Confusion on the campaign trail in South Carolina

We were listening to NPR yesterday morning and heard yet another story about the upcoming primary in South Carolina, this one focused on the drive to win the votes of military personnel, who make up about 25% of eligible voters in that state. It very quickly changed from just another story to one that brought up several boggling contradictions. For this post, we’re working from the transcript of the story.

Just outside the small town of Walterboro in South Carolina’s low country yesterday, the stage for a big outdoor rally featured giant American flags and camouflage bunting.

—Camouflage bunting? This is very hard to picture. The whole point of bunting is that it is another way to display the colors of the U.S. flag, which is desirable because it shows loyalty to and support for the United States. Using camouflage bunting creates a queasy equivalence of the nation with the armed forces, and we wondered who made it. A quick look online did not uncover U.S. flag-type bunting, though camouflage-pink baby bunting is available… it made us wonder if one of the campaigns created it especially for South Carolina campaigning, which again creates a queasy one-to-one identification of the U.S. with its military (and nothing but its military).

…in the hours before that speech by Donald Trump began, a long line formed on the wooded property, including many voters with military ties, among them 58-year-old Jim Shinta, a veteran of both the Army and the Air Force.

JIM SHINTA: I never registered to vote before until this election.

—If you are eligible to vote and never vote, you are not doing your duty as an American. Participating in our representative democracy is crucial. When people do not vote, the system becomes rigged in favor of those who know they can push through un-American policies and laws simply because no one will turn up to vote against them. Serving in the armed forces can be a way to serve your country, but voting—keeping our democracy alive and in good working order—is far more important. There’s no America to defend if there’s no participatory democracy.

GONYEA: He says Trump is the reason. Shinta likes Trump’s promise to restore U.S. respect around the world.

What do you want to see Trump do in that regard?

SHINTA: Defeat ISIS number one, close the borders – that’s number two.

—We have commented recently on this mindset (at Nation of Refugees and Immigrants have always been scary looking, but that’s never stopped us before); here the desire to defeat ISIS is oddly connected with closing the U.S.-Mexican border, and the message is that all outsiders are evil threats and the U.S. must destroy the worst of them and keep out the rest of them, and live in a splendid isolation of perfection. The day the U.S. closes its borders is the day we should dismantle the Statue of Liberty. But we get the feeling Shinta does not mean all borders—he probably doesn’t mind non-Latin or non-Syrian immigrants coming in. It’s a partial border closing, a racially based border selection, that again sits ill with the concept of liberty and justice for all.

…Nearby is 49-year-old Shawn Sauerbrei, who was in the Marines for 23 years. He has no doubts about Trump, saying it’s great to have a candidate who’s truly committed to helping veterans. He also says people should take some of Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric with a grain of salt.

SHAWN SAUERBREI: You know, if he uses the language, it’s Donald. He makes people cheer. He makes people think that OK, he’s going to do something.

—The conflation here is dangerous: Trump says he’s going to do some crazy things that you can ignore because they’re meaningless… yet these are the things that make people happy—they’re the things people want him to do. So which is it: we can ignore it because no one really means it, or it’s exactly what people want? This question is immediately answered:

GONYEA: But on some of Trump’s very tough talk, Sauerbrei says it’s warranted, like when Trump says he’ll bring back waterboarding and worse.

SAUERBREI: I think we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do for terrorism. If he wants to bring it back – hey, if it works it works. If it doesn’t, I’m sure he’ll try something else.

—This is a prime example of deciding something is okay and then ignoring all evidence it is not. Torturing prisoners has been proved over and over to be worthless, because people will say anything to stop the torture. So it doesn’t work. Sauerbrei himself goes back and forth: at first torture is “what we’ve got to do”, and then “if it works it works”, and finally “if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else”. Deep down he knows torture is pointless and even counter-productive, but like the people he discounts in his previous statement, the talk of torture makes him cheer because it means Trump will do something.

Even if torture did get good, solid results, a nation devoted to justice can never, ever use it. The U.S. led the global campaign against torturing prisoners of war in the 20th century. We can’t let it now lead a global campaign promoting torture. It’s not compatible with our founding principles, and we would think someone who took an oath to protect his nation would be more interested in protecting it from tearing its integrity to shreds.

…Meanwhile, at a Jeb Bush event in North Charleston, 48-year-old Derek Robbins says the military has been neglected under President Obama. Robbins’ son currently serves in the Air Force.

DEREK ROBBINS: We have one in the service. And so we see how important that is. And to see the military, you know, to be downgraded – it’s very important to rebuild that strength.

—The idea that the military is being pushed into a dark corner and allowed to rot is just another example of deciding something is true and sticking to it no matter how many proofs to the contrary you see around you every day. Let us offer just two graphics:



Since September 11th, military spending has skyrocketed, and actually had a strong surge upward during President Obama’s first term (after a slowdown during Bush’s second term). Even the decline in Obama’s second term leaves spending levels far higher than they’ve been for nearly 40 years. So the military  has not been neglected…

…unless you mean spending on people, not equipment. What these veterans in South Carolina are really talking about is support for people in active service and for veterans, especially those with health problems related to their service. The U.S. treats its veterans shamefully for the most part, providing little to no health care, counseling, insurance, or just plain money and time and people and care for the men and women who serve in its ranks. Veterans dying on a wait list for VA hospitals make the news, then fade away. The high suicide and murder rate among veterans is well-known, yet the government does almost nothing about it.

When this is the problem, people should say so plainly instead of making broad statements about the military being downgraded and needing to rebuild its strength. No military is stronger technology and materiel-wise than ours. But our military is weak and tottering when it comes to the mental and physical health, the income, and the security of its members. If Trump torturing POWs and bombing the sh** out of China will fix those things, then we’re all for it. But it won’t.

And so we leave South Carolina with a sense of foreboding. Simply being in the military is not patriotic. You have to support, and vote to support, the founding principles of this nation if you want to protect and defend it. Let’s hope the vote turns out well for the democracy and justice the U.S. is meant to stand for.

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