Why Trump Can't Handle the Cost of War

The president relishes bellicose language and performative violence, but seldom acknowledges its human toll.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

When White House Chief of Staff—and Gold Star parent—John Kelly, on Thursday defended Donald Trump’s call to the newly widowed Myeshia Johnson, he was somber and sincere, which is refreshing. But he was wrong.

Context matters. From another person, at another time, observing that Sergeant La David Johnson “knew what he signed up for” by joining the Army wouldn’t have sparked outrage. But consider what else Representative Frederica Wilson—with the backing of Johnson’s mother—has alleged: that Trump didn’t know Johnson’s name; he repeatedly called him “your guy.” And that Trump’s tone was oddly jovial: “He was almost, like, joking.”

Above all, consider what we know about the way Trump discusses pain and death. This is the man who congratulated Puerto Ricans—whose island had been utterly devastated—for losing only “16” and not “thousands of people.” The man who told a crowd in Corpus Christi on August 29, while 30,000 Texans were displaced, “It’s going well.” And who said after touring the convention center where thousands of Houstonians were taking refuge that, “We saw a lot of happiness.”

Donald Trump minimizes suffering for which he might be held responsible. That’s likely what he was doing in his conversation with Myeshia Johnson. And it’s not just insensitive; it’s dangerous. As the former Missouri Senate candidate, and former Army intelligence officer, Jason Kander observed on Wednesday night on CNN, people say, “He knew what he signed up for” because “they are seeking emotional distance from the situation. People say that because they want to avoid feeling that pain.” That’s worrying, Kander added, because “I want the president, any president … when they’re making a decision about sending people to a dangerous place, I want them to have as one of the things in their mind, the visceral, emotional feeling” that comes from absorbing a widow’s inconsolable grief.

That’s the key point. Trump’s comments bespeak a refusal to face the human costs of violence and war that could have frightening consequences for American foreign policy.

Trump loves discussing violence. He does it often, and almost always in the same way. When committed by terrorists, criminals, or protesters, violence is horrific, and its perpetrators are subhuman. (“Animals,” is a favorite Trump word.) But when committed by Trump’s side, violence is righteous and heroic, evidence of a functioning moral order. Crucially, it is also cost-free. Trump barely ever admits that violence, when deployed by his side, causes suffering that need disturb his sleep.

This narrative is part of Trump’s own, self-styled, personal history. He’s said that, “In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye. I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.” The story is likely invented. But what’s striking is the pride with which he recounts it. Far from expressing something troubling about his character, the incident shows that “I was a very assertive, aggressive kid.” The young Trump exhibited the very qualities he prides himself on today.

As an adult, Trump assiduously avoided real violence. He gained five deferments to avoid service in Vietnam. But he lustily participated in fake, consequence-free violence. His frequent appearances at World Wrestling Entertainment events got him inducted him into the WWE Hall of Fame. At WrestleMania 23 in 2007, he pretended to repeatedly punch WWE Chairman Vince McMahon and then, along with two wrestlers, brutally shaved his head while McMahon pretended to plead for mercy and scream in agony. It was simulated torture, and Trump appeared to thoroughly enjoy it.

Trump still finds the WWE paradigm—candy-corn violence—attractive. In July, he tweeted a video of himself at WrestleMania repeatedly punching a victim whose face was covered by the CNN logo. In August he retweeted a drawing of a train labelled Trump running over a person labelled CNN (before later deleting it).

At his campaign rallies, Trump tried to make this cartoon violence real. He often expressed a yearning to beat up protesters and congratulated his supporters when they did so on his behalf. Far from expressing concern that such violence might cause pain or even death, he described such concern as symptomatic of the cultural weakness he was running for president to overcome. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” Trump exclaimed as a protester was being escorted out of a rally in Las Vegas. “In the old days,” he added, such people were “carried out on stretchers” but unfortunately, “we’re not allowed to push back anymore.” Near Ferguson, Missouri, while bemoaning the time it was taking to eject a demonstrator, Trump declared that “part of the problem and part of the reason it takes so long is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore.” As guards removed protesters in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Trump said “They used to treat them very, very rough, and when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily.” As a society, he added, “we’ve become weak.” Since becoming president, Trump has tried to rectify this by urging police to “please don’t be too nice” with suspects. In August he said “tough police tactics” would stop the violence in Chicago “in a week.”

Another striking example of Trump’s refusal to face the human consequences of the violence he glorifies comes from his discussion of the NFL. The press has been filled in recent years with stories of former football players driven to suicide by the brain injuries they suffered on the field. But to Trump, they knew what they signed up for. In fact, he’s mocked the NFL for trying to minimize their suffering. Last year, when a woman at a Florida campaign rally passed out and then regained consciousness, Trump declared that, “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back. We don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions. ‘Oh, oh! Got a little ding on the head. No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’” In Iowa he said, “Football’s become soft like our country has become soft.”

Trump’s discussion of war is similar. He said last October that veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder were not “strong.” He yearns for the good old days when American soldiers did not acknowledge pain, and when law, morality, and empathy did not impede their ability to maim and kill. Trump has repeatedly cited a bogus story about General John J. Pershing killing Muslim terrorists with bullets smeared in pigs’ blood as his model for fighting terrorism. He’s called for torture techniques far “stronger” than waterboarding. And he’s called for killing the families of alleged terrorists.

He perfectly illustrates Robert E. Lee’s famous maxim that, “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.” Except that Trump won’t admit it’s terrible. By ignoring, or even celebrating, its horror, he gives himself permission to delight in its pageantry and power. He relishes calling his defense secretary “Mad Dog.” He dropped the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan. He shocked Chinese president Xi Jinping when he informed him, over chocolate cake, that he had bombed Syria. He relishes public displays of weaponry: In June he flew to France to witness “one of the greatest parades I have ever seen … two hours” of “military might,” and then proposed something similar along Pennsylvania Avenue.

And he relishes threatening war against North Korea. By one estimate, he has done so five or six times. He’s claimed America will “totally destroy North Korea,” that “they will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen,” (Trump liked that line so much he tweeted it out twice), and that if North Korean officials keep threatening the U.S., “they won’t be around much longer.” Just as striking, Trump almost never mentions the obvious, colossal, human costs such a war would entail. His advisors have surely briefed him on them. But I’m unaware of any public statement, or private vignette, in which he acknowledges them in any meaningful way.

“I’m really good at war. I love war in a certain way,” Trump told an Iowa rally in 2015, “But only when we win.” It’s plausible that Trump will avoid war with North Korea because he fears America cannot prevail. It is far less likely that he will avoid war because he can’t bear the human cost. He never bears it.

That’s what Myeshia Johnson—who has a six-year-old, a two-year-old, and is pregnant, and who said she doesn’t know what she’ll do without her “soulmate”—confronted Trump with: the human cost. The human cost that doesn’t exist in professional wrestling. The human cost, which proves that violence and war aren’t always grand, manly spectacles, and that America doesn’t always win. The human cost, for which Trump, as commander in chief, bears responsibility.

He couldn’t handle it. His attacks on Wilson suggest he still can’t. He won’t abandon his decades-old intoxication with pretend violence and pretend war. And that makes him a very dangerous man to be leading the most powerful military on earth.