The controversy over US President Donald Trump’s pardoning of three soldiers accused of war crimes reveals more than the confrontation of two contrasting interpretations of the law and the limits of executive power. As he does with so many questions of policy and political reasoning, Trump has found a way of highlighting aspects of US culture that have traditionally been mooted because they seem to contradict the ideal of fairness and justice. Examining the language Trump uses to define his position tells us more about the value system of US culture than the reasoning that appears to accompany it.
Trump fired Navy Secretary Richard Spencer for opposing the president’s surprising pardon of Chief Petty Officer Eddie Gallagher, described by Yahoo as “a member of the elite Navy SEALs, who was accused of murdering an unarmed Iraqi teenager in 2017.” Spencer invoked the rule of law, claiming that military discipline is less about the fate of individuals than it is about the responsibilities of nations and their armed forces. To make his point, he insisted, “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries.”
Stated in those terms, this could lead to a purely philosophical debate about politics and ethics. Spencer should have suspected that such a debate was unlikely to take place with a man like Trump. The president’s patterns of thought or instinct have nothing to do with moral reasoning. What emerges from an analysis of his discourse are two things: Trump’s personal obsessions and a specific feature of US culture that he has learned to exploit to his advantage.
Explaining not only his pardons but also his dismissal of Secretary Spencer, Trump cited several converging reasons. First, his duty as commander-in-chief, which he summed up in this simple assertion: “I have to protect my warfighters.” What this means is that he intends to protect them from the authority of their commanding officers.
Trump then cited the prowess in combat of the pardoned officer: “He was a great fighter … one of the ultimate fighters.” Everyone knows Trump’s propensity to call things “great” or “huge,” the “best” and the “most.” He has rarely used the word “ultimate.” That signals that for him this is supremely important.
Hunter Walker, the White House correspondent for Yahoo News, reports on Trump’s rationale: “Trump said it was improper to have service members who deserted or had leaked information receive lesser punishments than people facing war crimes charges for things they had done ‘as a fighter.’”
For Trump, everything appears to hinge on the man’s status “as a fighter,” a status that presumably puts him above the laws applied to common mortals and especially whistleblowers.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In US culture, the vocation of any real man, who must prove himself either in actual physical combat or — if prevented from doing so in his younger years due to bone spurs in his feet — through verbal and psychological intimidation, the crushing economic pressure afforded by the power of wealth and the abuse of his authority as a leader
That Trump worships the image of the “fighter” became doubly apparent this week when he tweeted a photoshopped picture of his head on an image of Rocky Balboa’s body. Reuters reports that followers “cheered Trump on with messages of support, saying there is a ‘fighter in the White House’ and thanked him for ‘being our champion.’” Others were simply bemused by the picture with no caption or explanation.
Unlike James Brown, who believes that “it’s a man’s world,” Trump truly appears to think that while being a man is important, “it’s a fighter’s world.” In that sense, he’s a true proponent of social Darwinism. He takes Charles Darwin’s phrase “survival of the fittest” as a description of the legitimate, possibly predestined domination of the powerful over the weak.
But Trump didn’t invent this meme. He borrowed it from the surrounding culture. He has simply repackaged it and sold it back to a population that voted him into office on the basis of his image as someone who doesn’t care about the niceties of social relationships, but goes straight into combat, swinging wildly and hoping to do the most damage possible to whomever his opponent happens to be, foreign or domestic.
Steve Bannon made this very point when he was interviewed by Trish Regan on Fox News. Offering his explanation of what drives Trump voters, Bannon asserted: “These are free men and women that say these policies I like and I support this guy because he’s a fighter.” In the same interview, analyzing the perceived weakness of candidates for the Democratic presidential primaries, he observed that “there doesn’t seem like a fighter that can take on Trump.”
Bannon’s and Trump’s version of US culture may be closer to historical reality than their critics are willing to admit. His Democratic adversaries like to stress their commitment to human rights, universal justice and a level playing field, at least in their discourse if not always in their actions. In his concluding comments at the end of the most recent Democratic debate, Joe Biden idealistically invoked the Democratic side of the picture when he asserted, “We’re in a position where we’ve led not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Most observers will dismiss this as the usual rhetoric. The touted example of the US has been seriously tarnished by the wars of aggression Biden has consistently supported and another candidate (Tulsi Gabbard) has continually denounced. A majority of Americans, especially establishment Democrats, appear to have more faith in their nation’s power to dominate than its vocation to lead by example.
Celebrating what they proudly call American exceptionalism, both Republicans and Democrats have celebrated and put in practice an aggressive economic and military domination more absolute in some ways than Trump’s. On the one hand, the Democrats cultivate the bespectacled Clark Kent image of a mild-mannered defender of the rule of law. But when asked about policy, they prefer Superman to Clark Kent. Or rather they accept to identify in public as Clark Kent only because they know he’s Superman, who will always overpower the enemy and “fight a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.” The rule of law requires a fighter to impose it on other people and nations.
Fighting has become the grounding myth in the historical development of US culture, shared by Democrats and Republicans alike. Trump and Bannon sense its physical, muscular appeal to voters and know how to exploit it.
But the idea of fighting in US culture isn’t confined to armed combat. It’s also present in the daily struggle to survive. It plays out in every domain. Why, for example, does the US resist the very idea of universal health care while at the same time polls indicate a majority of Americans are in favor of Medicare for All?
US culture teaches its citizens that survival is not a right. It must be earned by each individual fighting for it. That is what motivates Americans not just to earn money but, as a measure of security, to seek excessive wealth. Money alone guarantees survival and, as so many people with two or three jobs realize, the salary from one job won’t guarantee it. Presidential primary candidate Andrew Yang’s proposal of a survival income sounds intriguing, but it’s profoundly un-American because, if implemented, it would be seen as offering people a key to survival to people who haven’t fought for it.
The justice system in the US that privileges certain races and classes and severely handicaps others demonstrates that while the rule of law and the idea of a level playing field define the theoretical ideal of every red-blooded American, those ideals have been systematically superseded by the rule of financial advantage. As O.J. Simpson proved (despite being black), money trumps law. Those same ideals are also superseded by the rule of might, which functions like a tiebreaker in tennis. If the set hasn’t been decided by financial advantage alone, might can always intervene to settle any difference that financial resources haven’t already resolved. That’s why fighting is important.
Bannon explained to Trish Regan that the reason Michael Bloomberg is entering the Democratic presidential race is because there are no “fighters” among the current candidates. The New York Times appears to agree. In an article on current voting trends, it quotes former Democratic voters who now favor President Trump: They are typically looking for “the person who’s going to get more done.” Voters feel that the current candidates don’t show the fighting spirit. “Most politicians just talk about doing things, but Trump does them,” said Juli Anna California. According to one woman, “Trump is ‘an egotistical, overbearing man.’” That sounds bad, but The Times mentions that the same woman “said that doesn’t change what he’s achieved.”
A fighter achieves things. And in the eyes of his admirers, Trump the heavyweight achieves those things not for the elite, but for the people. On the question of why he fired his Navy secretary but pardoned a war criminal, Trump explained, “I think what I’m doing is sticking up for our armed forces and there’s never been a president that’s going to stick up for them and has like I have including the fact that we spent 2.5 trillion on rebuilding our armed forces.”
Money and might once again trump the rule of law. And just to show he’s doing it for the little guy, Politico reports, “President Donald Trump said Monday that he will put America’s troops ahead of those at the top.”
Those at the top will simply have to go back to basic training and learn to be fighters again.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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