Fallen soldier controversy felt deeper by Trump base

By CASS R. SUNSTEIN | Bloomberg Opinion | Published: September 7, 2020

The White House has powerful reasons to fear the electoral repercussions of reported comments by President Donald Trump in which he is alleged to have described fallen soldiers as “suckers” and “losers.” Those comments threaten his most important political advantage.

To see why, we need to back up a bit. Jonathan Haidt, a social scientist at New York University, has specified some of the central differences between conservatives and liberals. He identified five foundations for moral judgments: harm, fairness, loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Both the right and the left care about harm and fairness, even if they do not understand them the same way. But the right cares far more about loyalty, authority and sanctity.

A mountain of evidence supports this conclusion. If, for example, people have been disloyal to their nation or their family, shown disrespect to their superiors, or done something disgusting, conservatives will be far more likely to show outrage. If you ask Americans how much they would have to be paid to burn their nation’s flag, or to curse their parents to their face, people on the left might demand a lot of money. But people on the right will demand more, and they might say that no amount is high enough.

Building on Haidt’s work, Harvard economist Benjamin Enke has studied the rhetoric of numerous recent presidential candidates, and found that one has done better than all others in emphasizing loyalty, authority and sanctity: Trump. On the same scales, Hillary Clinton was especially bad. (Barack Obama was far better.) Enke also found that Trump’s emphasis on these values mattered to many voters, and attracted them to his side.

This framework helps sort out what many people consider to be a puzzle: Trump avoided military service, has been married three times, and has not exactly been a paragon of virtue in his personal life. Yet many people focused on patriotism, religious faith and traditional moral values have strongly supported him. A key reason is that however he has lived his life, he speaks their language — and indeed does so at least as well as, and probably better than, any presidential candidate they have heard before.

That’s why his reported expressions of contempt and disrespect for American soldiers threaten to be uniquely damaging — far more so than other outrageous comments he has made. When he said that Mexico is sending rapists to the U.S., made fun of the looks of prominent women, mocked disabled people, or said that protesters should be roughed up, people might have nodded or cringed, or laughed or been appalled.

As a matter of pure politics, though, saying that soldiers are “losers” or “suckers” is much worse for Trump because it attacks the foundation of his appeal: However he lives his life, at least he expresses deep love for this country and reverence for those who fight for it, and at least he speaks out for traditional moral values.

There are strong lessons here for both Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden. Through both word and deed, the president needs to do whatever he can to make it clear that he respects and supports American soldiers.

To be sure, many of his supporters will accept his denial that he ever made those hateful statements. But even if they do, there will be a question in some part of their minds. That’s a problem for him. He has repair work to do.

For his part, Biden has been handed a golden opportunity. His deceased son, Beau Biden, earned a Bronze Star medal for his Army service in Iraq. Beau’s father is able to speak of patriotism with clarity and conviction. More than any recent presidential hopeful on the Democratic side, he is in an excellent position to emphasize the importance of loyalty, authority and sanctity — and potentially to outflank Trump on those issues.

There is a larger point. Many observers, especially on the left, are puzzled to see that people support Republicans, and Trump in particular, even when it doesn’t seem to be in their interest to do so. What they miss is that many millions of voters care deeply about values to which Democrats seem relatively indifferent. Trump has given them a chance to show that they really aren’t — and that they cherish those values too.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.