Like many Americans my age, I first became aware of Donald J. Trump with the publication of Trump: The Art of the Deal in 1987. At that time, I accepted the notion of him in passing. I was a Navy lieutenant, a radar intercept officer (think “Goose” in Top Gun), assigned to my first F-14 Tomcat squadron, and the idea of somebody brash and innovative making things happen—in his case, turning worn-out buildings and abandoned lots into skyscraper complexes with fresh vibrancy—had its appeal.
A few years later, I was on shore duty serving as the editor of Approach, the Navy’s aviation-safety magazine. The editor-in-chief, a civil servant who was a successful freelance writer on the side, introduced me to Spy, a brilliantly written satirical monthly helmed by Graydon Carter. Before he went on to save Vanity Fair, Carter used the pages of Spy to humorously expose the elite’s myths, including those surrounding the still-ascendant Donald Trump. It was Carter who popularized the notion that Trump was physically challenged in terms of the size of his hands, describing him as a “short-fingered vulgarian” and then writing about Trump’s responses that suggested the label had cut deep.
I rolled back to sea duty in another Tomcat squadron aboard an aircraft carrier about the time Graydon Carter left Spy, which, sadly, was the beginning of the end for that magazine. The quality of the writing went down, and subscribers like me lapsed, and that was the end of my view into the underlying fiction that was the initial phase of the Donald Trump empire. I didn’t think much about him for the next ten years as I focused on leading sailors and flying airplanes. (I do remember a squadronmate, a New Jersey native who was later an astronaut, characterizing Trump as a “fake millionaire who always says stupid shit” around the time that rumors were spreading of his first imminent bankruptcy.)
I retired from the Navy in 2002 to focus on my budding career as a novelist, which actually began when my debut was published at the very end of my time on active duty while teaching at the Naval Academy. By the time my third book was published it was obvious I wasn’t going to be “the next Tom Clancy,” in spite of the blurb on the back cover, so I accepted an offer to take over as the editor of the biggest military website on the internet, which was based in San Francisco. Between flying between my home in metro D.C. and the West Coast while trying to get a clue what my responsibilities were (they had little to do with actually being a writer), I had even less bandwidth to pay attention to what was going on in Trumpland than I’d had while flying Navy jets. Like the average media-consuming American I occasionally watched The Apprentice and scratched my head over his Obama birtherism obsession, but that was about it.
Trump came back into my scan when he descended the escalator with Melania in June 2015. I was now working as the editor-in-chief of a startup military website based in Hollywood founded by a couple of former MTV execs. Naturally, as with my previous website, among the subjects we covered were matters pertaining to those vying to be the next commander-in-chief. And in spite of my early impressions, I was willing to withhold final judgment around this version of Trump until he had a chance to get his candidacy up and running. Regardless of his half-baked policy stances, the race-baiting elements of his kickoff speech, or his obvious love for the sound of his own voice, even Trump had to understand that aspiring to be president of the United States demanded a higher level of seriousness than, say, being a reality TV star.
My personal grace period didn’t last long. A month into the Trump candidacy, he pushed back on an interviewer’s assertion that Senator John McCain was a hero for how he conducted himself as a prisoner of war during Vietnam; Trump said that he liked “people that weren’t captured.” It wasn’t the first time he’d said it publicly, but it was the first time while seeking the highest office in the land. And it was the first time I’d heard him say it.
Whatever his intent politically, the statement was deeply offensive, particularly coming from a guy who’d avoided military service on shaky medical grounds and then declared that “Studio 54 was my Vietnam.” Trump’s negative characterization of that part of McCain’s life was irreparably beyond the pale for me, a veteran.
My father was a Marine Corps attack pilot who earned the Distinguished Flying Cross during a mission supporting troops on the ground in Vietnam. I attended the U.S. Naval Academy primarily due to his influence (although he went to Michigan State) as well as that of those with whom he served. My timing was ideal, in that during my four years as a midshipman at Annapolis, I was afforded the opportunity to be mentored by former Vietnam War POWs who were in the sunset of their active-duty careers. Paul Galanti (who defiantly flipped off the camera in a North Vietnamese propaganda film) was my battalion officer. Mike McGrath (who—thank you, sir—singlehandedly led a campaign to make all of us better writers in addition to his main duties as head of the Leadership, Ethics, and Law Department) was one of my instructors during my junior year. Ned Shuman was the head of the Naval Academy’s sailing program with whom I had regular contact as a member of the intercollegiate dinghy team.
