‘MAGA’ Republicans Are Dismantling Ronald Reagan’s Legacy
Efforts to draft the U.S. military into culture wars are undoing its Reagan-era rise from post-Vietnam malaise.
Recent visitors to former President Ronald Reagan’s gravesite in Simi Valley, California would do well to grab a handrail lest the ground spin beneath their feet.
After all, a chief legacy of the 40th commander-in-chief was rescuing America’s all-volunteer military from its post-Vietnam malaise, setting the nation on a decade-long course towards triumph in the Cold War and a lopsided victory in Operation Desert Storm. Along the way Reagan helped transform a demoralized and crisis-prone U.S. military into the most trusted institution in the nation, burnishing the Republican Party’s reputation as the gold standard in achieving “peace through military strength.”
Today a Republican Party still enthralled by former President Donald Trump and his acolytes in the “MAGA” populist movement are systematically dismantling that legacy. Following Trump’s example, they try relentlessly to politicize the U.S. military by forcibly drafting it into their culture wars with vague charges of “wokeness” in order to score partisan points. Adding injury to insult, these Republicans are undermining the U.S. military at a moment when it faces a very real recruiting crisis — with the Army falling 15,000 short of its goal of 60,000 active-duty recruits last year — even as war rages in Europe and dark clouds gather in the Indo-Pacific.
At this moment of vulnerability, Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., would have you believe the Defense Department’s “woke” diversity, equity, and anti-extremism policies are to blame for the recruiting crisis. He has even criticized Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the nation’s first black secretary of defense and a former four-star general and combat veteran, for driving “white nationalists” out of the military. Never mind that anti-extremism measures were responsibly taken after it was revealed that dozens of veterans and at least a handful of active-duty service members took part in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. During that crisis Tuberville himself was in direct telephone contact with the uprising’s chief instigator: Donald Trump.
Because of a Pentagon policy offering travel funds and support to female troops or military dependents seeking the same access to abortion services still available to millions of American women, Tuberville has single-handedly put a hold on every military nomination and promotion requiring Senate approval. That number of senior officers whose lives and families have already been affected nears 200, and could reach 850 by the end of the year if the hold is not lifted. Though Tuberville has no military experience to draw on, his rhetoric closely tracks with that of former Fox News host Tucker Carlson, darling of the MAGA right. Another armchair warrior who fancies himself an expert, Carlson has regularly inveighed against the “feminization” of the U.S. military, and equity and inclusion initiatives that he argues make a “mockery” of the fighting force.
To grasp the real story behind the Pentagon’s recruiting woes, and its equity and inclusion policies, it’s worth recalling the parallels between the situation today and the geopolitical landscape that Ronald Reagan and the Pentagon confronted back in the early 1980s. Then as now, the U.S. military confronted the demoralizing impact of a long and unpopular war. The Army's inability to recruit even marginally qualified soldiers led to such a manpower shortage that only four out of ten active-duty Army divisions were rated capable of deploying overseas in the event of a Soviet attack on NATO. Then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Edward “Shy” Meyer was forced to publicly acknowledge that the U.S. Army was a “hollow force.”
Not coincidentally, the Soviet Union chose that era of perceived weakness to invade Afghanistan in 1979, the same year that radical Iranian militants attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran and seized 52 American hostages. The U.S. military’s botched hostage-rescue attempt ended in disaster in the Iranian desert in 1980, with eight U.S. service members killed in an aircraft collision. The U.S. military was demoralized and America’s adversaries emboldened.
To pull out of the “hollow force” tailspin, with its chronic manpower shortages, the U.S. military leaned heavily into attracting minorities and women into the uniformed ranks. The Pentagon targeted both groups in recruiting and in higher admissions to the service academies and ROTC programs. Racial-, ethnic-, and gender-sensitivity training programs were established, and affirmative action was used as a tool to level promotion rates for minority officers—what today would be called diversity and equity initiatives.
The result is a uniformed military that today is more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender than any in U.S. history. In 2017, racial and ethnic minorities made up 43 percent of the active-duty military. Women made up 16 percent of the active-duty force, up from 9 percent in 1980 and just 1 percent in 1970. They also account for 18 percent of the commissioned officer corps, versus just 5 percent in 1975.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the burden of the United States’ longest-ever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fell on the shoulders of that all-volunteer force. Despite comprising only one percent of the citizenry, those volunteers stayed in the fight for nearly two decades. Not surprisingly, when the American public looks at that all-volunteer military it generally sees a reflection of its better self: diverse, meritocratic, professionally nonpartisan.
That helps explain why going back decades and in poll after poll, the public has consistently judged the U.S. military as far and away the most trusted institution in the country. While that still holds today, as accusations of “wokeism” and political bias have increased in recent years, public confidence has declined precipitously. In a 2021 survey the Ronald Reagan Institute found that for the first time “a minority of Americans—only 45 percent—report having a great deal of trust and confidence in the military.” The most common reason given by survey respondents for that decline in trust was “political leadership,” a euphemism for the hyper-partisanship that has so infected our political discourse.
During an earlier time of crisis, Ronald Reagan had the wisdom to recognize the U.S. military as a unifying force in society, and a pillar of American strength that had to be nurtured and reinforced. With storm clouds now gathering in Europe and Asia, and the armed services once again recovering from the end of a long war and struggling to connect with a new generation of disaffected American youth, elected officials who treat the military as just another cudgel to be wielded in a never-ending culture war are showing the opposite of “political leadership.”
James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He is a three-time recipient of the Gerald R. Ford Award for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, and author of “Prodigal Soldiers: How the Generation of Officers Born of Vietnam Revolutionized the American Style of War”(Simon & Schuster).