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Why Trump’s alleged comments about soldiers brought so much outrage

This study examines who Americans think deserves government support.

- September 11, 2020

Last week, a widely reported article in the Atlantic said President Trump disparaged fallen service members as he wondered why he should visit a military cemetery “filled with losers” and calling more than 1,800 fallen Marines “suckers” for being killed.

The reporting was confirmed by other news outlets, including The Washington Post, which reported accounts that Trump did not think there was value in finding soldiers missing in action, since those soldiers had, as the reporter summarized, “performed poorly and gotten caught and deserved what they got.”

While the president denied the reports, these sentiments are consistent with Trump’s past comments. For instance, Trump once said that the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Vietnam War veteran, was “not a war hero. I like people who weren’t captured.” And he has referred to former president George H.W. Bush as a “loser” for being shot down as a Navy aviator during World War II.

Outrage and uproar came swiftly over Trump’s alleged comments about the Marines buried at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris. Politicians and veterans condemned the remarks, and the White House issued a forceful denial. Our research explains that outrage.

What explains the backlash

Some Americans were especially outraged by Trump’s alleged remarks for two reasons. First, the U.S. military has long been rated the country’s most trusted institution. Large majorities of Democrats and Republicans have confidence in the U.S. military and consider it among the best militaries in the world. Though more-liberal Americans — and a majority of veterans — think people join the military for its good pay and benefits and more-conservative Americans think service members join out of patriotism, the vast majority of Americans consider military service a worthy undertaking. As a result, the public sees the military as especially deserving of government support.

Second, the alleged remarks about missing and captured soldiers came up against what scholars call the “deservingness heuristic” — meaning that how people judge the reasons for an individual’s need for assistance will affect how they view the government’s obligation to help. Research shows that the public is more likely to support assistance for those seen as “deserving” help and less likely to support helping those who might be blamed for their circumstances and choices.

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How the public feels about missing soldiers

Just after the presidential election in November 2016, we ran a nationally representative survey with Survey Sampling International to explore how Americans use these lenses to think about helping to recover Americans who go missing abroad. We surveyed more than 1,000 adults, asking respondents how likely they would be to support a costly military mission to bring someone home.

In our study, every respondent read a scenario in which an American went missing in a dangerous area abroad. We randomly divided our sample into three groups, with one group reading that the missing person was a soldier, another group reading that the missing person was a journalist and the third group reading that the missing person was a tourist. We also gave some respondents information that the missing individuals were either at fault for their circumstances or had been sent to the dangerous area by an authority figure. After reading the scenario, we asked respondents whether they strongly opposed, somewhat opposed, somewhat supported or strongly supported a U.S. military mission to bring the missing individual home.

We found very strong bipartisan support for bringing Americans home, as you can see in the figure below. Across all treatments and regardless of the person’s circumstances, an average of 80 percent of respondents either strongly supported or somewhat supported rescuing Americans missing abroad. This is reflected in our laws about hostage recovery, for example: The U.S. government makes no distinction in how its citizens became hostages in determining the appropriate response, and this suggests why many Americans were outraged at the president’s alleged remarks.

Respondents were significantly less likely to support a rescue mission for a missing American described as having put him or herself in danger, compared with those who had been captured while doing their duty. In other words, we found more support for rescuing missing soldiers and journalists than for rescuing tourists. Though support for bringing missing soldiers and journalists home was relatively similar, Clinton and Trump voters alike were about eight percentage points less likely to support a costly military mission to bring home tourists who went missing in dangerous areas abroad.

Moreover, as you can see in the figure below, they were more likely to support rescuing an American captured while working (such as the ship captain Richard Phillips) than one who put himself in danger (such as Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who allegedly walked away from his post in Afghanistan without permission and was seized by the Taliban). For soldiers described as missing in a dangerous area after following orders from their commander, more than 95 percent of Clinton and Trump voters somewhat or strongly supported a costly mission to rescue them. However, when the soldier was described as having gone to the dangerous area against a supervisor’s wishes, support for rescue dropped to about 80 percent for Clinton and Trump voters.

Why “deservingness” matters

Our findings help explain the strong backlash to the allegations and why the president has spent so much time challenging the reporting. He has called the story a coordinated disinformation campaign and also has responded with ads featuring and praising wounded veterans.

But if the allegations of Trump’s disparaging fallen troops are true, Trump’s language would suggest that he sees military service as a poor personal choice and that soldiers killed or missing in action are at fault for their circumstances. This view would put him out of step with large majorities of Americans whose beliefs about who does and does not deserve support cut against the views Trump is alleged to hold.

Trump allegedly disparaged the American war dead. The backlash probably won’t decide the election.

These views of American service members are unlikely to shift radically, but they may have political consequences for leaders who go against them. More generally, how political leaders talk about Americans of all stripes matters. Language blaming them for their circumstances telegraphs to the public when certain groups do not deserve support.

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Danielle Gilbert (@_danigilbert) is an assistant professor of military & strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The ideas expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the U.S. Air Force Academy, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense.

Lauren Prather (@laurenrprather) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy.