CLEVELAND — It is a great American tradition, especially during presidential campaigns, for political candidates to deploy military veterans and active service members as evidence of both their robust patriotism and their qualifications to be commander-in-chief. Donald Trump, of course, is neither a patriot nor qualified to be commander-in-chief, and on Tuesday morning a group of veterans gathered in the public square here to make that very point.
Perry O’Brien, an organizer with Vets vs. Hate, accused Trump of “singularly shameful treatment of veterans” over the years, noting not just the presumptive Republican nominee’s recent obfuscation of his contributions to veteran’s charities but his attempts to stop disabled vets working as vendors from hawking their wares on Fifth Avenue.
“While disabled veterans should be given every opportunity to earn a living, is it fair to do so to the detriment of the city as a whole or its tax paying citizens and businesses?” Trump wrote in a letter to New York state government officials in 1991. “Do we allow Fifth Ave., one of the world’s finest and most luxurious shopping districts, to be turned into an outdoor flea market, clogging and seriously downgrading the area?” In a 2004 letter to then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, Trump accused some of the vendors working around Trump Tower of fraudulently posing as veterans.
O’Brien disputed claims that Trump enjoys any significant support from the military. “Trump’s base of support is older white men—who are just statistically more likely to be veterans,” he told Gawker. “He doesn’t actually have any more veterans supporting him than anyone else. Other than the people who go on stage and on TV for him, nobody I know” (mostly veterans of Afghanistan and the second war in Iraq) “supports him.”
“This is a guy who, by all accounts, has only ever acted in his own interest, for his own gain. He’s never served anyone but himself,” O’Brien added. “And he’s trying to obscure that, using people who committed themselves to serving something other than themselves.” In a book published late last year, Trump claimed that he “always felt that I was in the military” because he spent five years at a military boarding school.
Last night’s convention speeches, on the topic of making America safe again, constituted nothing more than “fear-mongering,” one vet, Matt Howard, said. “They’ve just instrumentalized the tension people feel—and for what? To get votes.”
At the rally on Tuesday, a female veteran who was sexually assaulted by fellow American troops spoke out against both Trump and his pick for the vice presidential nomination, Indiana governor Mike Pence, who has aggressively pursued an anti-woman agenda. “The problem of sexual assault in the military is not going to be solved by a president and a vice president who engage in misogynistic rhetoric, or don’t think women should serve at all,” she said.
(In a 1999 op-ed, Pence cited the Disney movie Mulan as evidence that women should not be allowed in the military. “Despite her delicate features and voice, Disney expects us to believe that Mulan’s ingenuity and courage were enough to carry her to military success on an equal basis with her cloddish cohorts,” he wrote. “Obviously, this is Walt Disney’s attempt to add childhood expectation to the cultural debate over the role of women in the military.”)
Raymond Curtis, a gay man who joined up as he was running away from a repressive evangelical upbringing, spoke about how he was accepted by his fellow soldiers in Iraq, referring to them as his family. “Donald Trump doesn’t care about the LGBTQ community,” Curtis said from the podium, his voice turning hard. This was made clear for all to see, he said, when Trump crowed about being right in the immediate aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, “with bodies still bleeding on the floor.”
Several veterans condemned Trump’s rhetoric towards Muslim Americans. “Donald Trump can’t be held accountable for individual actions,” an organizer with the group, Alexander McCoy said, referring to the vandalization of a mosque in his home state of Rhode Island. “But he can be held accountable for contributing to the climate that has normalized and encouraged the most hateful instincts in our society.”
The members of Vets vs. Hate come from a plethora of ideological, ethnic, and religious backgrounds—some are anti-war altogether, some are not. “We don’t all agree on who should be president,” O’Brien told Gawker, “but we do agree on who shouldn’t.”