On Thursday, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic, broke a story about alleged comments Donald Trump made about American soldiers in 2018 after canceling a planned visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in France—the final resting place of many troops killed in World War I. “Why should I go to that cemetery?” Trump reportedly asked. “It’s filled with losers.” On a separate occasion, he referred to the dead soldiers as “suckers.” Goldberg’s reporting also adds new details to Trump’s well-known disdain for the late Senator John McCain.
Goldberg’s story was based on anonymous sources and was heatedly denied by Trump. In a string of tweets, Trump wrote, “I was never a big fan of John McCain, disagreed with him on many things including ridiculous endless wars and the lack of success he had in dealing with the VA and our great Vets, but the lowering of our Nations American Flags, and the first-class funeral he was given by our Country, had to be approved by me, as President, & I did so without hesitation or complaint. Quite the contrary, I felt it was well deserved. I even sent Air Force One to bring his body, in casket, from Arizona to Washington. It was my honor to do so. Also, I never called John a loser and swear on whatever, or whoever, I was asked to swear on, that I never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES. This is more made up Fake News given by disgusting & jealous failures in a disgraceful attempt to influence the 2020 Election!”
Trump’s denial is hard to credit, since the private remarks are perfectly consistent with many public comments he’s made. Campaigning in Iowa in 2015, Trump notoriously said about McCain, “I like people who weren’t captured.” He added, referring to McCain’s loss in the 2008 election, “I don’t like losers.” Trump has also made disrespectful comments about the parents of a slain soldier (Humayun Khan) and spoke to the widow of another soldier killed in action (La David Johnson) in a way she found disconcerting.
Trump’s history of uncouth words about soldiers reveals an underlying attitude. Trump worships at the altar of financial success and has little regard for the ethics of sacrifice central to the military vocation. Soldiers have to be willing to give up their lives for a higher good—a practice that makes little sense to Trump’s win-at-all-cost ethos. Trump’s comments are a genuine window into his soul, a glimpse of the bottomless pit of egoistic striving that makes him who he is.
As repulsive as they are, Trump’s comments are likely to gain little traction. The fact that they are based on anonymous sourcing makes them easy to discount for partisans. But beyond that, Trump’s personality is well-known to both supporters and opponents. Those who like Trump have shown an endless ability to forgive and forget. After all, if his public comments on McCain and the Khan family didn’t stop him from winning the presidency in 2016, it’s unlikely that reports of private talk of the same sort would have an impact in 2020.
Joe Biden, whose late son Beau served in the military, has gone after Trump with real passion on this matter.
“Quite frankly, if what is written in The Atlantic is true, it is disgusting,” Biden said. “It affirms what most of us believe to be true—that Donald Trump is not fit to be the commander in chief.” Biden continued by saying, “President Trump has demonstrated he has no sense of service, no loyalty to any cause other than himself. If I am honored of being the next commander in chief, I will ensure that our American heroes know I will have their backs.”
Biden spoke with real passion. As Matt Visser of The Washington Post reports, “Joe Biden is angry, voice rising in disgust over anti-military comments attributed to Trump. It’s the most heated he has been during his campaign. Even more than rebutting criticism of his son Hunter, or Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president telling him to investigate Biden.”
As genuine as Biden’s emotions no doubt were, he would do well not to make Trump’s comment a major campaign theme, or indeed to highlight Trump’s personality too much. Trump’s odious character is an established fact and won’t move marginal voters.
Trump’s polling numbers are unusually stable. They do sometimes go down, but seemingly only in response to real-world events. They were low in August 2017 (when Trump praised the racist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville), in November and December 2017 (after his unpopular tax cut for the rich), and in January 2019 (during the government shutdown).
It’s worth remembering that the Democrats made enormous gains in the midterms by focusing on health care, rather than Trump’s personality.
All of this suggests that the best way to fight Trump is to focus on policy: his alignment with the racist right, his plutocratic economic policies, on health care, and his general incompetence. These are the issues that will peel away marginal Trump voters.