Their lives all had common themes: Leadership has to be by example. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. It’s not about you; focus on what’s best for the group. Own your mistakes (in a POW’s case, this generally meant saying more than name, rank, and serial number while being tortured, for which there was great guilt afterwards) and strive to do better the next time. Keep faith in your God, your country (few things lifted their spirits as much as the sound of B-52s bombing around them) and your comrades. And never, ever give up.
These men—humble and selfless and full of humility to a man in spite of their myriad remarkable accomplishments—set the bar for all of us at Annapolis during those years. Through them we were given the roadmap to navigate the trials that would inevitably come in the course of our duties and life in general.
Later, when I was the editor of Approach as a lieutenant, I had the gift of several sessions of quality time with Medal of Honor recipient James Stockdale, who had been the senior ranking POW in the Hanoi Hilton and therefore took the worst of it from his captors. Along with his love of the American ideal, Stockdale credited the writings of Epictetus and the philosophy of stoicism for getting him through years of torture and isolation.
Stockdale also told me an incredible story that involved a Marine Corps pilot named John Glenn (perhaps you’ve heard of him) that I included in the April/May 1990 issue of Approach:
John was a Test Pilot School classmate of mine. He’s not a bookish fellow; he’s a practical guy. He came into the program [at the rank of] major, but he didn’t have the college degree that was normally required. He knew he was going to have to burn the midnight oil, so he left his wife at home in Ohio.He’d be in the study room after hours all along. If you were at home and you forgot what the assignment was, you could always call down there and ask John.
His flying was all seat-of-the-pants. Before the school started, he took me flying in whatever had two seats. I was full of theory and no practice in jets, and he was the other way around.
The first time we flew together, we went on a cross-country to get some instrument time in a TV-1 [tandem-seating jet trainer]. I hopped in the back seat, and he showed me how to get things hooked up. I’d never seen the inside of the plane.
He said, “We’re going down to Masters Field in Miami. Here’s the book. You can do some navigating. He was kinda just being nice to me because I was the new guy and he was a good fellow.
We got down there, and there were thunderstorms all around when we landed. It had just turned dark. We were eating a hot dog and drinking a Coke in front of the line shack [where visiting airplanes were parked] when he said, “Why don’t you fly it back?”
I said, “Okay, John, but I’ve never been in the front seat.” I also noticed the lightning all around. He told me I could handle it.
He got me strapped into the front seat and then he stood up on the back and said, “Okay, Jim. Do you see that handle down there? No, not that one, the red one. Now, push that outboard. Now you’ve got it. Now hit that button. That’s your ignition. Hold that for just a minute. Now when it comes up to 15 percent, go around the horn.” He had to start shouting once the motor started up and he yelled, “Okay, I’ll get in and put the canopy down.”
He talked me all the way home. But you can’t do that stuff now. Those times were different.
The idea of Jim Stockdale and John Glenn—two of the greatest Americans of all time— cowboying it across the skies of the Eastern Seaboard together in the days before anyone knew who they were still blows my mind, and I feel incredibly lucky to have had it told to me firsthand.
Stockdale went on to be Ross Perot’s pick for vice president during his 1992 presidential run as an independent, and—while his uneven performance during one of the debates earned him pop-culture ridicule—political historians will note that none of the others on that stage claimed he wasn’t a hero or said they preferred people who weren’t captured.
And then once I retired from the Navy, I had my first direct interface with John McCain when he was a guest on my “From the Editor’s Desk” podcast during his 2008 presidential bid. I was, naturally, aware of his story courtesy of his fellow POWs: third-generation Navy officer and legendarily ne’er-do-well midshipman who found his calling as a Navy attack pilot. He was in the cockpit of an A-4 waiting to launch when the disastrous flight deck fire started aboard USS Forrestal and he was wounded by exploding fragments and barely escaped alive.
