President Trump recently incurred the anger of many in the military when he used his prerogative of the presidential pardon to undo the court martial action that was taken against Chief Petty Officer Mike Gallagher of the Navy SEALs and some others. They were accused of war crimes, and in particular, Gallagher was convicted of posing in a picture with a dead ISIS fighter whom he had apparently killed (he boasted in a tweet that he got him with his hunting knife), though he was acquitted of murder in the incident. Trump used his power to absolve Gallagher of any guilt and relieve him of any punishment. There were a few related pardons as well.
The reason for the anger among military officers, including Navy Secretary Richard Spencer who was forced to resign, is obvious: the military depends heavily on discipline. There are regulations and orders that must be obeyed; in order for these to be effective, there must be punitive options to enforce them; in order for these to work, servicepersons should not expect the president to countermand the punitive sanctions. Although Trump has the constitutional prerogative to issue pardons, many feel that interfering with court martial proceedings sets a bad precedent.
But there’s another dimension to explore: why did Trump do it? Now, I don’t claim the ability to see inside of Trump’s head, and I think I’d pass on the opportunity if it were offered to me. However, I can see how this move might play well to Trump’s base, the people who pack stadiums for his rallies and cheer for him. And I happen to think that these rallies are what it’s really all about for him. As long as he still has the cheering crowds, he knows he’s doing well.
The Trump campaign and much of the Trump presidency represent populist nationalism. Another term can be added in there: authoritarian. Authoritarian populist nationalism plays to a mindset that says that nothing is more important than the nation being strong. It plays to the perception that the nation’s own government has made the nation weak and that a strong leader is needed to rectify that state of affairs. The strong leader, acting in the name of “the people,” must take on those sinister, conspiratorial forces that have made the nation weak. When Trump refers to “the deep state,” that’s what he means.
Note that the regulations that these Navy SEALs were charged with breaking were regulations that required American forces to behave virtuously and honorably toward the outside world, even enemy fighters. This is very different, obviously, from being court martialed for helping the enemy or endangering America’s own troops. So pardoning these individuals would seem to send a message that American fighters have no obligation to exercise moral restraint when engaging with enemy fighters or anyone perceived as being an enemy fighter. Supporters of Trump’s move might even feel that moral constraints on the actions of American fighters may even serve to weaken America’s forces in the world. And for those who see only the difference between weak and strong, where America’s armed forces are concerned, Trump’s pardons would seem to make sense.
It should also be remembered that Trump visited Long Island some time back, and in a speech to law enforcement officers, he said “Please, don’t be too nice. Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over, like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody. Don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?” It’s the same idea: Trump plays up the idea that being strong means not trying too hard to be honorable in dealing with those marked as enemies.
Article in the Christian Science Monitor, November 27, 2019, about the Navy SEAL pardons
Article in Vox, July 28, 2017, quoting Trump’s speech on Long Island