Sacrifice, GOP Style

I feel a certain sympathy for Donald Trump at the moment.

After Khizr Khan delivered his Joseph Welch-like "Have you no dignity, sir" speech at last week's Democratic Convention, Trump lashed out, impugned the Khan family's integrity, and insulted Mrs. Khan to boot.

People reacted to it badly. And not just ordinary people, but lots and lots of Republicans. Paul Ryan called Trump's attacks on a Gold Star family "beyond the pale"; others have called them unpatriotic and accused Trump of crossing a line. This has left poor Donald confused and feeling victimized.

You can understand why, Though Trump isn't taking any advice from anyone about how to run his campaign, what he did to the Khan family was lifted straight out of the Karl Rove playbook. Twelve years ago, George Bush's re-election team turned the name of a US Navy craft into a verb: Swift-boating.

In 2004, Bush was faced with a potentially embarrassing dilemma: How could a guy who skipped Vietnam (and who could not or would not explain the terms of his state-side military service) run against someone who actually did fight in Vietnam and was decorated for it?

Answer: run a scurrilous set of ads attacking the war veteran for his service.

So when Trump was called out by Mr. Khan for his own lack-of-service he was simply trying to Swift-boat the whole Khan family like Bush did to John Kerry in 2004. Although Trump probably thinks a Swift Boat is a rival casino.

Likewise, Trump's defense of his personal sacrifices for our nation sounds remarkably like those offered by Bush after he won that 2004 election. As his Iraq fiasco degenerated into chaos and civil war, Bush was asked by Jim Lehrer about what Americans were sacrificing for this war. Bush replied: "I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night."

First Lady Laura Bush shared her own noblesse sense of sacrifice in a 2007 appearance on the Today Show. Asked by Ann Curry about the hardships being endured by the men and women in uniform, Laura Bush responded, "No one suffers more than the president and I do."

In fact, virtually all of the architects of and cheerleaders for the Iraq invasion were Vietnam-era men who skipped Vietnam. From Bush and Cheney and Attorney General John Ashcroft, to Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh and, naturally, Karl Rove. The list went on.

We had a name for them too: we called them Chicken Hawks.

The strategy of Swift-boating veterans by Chicken Hawks was previewed in a Senate race in Georgia in 2002. There Democratic incumbent Max Cleland had his patriotism and commitment to security issues impugned by challenger Saxby Chambliss in a series of ads. Cleland lost two legs and an arm when in Vietnam (making him, I think, the only triple amputee ever to serve in the Senate). Chambliss used a series of deferments to avoid the Vietnam War. He won that election and in 2009 Georgia Trend magazine named him Georgian of the Year.

For a generation now the GOP has been dominated by (white) men who chose to avoid the military when their turn came and believe that they can make up for it by yelling louder and being more bellicose than those who did actually serve. Donald is no different - he's one of them.

You can see why Trump feels betrayed by the party he now leads and owns. Like so much of what has come out of his mouth - the attacks on Muslims, immigrants, minorities and women - Trump has simply amplified (and perhaps even clarified) attitudes that have been perfectly acceptable among mainstream and successful Republicans for years.

So why the double-standard? Is it only acceptable to smear decorated war veterans if you're an establishment Republican, but not if you've hijacked the party and turned it into your own cult of personality? Shouldn't GOP'ers find Trump's statements reassuring since they resonate so well with their own?

But of course maybe Donald should have noticed that hypocrisy is no stranger to the Republican Party. No one wants a Chicken Hawk in a foxhole with them.

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.