Sometimes our character is marked by what we do not do, what we do not say, and where we do not go. For President Donald Trump, who delights in arousing and infuriating his opponents and inflaming his supporters, the attention invariably turns to his insults, his scowls, and his rants. But it was the time he failed to show up that reveals him for what he is.
Two times, actually: On November 10, 2018, supposedly on account of rain, Trump missed a ceremony at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery honoring America’s World War I fallen. The second miss was on Veterans Day 2018 in the United States, when he did … nothing. Most presidents have either visited and spoken at Arlington National Cemetery on that day or, if they were in some other part of the country, attended similar services elsewhere.
In 2007, George W. Bush, in Texas following a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, participated in a wrenching ceremony honoring four fallen Texans. In 2010, Barack Obama spoke to soldiers at U.S. Army Garrison Yongsan and laid a wreath at the Yongsan War Memorial in Seoul, South Korea. Their vice presidents spoke instead at Arlington. This year, Mike Pence did not substitute for the president. Trump, who lives a 10-minute car ride from Arlington, hunkered down at the White House.
The president, unusually, admitted that this was a mistake, and paid a short visit to Arlington a month later. More typical, he then lied about having been at the cemetery in 2017. (He was overseas.)
The moment when alarm bells should have gone off for those who honor military service was in 2015, when Trump famously said of the late Senator John McCain, “He’s not a war hero … I like people who weren’t captured.” At the time, it was interpreted as a nasty swipe at a critic who had endured five years of torment and yet refused early release by his North Vietnamese captors. But actually, the missing Trump of Veterans Day 2018 explains that episode far better.
Trump has an adolescent’s view of heroism and military glory—it is why in 2016 he delightedly accepted a Purple Heart from a man who had earned it the hard way, which is the only way. A decent man would have let his hand wither rather than accept an unearned decoration for an honorable wound.
One may surmise that the darker realities of war—suffering, captivity, boredom, discomfort, and above all death—arouse in him not pity or respect but profound unease. He fears being reminded of them. Bush and Obama wept at Veterans Day memorial ceremonies and on visits with bereaved families, and it speaks well of them both. Trump prides himself on never crying. But that is because he is weak, and in this as in other ways unworthy of those in uniform who must regard him as their commander in chief.