A steady diet of criticism from retired generals and CIA chiefs hasn't cost Donald Trump his support in the military. Poll after poll shows the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is backed by the majority of rank and file service members—a divide that seems to reflect the gap between elite opinion and popular dissatisfaction that has propelled the real estate scion's insurgent campaign.
"The first rule about military voting patterns is that they generally mirror the electorate, and that's especially true of junior officers and most enlisted personnel who are only in the service for a few years," Phil Carter, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, tells VICE.
An Iraq veteran, Carter served in the Obama administration after leaving the service and now supports Hillary Clinton for president. For his part, he's skeptical of the recent polls showing Trump with a massive following. "I'm sure Trump has pockets of strong support in the military like he has pockets everywhere," he says. "I have yet to hear from a single person, military or not, who supports [Trump] on national security grounds."
Carter questions, as many veterans who oppose Trump do, whether the former reality TV star should be entrusted with the nuclear codes and the world-destroying power that comes with the Oval Office.
Trump "doesn't have a policy to evaluate," Carter tells me. Instead, "he has a bunch of erratic statements that are all over the map."
That's not far from how a group of Republican heavy hitters put it in their March "Open Letter on Donald Trump from GOP National Security Leaders." According to the letter's signatories, the real estate scion is "wildly inconsistent and unmoored in principle. He swings from isolationism to military adventurism within the space of one sentence."
"I think Donald Trump is our best hope," —a non-commissioned officer who recently left active duty and serves in the Army Reserves
Since Trump-mania reached full tilt late last year, there have been reports of Pentagon officers threatening to quit if he's elected, retired generals questioning his reading of the Constitution, and numerous anti-Trump editorials by veterans and soldiers. Anti-Trump veterans and veteran's groups mirror the split between those attacking his credentials and competence, and others like the group vets vs. hate denouncing him as a bigot.
Meanwhile, because of the military's ban on political endorsements, it's actually a bit tricky to suss out exactly what's driving Trump's support in the rank and file, but it revolves around the same issues being debated by left and right critics over the source of his civilian fandom. Namely, observers wonder whether Trump supporters are driven mostly by material conditions, which for military members and veterans could include both issues like pay and benefits, as well as frequent deployments—or else ideology and sectarian identity politics.
A senior non-commissioned officer (NCO) who separated from active duty service in the US Army last month and asked not to be identified because he still serves in the Reserves framed his support for Trump in terms of nationalist optimism.
"I think Donald Trump is our best hope," the NCO tells me. "He's the most Reagan-esque candidate since Reagan. He's got strength, he's successful, he loves America and that's why I'm for him."
"As a leader in the military, you look for someone who's strong—you look for someone who can make a fucking decision, and who do you see that in?" he adds. "You see that in Trump."
When I asked about Trump's anti-interventionist rhetoric and criticism of the war in Iraq, the NCO, who served in Iraq and supported the 2003 invasion, responds that he's more concerned with leadership than abstract positions for or against "interventionism."
"I don't like either one of them, but I dislike Trump less."—Daniel L. Davis, recently retired Army lieutenant colonel
Last year, Daniel L. Davis retired from the Army as a lieutenant colonel after 21 years of service and multiple overseas deployments. For Davis, the abstract principles are precisely the point. The man developed a reputation in foreign policy and military circles for publishing "realist" critiques of the war in Afghanistan while he was still serving on active duty. And while he isn't thrilled by Trump as a candidate, Davis is holding out hope he'll make good on promises to curb foreign wars.
"I don't like either one of them, but I dislike Trump less," he tells VICE.
That's a common sentiment among troops. Negative attitudes toward both Trump and Clinton ran high in an early May Military Times poll, with 21 percent of 951 service members polled saying they would abstain from voting and a number of respondents quoted expressing their disgust with the entire field.
"At least Trump is saying, 'I'm not sure we need to go to all these places and why should we be sending our guys to die over here,' and that resonates really well with guys who have had four tours like me," Davis continues. "I think they are hopeful that he actually means that, and he's not just saying that so it gets votes."
Talking to members of the armed forces and recent veterans, Trump's appeal seems to cover both the military's anti-interventionists—who think the armed forces are overextended after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—and the hawks who believe the military is too constrained in its approach to ISIS and want to commit to a more ruthless, total war. A conflict like that might ultimately be more winnable, some believe, and therefore shorter than the current open-ended engagements.
For veterans and service members who believe the system is rigged and needs to be overhauled, as many of their civilian peers do, it isn't just about cultural standing, immigration, and job security—though it's that that stuff, too. It's also about 15 years of war that hasn't ended in either victory or peace. For them, ultimately, it doesn't make much difference whether they feel they were forced into an unnecessary war or were sent, maybe more than once, to fight wars they weren't allowed to win. The longer people feel they are forced to repeat the same mistakes, the more their trust in leaders will erode and the bigger the risks they will accept to break out of that cycle.
Of course, that doesn't mean Democrats and Republican skeptics won't do everything they can to highlight what they say makes Trump so dangerous. Earlier this month, with her party's nomination all but won, Hillary Clinton marked her turn to the general election with a blistering speech in San Diego focused on foreign policy and national security.
"He's not just unprepared," Clinton said of Trump. "He's temperamentally unfit."
With lines like, "He says he has foreign policy experience because he ran the Miss Universe pageant in Russia," and, "I will leave it to the psychiatrists to explain his attraction to tyrants," Clinton showed off a sharper, more acerbic style than she had used in past attacks. The foundation of her appeal to some soldiers remains the contrast between her foreign-policy experience and hard-nosed pragmatism, and Trump's freewheeling bluster.
Indeed, Trump's critics in the military and veterans communities continue to attack him along those lines, questioning the handful of policy specifics he has enumerated so far, including in a national-security speech on Monday. The problem, of course, is that he didn't become the presumptive Republican nominee by appealing to conventional virtues. Instead, Trump fought his party's own Establishment and vetting system, appealing to a pervasive disgust to become its spokesperson.
His irreverence extends to members of the military, along with everyone else, and, for now at least, that speaks to some soldiers who seem to like his lack of ceremony. If he pulled back, it might ruin the effect.
When Trump basically says, "I told you so," as he did in the wake of a disturbed terrorist and wannabe jihadist's massacre of gay club-goers in Orlando this past weekend, there is no reason to expect that the apparent indecency of it, or the outraged reaction to it, will cost him support among troops.
Here's how the veteran who recently left active duty and supports Trump explained his reaction to the comments about Orlando. "Do I think that's reprehensible and in bad taste? Yeah, one hundred percent. But he's still right about this."
"You know Trump wasn't my first candidate," the NCO told me in a previous conversation. "First was Walker, then Cruz. Trump was all the way down the list."
Something changed his allegiance, the veteran says, and though he's not sure exactly what, he's more excited for Trump now than he ever was the others.
"It's his take charge attitude," he tells me. "His he doesn't care what he says kind of thing. He doesn't put a sugar coating on it. He's fucking America—I love that."