The surprise visit by President Donald Trump to military personnel in Iraq and Germany the day after Christmas was a particularly welcome development, given his previous departure from this time-honored tradition of his predecessors around the holiday season. The visits were marred, however, by the president’s overtly political rhetoric and by his encouragement of the small number of uniformed personnel who offered him their “Make America Great Again” hats to sign, or who displayed campaign banners. It’s the latest instance of the erosion of long-standing commitments to apolitical institutions—and the comparative indifference with which these acts were greeted ought to worry all of us.
Employees of the U.S. government, in general, face restrictions on the “political activity” in which they can engage in the workplace. Uniformed members of the U.S. military are arguably held to a high standard of nonpolitical behavior, even outside the workplace and particularly while in uniform. The presence of campaign paraphernalia at a presidential visit—and the president’s blithe disregard for protocol in choosing to sign some of that paraphernalia, to say nothing of his politically tinged speech to military personnel in a war zone—runs afoul of at least the spirit, if not the letter, of written rules such as Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 (Political Activities) and Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 88 (Contempt Toward Officials) and Article 134 (General Article).
These displays should never have been allowed, and the president certainly should not have encouraged them. But the real problem was not the boneheaded actions of a few men and women in uniform. They made a mistake in a moment of exuberance, excited to see their commander in chief. They may face a tongue lashing, or perhaps some minor discipline, but that is the most that should, and likely will, happen to them.
Nor is the real problem Trump himself. The president has made it clear that he has little interest in abiding by institutional customs and norms. Where the law does not explicitly and unequivocally prohibit behavior on his part, he construes that as an opportunity to engage in the behavior. He pays little regard to whether he should do so, or whether it would reflect poorly on the institution of the presidency itself. That is who the president has always been, and it is who he will remain.
No, the real problem is the political tribalism that continues to erode our apolitical institutions. Rules are rules, even when politically inconvenient. The military in particular is one of our most cherished apolitical institutions. We rely on the military to protect the country as a whole, regardless of which party controls the executive branch. The public needs to retain the assurance that military personnel are fighting for the United States of America, not merely for the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Maintaining that public confidence requires equal and just application of the rules, even on minor issues, such as what transpired in Iraq and Germany.
Democracy does not die in darkness—it dies with indifference. It was indifference that led some to excuse the president’s breaking decades of institutional custom in order to conceal his tax returns, or his refusal to divest from his businesses. It was indifference that led to the acceptance of the politically expedient erosion of anti-nepotism laws so that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner could serve in the White House. And it was indifference that allowed the politicized micromanagement of the civil servants at the Justice Department conducting the Russia investigation.
Now some of the president’s defenders are trying to persuade us to ignore erosion of the apolitical bubble we have so carefully constructed over the years around the civil service and the U.S. military. They suggest that only some rules really need to be worried about, and the rest are just for show—especially if we happen to like the political views being advanced by those who ignore them.
There is danger in indifference. Those who opposed the president’s agenda—and, even more so, those who support it—should see that danger clearly, and decline to take the bait.