The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg revealed the president said dead American soldiers buried in Europe were “losers” and “suckers.” On the one hand, this might finally eat into Donald Trump’s approval rating by which around 40 percent of the electorate thinks he’s doing a bang-up job, no matter what he does, no matter how he does it. On the other hand, Goldberg’s revelations might sink like a stone, never to be seen again.
The optimist in me believes the former. The realist in me believes the latter, which is due, I think, to a huge chunk of the country desiring to believe Trump’s lies. It is also due, I think, to a smaller chunk not knowing it is being lied to. Even if we fail to communicate what’s surely the truth (“losers” and “suckers” fits Trump’s profile), we must try nevertheless. (The Post and the AP have confirmed details of Goldberg’s story.) We must try getting beneath and in-between layers of fact to expose a darker truth: a malicious contempt for doing the right thing for its own sake. He isn’t just immoral. He isn’t just amoral. His one commitment is anti-morality. He is hostile to anyone, anywhere, genuinely moved to act morally. But even this, I suspect, gives Trump too much credit. We keep failing to appreciate just how petty this man is.
In 2018, Trump was scheduled to visit Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, where 1,800 Marines were buried after helping stop the German advance toward Paris in 1918 in World War I. The site is hallowed ground to the US Marine Corps. Trump cancelled at the last second, citing weather too dangerous for helicopter flight. That wasn’t true, Goldberg wrote in a piece published Thursday night. The real reason, Goldberg said, was because the president “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.”
I think Goldberg buried the lede. Midway through his piece, he relates the following anecdote. On Memorial Day 2017, Trump visited Arlington National Cemetery. John Kelly, who was secretary of homeland security at the time, was with him. Kelly’s own son is buried at Arlington. He was killed in 2010 in Afghanistan at age 29. “Trump was meant … to join John Kelly in paying respects at his son’s grave, and to comfort the families of other fallen service members,” Goldberg wrote. “But according to sources with knowledge of this visit, Trump, while standing by Robert Kelly’s grave, turned directly to his father and said, ‘I don’t get it. What was in it for them?’ … [Kelly] came to realize that Trump simply does not understand non-transactional life choices.”
That’s one way of putting it. A translation: “Why would your son sacrifice his life for his country when he got nothing in return? Only losers and suckers do that.” Imagine saying something like that straight to the face of a father honoring his dead son on Memorial Day. Imagine, if it’s possible to imagine, being that kind of somebitch.
Goldberg spends time parsing “losers” and “suckers.” Trump “believes that nothing is worth doing without the promise of monetary payback, and that talented people who don’t pursue riches are ‘losers.’” The word “suckers” has a more “capacious definition,” Goldberg writes. It “includes those who lose their lives in service to their country, as well as those who are taken prisoner, or are wounded in battle.” Eighteen hundred Marines killed defending Paris from the Germans in 1918, for example, were suckers.
We should appreciate good people interpreting Trump’s word-salad in good faith. But truth demands less generosity. This president was a serial draft dodger. Everyone knows about the “bone spurs” that kept him from fighting in Vietnam. To him, failing to get out of doing something you don’t want to do means you’re a loser. Genuinely believing in values like patriotism, duty, and honor means you’re a sucker. All that matters is money and power. Anyone telling you different is trying to scam you. Spending a day at Arlington paying respects to the dead was surely confounding to someone who has never once experienced the ennobling uplift of moral action.
Trying to understand Trump risks giving him too much credit, though. I don’t think Trump cares. I don’t think he cares enough to expend the energy to wonder why people would behave with no expectation of constant praise or instant reward. My most skeptical take is the hardest to swallow, because it’s so hard to imagine a grown man being so petty, but here it is: Goldberg said the president cancelled his visit to Aisne-Marne American Cemetery because “he feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain” and because American war dead are “losers” and “suckers.” That’s two causes, simultaneously. I don’t think that’s right. I think Trump’s first and only concern was his hair. I think he knew his hair would not be a good enough reason to cancel, so he searched for a “good” reason—and decided to malign fallen heroes. I suspect, to his way of thinking, fallen war heroes are nothing compared to his hair. That’s so petty as to be so inconceivable that no one is seeing the truth in plain sight.
John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He’s a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.