But it isn’t. The split quickly comes into focus when you consider its underpinning in radically divergent views about race in a diversifying America.
Today’s military leaders not only welcome racial diversity, they depend on it for America’s national security. For the 21st century GOP President Donald Trump leads, diversity represents a mortal threat.
The repudiation Trump suffered, from the men in uniform he has surrounded himself with to convey an image of toughness, was initially cast in the language of civilian-military relations.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper spurned Trump’s idea of deploying active-duty troops against Americans protesting police brutality against blacks. Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis added his indictment of the President’s preference for division over unity, casting it as fundamentally un-American. Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, once Trump’s White House chief of staff, joined other prominent military figures in echoing that scathing assessment.
Yet their words reflected much more than disagreement over the applicability of the 1807 Insurrection Act, which Trump has threatened to invoke as cover for bringing in the military to quell civilian unrest. The racial conflict Trump embraces is something the armed forces, as one of the most successfully-integrated institutions in American history, simply cannot abide.
From Truman to Powell
President Harry Truman ended segregation in the armed forces by executive order in 1948. Within four decades, the military sociologist Charles Moskos concluded, “Blacks occupy more management positions in the military than they do in business, education, government, or any other significant sector of American society.”
Colin Powell became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, two decades before Barack Obama became the first black President. While African Americans are about 13% of the US population, they represent 11% of Army officers and 24% of enlisted Army soldiers.
“We can’t exist without some sense of racial fairness,” observes retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey.
Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., who was confirmed on Tuesday as the first black service chief in the US military, underscored that point by reflecting publicly on protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
“I’m thinking about how full I am with emotion not just for George Floyd, but the many African-Americans who have suffered the same fate,” Brown said in an online video. “I’m thinking about a history of racial issues and my own experiences that didn’t always sing of liberty and equality.”
The GOP and black voters
The civil rights movement took the Republican Party in the opposite direction. After Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, over the opposition of Republican opponent Barry Goldwater, white conservatives, in the South and elsewhere, exited the Democratic Party in droves. They expanded and transformed the GOP, helping create a presidential majority that won five of six White House contests from 1968 to 1988.
But at the same time, black support for the GOP plummeted. Now demographic change — shrinking the white share of the electorate from nine in 10 to seven in 10 and dropping — has given Democrats the upper hand. Every uptick in non-white voting erodes Republican power, leading the GOP to fight measures that make casting ballots easier.
Blue-collar whites, who rallied behind Trump’s polarizing 2016 appeals, dominate the GOP rank-and-file. Pew Research Center polling in 2019 showed broad Republican alarm about false claims of racism, belief that America has done enough to provide equal rights, and concern that whites are as likely as blacks to face “a lot” of discrimination.
Doubts about systemic racism
Little wonder that top Trump advisers insist systemic racism doesn’t exist. Attorney General William Barr, having seen the proportion of white Christians in America drop by half to around 40% in his lifetime, sees a different systemic threat: from “militant secularists” and progressives seeking “organized destruction” of religion and traditional values.
It was Barr who directed federal officers with tear gas and rubber bullets to push protestors off a street near the White House on June 1. Trump then walked across that street to a church, where he held a Bible aloft for photographs flanked by the Attorney General and other white advisers.
That government-initiated violence proved the tipping point for Mattis and other military leaders. Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apologized late last week for accompanying Trump on that walk and thereby suggesting his involvement in “domestic politics.”
The turn to the issue of Confederate symbols took the debate into explicitly racial territory. The Navy joined the Marines in banning Confederate emblems on their installations, and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus aligned himself with protesters by proposing to rename military bases that honor Confederate generals.
Pentagon leaders, and even Republicans in Congress, signaled openness to that debate. Trump brusquely cut it off in the name of “a “Great American Heritage.”
At one incongruous moment, the two sides converged.
Trump’s nomination of Brown to become the first black Air Force chief of staff — announced by Esper in March — finally reached the Senate floor. Republican and Democratic senators confirmed him unanimously.
“A Patriot and a Great Leader!” Trump tweeted.