Trump’s insistence on proving his toughness is in open conflict with America’s actual strength
During the first primary debate in August 2015, he was asked about his past comments attacking women and responded flatly that he saw such concerns as a function of political correctness. He deployed a variant of the same argument a few months later in an interview with Fox News in a vastly different context.
“We’re fighting a very politically correct war,” he said of the fight against the Islamic State. “And the other thing is, with the terrorists, you have to take out their families. When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They — they care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. But they say they don’t care about their lives. You have to take out their families.”
There was a brief uproar, but, despite his ongoing lead in national primary polling, the prospect of a Trump presidency still seemed remote. Trump's campaign benefited from a useful diversity in being treated seriously. To much of the Republican establishment and to observers broadly, he seemed like an odd ongoing sideshow. To Republican voters, though, he held real appeal, appeal that derived from his willingness to say things that other Republicans wouldn't — including broadly misleading but often popular arguments from the fringes of conservative media. He was dismissed as a real contender for the nomination until it was too late.
Trump embraced this “I’ll say what others won’t” approach to politics because it suited the representation that he wanted to offer. He presented himself as capital-T tough, the take-no-prisoners billionaire beholden to no one. Railing against “political correctness” offered a surprisingly broad umbrella, covering misogyny, hostility to immigrants and, in the case of those terrorist families, an endorsement of activities that would constitute war crimes.
Over and over during the campaign, we saw similar rhetoric. He waved away concerns about the use of torture during the administration of George W. Bush, insisting on the trail that “torture works.” At a stop in Ohio in November 2015, he declared that, even if the technique known as waterboarding didn’t work “they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.” He repeatedly told an apocryphal story about Gen. John J. Pershing having dipped bullets in pig’s blood before having dozens of terrorists executed, leaving one alive to spread the word of what had happened. That almost certainly didn’t happen, in fact, but that’s neither here nor there for Trump. Perhaps the mark of political correctness of which he’s most dismissive is the constraint of accuracy.
Once inaugurated, that often self-conscious insistence on his own toughness was often in conflict with the stated ideals of the government Trump had been elected to lead. The Washington Post reported on an incident early in his presidency when he was briefed on efforts to reduce incidental casualties in drone strikes.
"The president seemed unimpressed," Greg Jaffe reported. "Watching a previously recorded strike in which the agency held off on firing until the target had wandered away from a house with his family inside, Trump asked, 'Why did you wait?' one participant in the meeting recalled."
"You have to take out their families" — now presidential policy. Civilian casualties from U.S. strikes in the Middle East have increased under Trump. Last year, Trump revoked a mandate that government estimates of civilian casualties be published.
The reason for that rule is obvious. Civilian deaths resulting from the broad use of drones to strike targeted individuals under Obama was in tension with Obama’s and the United States’ public presentation of America’s approach to war. Rules about limiting strikes and (often understated) public reports about casualties were a response to public pressure meant to introduce some accountability and to, perhaps, try to pull the reality back toward the ideal.
Trump waved even that away.
His announcement on Twitter — which by now serves as the only reliable representation of administration policy — that he would respond to aggression from Iran by targeting cultural sites was quickly identified as illegal by experts. Were he to order such a strike, it would likely violate the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property, to which the United States is a signatory.
Trump reiterated the threat during a flight from his vacation in Mar-a-Lago back to Washington, expressing amazement to reporters on Air Force One.
“They’re allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people and we’re not allowed to touch their cultural sites?” Trump said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) replied on Twitter.
“That’s exactly how it works. We follow the rules even when others don’t. We behave morally to set an example,” Murphy wrote. “That’s like … the whole freaking point of America.”
This may often be more of an ideal toward which the United States works than an established pattern of behavior, but the distinction drawn by Murphy is the one that’s guided American policy for decades. To Trump, though, it’s simply another example of business as usual to be cast aside in favor of what motivates him directly. He understands the long-standing interest in building America’s military as a demonstration of strength, often bragging (often inaccurately) about the extent to which he’s funded the armed forces. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate that one reason past presidents encouraged that strength — and invested in foreign aid — was to be able to project power reflecting American ideals.
This is the Trump with which we have been presented for the past decade. Well before running for office, he argued that the United States should seize oil from Iraq to repay the costs of America’s invading that country under Bush. This, too, is likely illegal. In a phone call as president, Trump praised the president of the Philippines for how he handled the drug problem in that country, an effort that has included thousands of extrajudicial killings. More recently, he pardoned multiple members of the military accused or convicted of violating the rules of combat, including Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, who later showed up at Mar-a-Lago.
Unsurprisingly, Trump has reportedly suggested that Gallagher and the others he pardoned would be effective advocates on the campaign trail. While some of his demonstrated disinterest in adhering to America's traditional representation of its ideals has happened behind closed doors, it's clear that Trump understands the political appeal this approach holds. After Fox News panelists for years criticized Obama for handcuffing the military in its fight against terrorists, Trump took the handcuffs off quite literally. It's a distillation of his campaign appeal, so why not work it into his campaign?
Trump’s decision to target Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, an act that escalated tensions with that country and prompted his subsequent threat, was itself a dramatic demonstration of Trump’s splashy interest in demonstrating his style of deploying American military assets. His casual threat to attack cultural institutions is something more akin to the shrug he offered to waterboarding: They deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.
Legal rules simply don't seem to be something that Trump sees as a bound on his military decisions (or, other evidence suggests, other decisions). Talk about "war crimes"? Just political correctness again rearing its ugly head.
The extent to which Trump’s presidency alters international perceptions of the United States’ role over the long term remains to be seen. But his tenure will have seen one concrete shift in that regard. Last year, the FBI dismantled a unit that investigates allegations of war crimes.