Several months later he was shot down over Hanoi. He broke both arms and a leg during the ejection from his stricken jet. After he was pulled out of the lake he’d parachuted into, he was beaten and refused medical treatment. When his four-star admiral father assumed responsibility for all forces in the region, the North Vietnamese offered him early release as a show of good faith. McCain refused. His torture intensified, and he wasn’t repatriated for another five years along with the rest of the American POWs.
I didn’t always agree with Senator McCain’s politics, most notably his choice of Sarah Palin as vice presidential candidate in 2008 and his opposition (on budgetary grounds) to the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2009. And I’m convinced that he lost the presidency to Barack Obama because the Republican party apparatus dragged him way to the right out of the gate, and he was never comfortable after that.
But in my experience, McCain was always willing to make himself available when he could and never avoided the hard topics (and there were many hard topics surrounding the military in those years). He was candid, articulate, and honest. He was introspective and exuded the calm confidence of a person with nothing left to prove in this life. My last conversation with him was in the summer of 2016 on the rooftop of an office complex overlooking the Capitol. We talked about flying jets.
The Navy was good to me in that they gave me flying orders 15 of the 20 years I was on active duty. They sent me into harm’s way, specifically the skies over Bosnia during the Serbian siege of Sarajevo and the no-fly zone over southern Iraq, where I was always just one surface-to-air missile shot from becoming a POW myself.
But because of the lessons of the patriots mentioned here, I never feared I wouldn’t know what to do if that trial ever came. All of these men were blown out of the sky doing their duty, and all of them honored America in how they endured for years under extremely challenging conditions.
Which brings me back to Donald Trump’s “I like people that weren’t captured” statement—the point it got personal for me and I decided he was unworthy of assuming the responsibilities of commander-in-chief. What he said there—for whatever reason—goes beyond the political arena and all of its ad hominem sparring. Trump’s words live in perpetuity as a profane judgement of all who found themselves prisoners of war during the Vietnam conflict and, more generally, any previous American war involving aerial combat. (It should also be noted that many of them didn’t make it out alive.)
Of course, Trump’s apathy, ignorance, and patronizing of the U.S. military didn’t stop with his attack on John McCain. He insulted a Gold Star family. After receiving a Purple Heart from a supporter at a rally (a bizarre gesture), he quipped, “I always wanted a Purple Heart, but this is easier,” demonstrating that he didn’t know or didn’t care what the medal represents. He laid claim to the savings created by the F-35 program multi-year contract even though the deal was inked several years before he took office, thereby demonstrating that he didn’t know or didn’t care how the Pentagon procurement process worked. He told the crew of USS Gerald R. Ford, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, that they should switch the catapults from the new electronic impulse technology back to steam, demonstrating complete disrespect for the effort they were putting into solving the issue the new technology was presenting that would ultimately make the carrier able to launch airplanes more effectively. He’s gone after flag and general officers I know well, some of the greatest military leaders this country has produced since World War II, impugning their character and lives of national service (that in several cases included serving him on the White House staff). He’s shown deference, if not fealty, in the face of our peer competitors (and potential enemies). And the list continues to grow by the day.
Because of Donald Trump I’m now just a moderate instead of a moderate Republican. I reject the thesis—often posited by previously reasonable people (hello, classmates on Facebook) who inexplicably continue to support him—that desirable outcomes like a thriving economy or low unemployment (remember those?), or desirable tendencies like leaning out of government regulations, are axiomatic to Trump being president. If that’s true, then the Republic is broken—and it’s not broken.
I’ve been accused of being a Never Trumper, part of The Resistance, and having TDS. I don’t know what any of those labels really mean, and I don’t care. Through word and deed (not media bias) Donald Trump has proved he is fundamentally an incurious narcissist and equal opportunity in terms of who he’s willing to offend in the pursuit of his own selfish motives and preservation of his fragile ego. He’s said things in public that are sexist, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist, and otherwise offensive or just plain ignorant. And in the face of criticism from most of the reasonable and compassionate members of the population and evidence that he’s doing damage to America’s social fabric and hurting people, he’s shown no signs of mending his ways, even in a time of global pandemic.
Everyone has a personal reason to despise Donald J. Trump. I’m good with mine.