President Donald J. Trump’s sweat session with Fox News’s Chris Wallace on the patio outside of the Oval Office a few weeks ago was a classic Trumpian word-salad buffet that will power a dozen Sarah Cooper viral videos in the weeks to come. The interview covered a lot of ground, and elements of it have already been analyzed in these pages.
Being among The Bulwark’s military veteran contributors, I naturally focused on this exchange, which occurred about halfway through the interview:
WALLACE: The National Defense Authorization Act, you have threatened to veto it because in the bill—and this is supported by Republicans as well as Democrats—it would rename Army bases named for Confederate generals. Now this is a bill that funds military operations, it gives soldiers a pay raise. You’re going to veto that?
TRUMP: They’ll get their pay raise. Hey, look. Don’t tell me this. I got soldiers the biggest pay raises in the history of our military. I got soldiers brand new equipment, brand new jets, brand new rockets, brand new—$2.5 trillion—I did more for the military than any president that’s ever had this office.
WALLACE: But you’re going to veto this bill?
TRUMP: Because I think that Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, all of these forts that have been named that way for, uh, for a long time—decades and decades.
WALLACE: But the military says they’re for this—
TRUMP: Excuse me. Excuse me. I don’t care what the military says. I do—I’m supposed to make the decision. Fort Bragg is a big deal. We won two world wars. Nobody even knows General Bragg. We won two world wars. Go to that community where Fort Bragg is. It’s in a great state. I love that state. Go to that community, say, “How do you like the idea of renaming Fort Bragg?” And . . . then . . . what are we going to name it? You going to name it after the Reverend Al Sharpton? What are you going to name it, Chris? Tell me what you’re going to name it. So, there’s a whole thing here. We won two world wars. Two world wars, beautiful world wars that were vicious and horrible, and we won them out of Fort Bragg. We won them out of, er, all of these forts that now they want to throw those names away? And no, I’m against that. And you know what? Most other people are. And I even . . . I don’t believe in polls because I see the fakest polls I’ve ever seen, but that poll was a 64 percent thing, which actually surprised me. We won world wars out of these, out of these military bases. No, I’m not going to go changing them. I’m not going to go changing them.
WALLACE: So, you’ll veto it?
TRUMP: I might, yeah. I might.
So much to unpack there. First, with Trump it’s always about the money. Sure, an incremental pay raise is a nice thing that our troops certainly could use, but in being spring-loaded to defend himself with that logic, the president demonstrates he has no feeling for the other elements that underpin military service—like unit cohesion based on an unmitigated sense of racial equality. Remember, this is the same guy who walked into both teams’ locker rooms before the last Army-Navy game and announced that he was making a policy change regarding their military obligation upon graduation so they could “make a fortune” playing professional sports.
He calls the world wars “beautiful,” which has to rank very high on the list of Vulgar Things to Label Wars. And he casually throws out a self-own by declaring he doesn’t believe in polls while attempting to prove his point by asserting that a poll asking people how they felt about keeping Confederate names on bases “was a 64 percent thing.”
But let’s back up a bit. The battle line around this version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was initially drawn by Trump in the form of, surprisingly, a tweet:
I will Veto the Defense Authorization Bill if the Elizabeth “Pocahontas” Warren (of all people!) Amendment, which will lead to the renaming (plus other bad things!) of Fort Bragg, Fort Robert E. Lee, and many other Military Bases from which we won Two World Wars, is in the Bill!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 1, 2020
As a pure point of fact-checking: seven of the ten U.S. Army bases currently named after Confederate officers weren’t yet built during World War I. Not that anyone should expect this to stop Trump from his trying to die on yet another racist Little Roundtop. He’s got a John Wayne movie in his head (don’t ask him which one), and he’s going with that. Subsequent to Trump’s Fox News Sunday appearance, both the House and Senate passed the 2021 NDAA with a veto-proof majority. The $740.5 billion bill gives the Department of Defense three years to make the appropriate name changes.
But what’s the answer to Trump’s question about what to name them? What POTUS posits as an unsolvable problem, sarcastically suggesting obvious non-starters and non-servicemen like Al Sharpton, is at once the easy and hard part. Easy in that there are hundreds of good candidates (e.g., “Henry Johnson: The Black Death”); hard in that deciding on a name is a convoluted process involving politicians at the city, county, state, and national levels—one that could well take all of the three years that the Senate has allotted.
But we used to have a saying in the Navy fighter squadrons: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.” The recent congressional actions have made it clear that military installations that honor traitors should be renamed, so why wait when there is an interim step that is immediately available? And this interim step was developed by the source of all things that are great in America: the NFL.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the focus once again turned to Dan Snyder, the owner of the professional football team formerly known as the Washington Redskins. Snyder had resisted pressure to change the team’s name for years but relented once FedEx announced they were pulling their stadium naming sponsorship if he didn’t change the name. That kind of fiscal impact spoke to Snyder, arguably the most-hated owner in the National Football League, for how he has mismanaged the once-storied franchise over the years he’s been in charge.
The leading candidates for the new name according to sports prognosticators were Warriors, Red Tails, and Red Hawks. Then franchise leadership surprised the world with their (interim) choice: the Washington Football Team. Call it a cop-out if you’d like; the argument was stopped dead in its track in the face of this decision—genius in its matter-of-fact pedestrianism.
The Department of Defense should adopt the same strategy without delay. Fort Bragg—currently named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg—would now be “Fayetteville Army Base.” The Buchanan House at the U.S. Naval Academy—named for the school’s first superintendent who subsequently joined the Confederacy—would now be “Superintendent’s Residence.” And, if we wanted to go a step beyond the Confederacy, USS John C. Stennis—named for the segregationist Dixiecrat Senator who never saw a defense budget increase he didn’t vote for—could now be known as “Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier Number 74.”