Service, sacrifice and the greater good are meaningless values in the transactional world of a mobster. Trump apologists are scrambling to paper over his 2018 comments about dead soldiers, published this week in The Atlantic. Their challenge is that those comments are entirely consistent with all of his previous statements, his behaviors and values. For a mobster, sacrifice is for suckers and losers, those too gullible to understand the grift. There are no public values in the world of the grifter, only a zero-sum scramble for resources where every person’s gain is another’s loss. Trump is struggling to suppress this story because it exposes the truth behind his Presidency. Beneath giant flags on pickup trucks, gaudy fireworks displays, and “patriotic” flyovers sits a ruthless scam, fed by fear and cowardice. Trump’s supporters sold the soul behind those symbols for protection from their phantom fears.
Author Mario Puzo captured essence of this parasitic worldview in The Godfather. When Michael volunteered to serve in World War II despite his father’s lengthy efforts to gain him a deferment, his brother Sonny summed up the wiseguy’s view of sacrifice, asking Michael, “Did you go to college to get stupid? You’re really stupid.”
Sonny describes military volunteers as “saps,” explaining, “they’re saps because they risk their lives for strangers.”
When Donald Trump made a brief visit to troops in Iraq at Christmas 2018, he denigrated their service to their faces, repeating this parasitic, transactional attitude toward sacrifice. He explained to the assembled audience of soldiers that they were sent there as “suckers,” but that he was going to fix it.
“If they want us to do the fighting, they also have to pay a price — and sometimes that’s also a monetary price — so we’re not the suckers of the world. We’re no longer the suckers, folks. And people aren’t looking at us as suckers.”
No more alliances. No more communal, shared values. In MAGALand, the “Free World” gets a new price tag. Sacrifice is for chumps.
Trump sees soldiers as the ultimate marks, fools who sacrifice their own safety for others. It’s something he’s never done and would never do. His family paid a podiatrist in Queens to diagnose him with “bone spurs” to avoid the Vietnam draft, a move he explained to Michael Cohen, “You think I’m stupid? I’m not going to Vietnam.”
Though he loves to use military symbols and tries to coopt the sense of loyalty and obedience attached to service, he’s demonstrated an insecure loathing for military leaders and those who served. His atrocious comments about John McCain are well-known, but he’s carried the same hostility toward the rest of the military chain of command. While Trump promotes a phony “man’s man” persona, he won’t get his hair wet, he can’t walk down a ramp without help, and he never appears in public without a thick coat of cosmetics.
Generals make him feel small, and when he feels small he lashes out like a toddler. In a Pentagon briefing in 2017 he ranted at senior military leaders, “I wouldn’t go to war with you people. You’re a bunch of dopes and babies.”
Trump fought a New York City law that granted disabled veterans the right to operate businesses on the street near his tower, “clogging and seriously downgrading the area.” He tried to keep visibly injured veterans out of his military parade because “no one wants to see that.” His phony university fired an employee, Corrine Sommers, because she needed time off for reserve duty. The Trump University scam targeted military vets, in one case stealing the entire death benefit from Iraq war widow, Cheryl Lankford.
Trump halted all visits to Dover Air Force Base, the receiving point for troops killed abroad, for two years after the father of a slain SEAL refused to shake his hand, hurting his feelings. Pence handles most receptions there now. That’s been helpful, as Trump has no capacity for dealing with these emotional situations. In a call with the widow of soldier La David Johnson, killed in a botched raid in Niger, Trump dismissed her pain explaining, “he knew what he signed up for.” What “he signed up for” was a sacrifice that Trump would never understand and never make. In a mafia worldview, service to a country is a bargain for suckers and losers.
Goldberg’s story in The Atlantic resonates because it seamlessly integrates all of Trump’s public performance toward the military. The suckers and losers comments get a lot of play, but it’s the details of his interactions with John Kelly, details Kelly has declined to refute, that seal the story.
Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father [Gen. John Kelly] and said, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”
The core of the story relates to Trump’s infamous 2018 trip to France, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Trump petulantly refused to join leaders of the other free nations as they marched together in the rain to the Arc de Triomphe, making up some pathetic story about a security threat to avoid getting his hair wet. He then made up a new set of implausible excuses for skipping a ceremony at the US cemetery at Belleau Wood. Instead he remained in his hotel room.
Goldberg outlines what actually happened:
Trump rejected the idea of the visit because he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain, and because he did not believe it important to honor American war dead, according to four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion that day. In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, “Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.” In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as “suckers” for getting killed….
Trump, on that same trip, asked aides, “Who were the good guys in this war?” He also said that he didn’t understand why the United States would intervene on the side of the Allies.
What do Republicans really think of Trump’s disdain for the military? Lindsay Graham summed it up best.
“If there was ever any doubt that @realDonaldTrump should not be our commander in chief, this stupid statement should end all doubt. At the heart of @realDonaldTrump statement is a lack of respect for those who have served – a disqualifying characteristic to be president.”
But that’s how Graham felt in 2015, when Graham felt safe enough to express his honest opinion about Trump’s attack on John McCain. Those days are over. Graham spends his days now fawning over his new patron, pretending “we have always been at war with Eastasia.”
Why do Republicans tolerate Donald Trump? The same reason people tolerate mobsters: cowardice. There are three kinds of people left in the Republican Party: religious nuts and racists, accompanied by the packs of grifters who prey on them. What those religious nuts and racists hold in common is cowardice. Ask someone to explain why they support this utterly indefensible regime and you’ll hear stories of phantom terror, migrant caravans, a formerly broken economy, Antifa mobs, abortionists murdering children, or wild conspiratorial fantasies pulled from the darkest corners of Facebook fiction. It’s all part of the grift. It’s their fears that keep them pinned up, food for those who know the grift. They will bow to the parasitic values of a mob as long as they receive the protection their terrors demand.
These are people darting from their own shadow, weak, cowardly, convinced of America’s decline and doom. In 2016, living in the most prosperous and powerful nation in history, Trump supporters were clinging to guns in bone-shaking fear of their own imagination. These imaginary terrors are ginned up to justify the protection racket offered by the grifters. The Republican Party today has internalized the values of the mob, they are the suckers and losers.
The Godfather also offers the bookend to this era, an explanation of how it all ends. On a visit to Havana near the end of the Bautista regime, Michael witnesses a confrontation between mafia values and something more powerful. To these parasites who exploit moral hazard, exploiting the sacrifice and commitment of others, the ethic of public service isn’t just baffling, it’s frightening.
Michael explains to his business partner, Hyman Roth:
Michael Corleone: I saw a strange thing today. A rebel was being arrested by the military police. And rather than be taken alive he exploded a grenade he had hidden in his jacket. He killed himself and took a captain of the command with him. Now, soldiers are paid to fight; the rebels aren’t.
Hyman Roth: What does that tell you?
Michael Corleone: They could win.
A parasite struggles to understand the worldview of sacrifice, but they see – and fear – its power. Trump lashes out at military figures because they frighten him. He wants to appropriate their strength, but their unwillingness to yield to transactional demands leaves him off-kilter, uncertain. Mob values are brittle. Under pressure from those willing to sacrifice for the greater good, those mafia values will be crushed.