be tougher on the people they are arresting, Trump’s philosophy is clear: Being tough is everything. Strength and dominance are not things you apologize for. And in a war setting, anything goes. Literally, anything.
“I would bring back waterboarding, and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” Trump said in a Republican primary debate in New Hampshire in February 2016.
“Don’t tell me it doesn’t work – torture works,” Trump said at a campaign event in South Carolina later that month. “Half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works.”
Compare those statements to what Spencer told CBS on Monday about his removal – and the Gallagher case in particular.
“I don’t think he really understands the definition of a war fighter,” Spencer said of Trump. “A war fighter is a profession of arms, and a profession of arms has standards that they have to be held to and they hold themselves to.”
The key part of that quote is this: “A profession of arms has standards that they have to be held to and they hold themselves to.”
That idea of a code by which American troops live by – no matter what the enemy does – was (and is) at the center of the debate over waterboarding prisoners in hopes of extracting useful information to prevent future terrorist attacks.
“I know that those who used enhanced interrogation methods and those who approved them wanted to protect Americans from harm,” the late Arizona Sen. John McCain said in May 2018. “I appreciate their dilemma and the strain of their duty. But as I have argued many times, the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.”
What Trump fails to grasp in his calls for waterboarding, and what he is missing now in the Eddie Gallagher controversy is the same thing: Might doesn’t always make right.
Trump’s justification of Gallagher’s conduct (and his defense of torture) comes down to this: They’d do it to us if the shoe was on the other foot!
Which, sure. But what that worldview misses is that the reason we have been able to cast ourselves as the shining city upon a hill is literally because we don’t think like that. We believe – or, at least we have believed – there are things, especially in the context of war, that we simply will not do, regardless of whether we believe them to be effective. And when someone like Gallagher steps over our moral line in the sand, the military punishes them, in order to make clear not just to other troops but to the country and the world that this sort of behavior might be OK for other people in other countries, but it’s not OK here in the United States.
It’s that very unwillingness to push beyond the bounds of the morally acceptable (and to punish those who try to do so) that makes America different, and exceptional.
That Trump, a cheerleader for American exceptionalism, doesn’t get that basic idea speaks volumes about how distorted his views of toughness, valor and honor actually are.