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On Public Service

On Public Service

Trump's hostility to public service–and those who serve–stands as a warning in the lead-up to elections. Francis Fukuyama's latest.

Francis Fukuyama

Of all of the outrageous things that Donald Trump has said in his career, the one that I find the most offensive, and most revealing, were the comments he made to his former chief of staff John Kelly, a former Marine general. These comments were first reported in an Atlantic article by Jeffrey Goldberg, and later publicly confirmed by Kelly after he left office. Trump refused to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018, asking “Why should I go to that cemetery?  It’s filled with losers,” and called the 1,800 Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood “suckers” for getting killed. The previous year, he went with Kelly to Arlington Cemetery, ostensibly to pay respects at the grave of Kelly’s son who was killed in Afghanistan at the age of 29. At the gravesite, he offered no condolences to the father but rather said to Kelly, “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?”

It is perhaps not surprising that Kelly despises Trump and thinks that he is “the most flawed person” he has ever met:

A person that thinks those who defend their country in uniform, or are shot down or seriously wounded in combat, or spend years being tortured as POWs are all ‘suckers’ because ‘there is nothing in it for them'… A person that did not want to be seen in the presence of military amputees because ‘it doesn’t look good for me.’ A person who demonstrated open contempt for a Gold Star family—for all Gold Star families—on TV during the 2016 campaign, and rants that our most precious heroes who gave their lives in America’s defense are ‘losers’ and wouldn’t visit their graves in France.

Public service has been under attack for some decades now. The longstanding American distrust of government morphed into an explicit hostility to bureaucrats during the Reagan presidency, when entrepreneurs were lauded and public servants were criticized as obstacles to economic growth and prosperity.___STEADY_PAYWALL___ Over the next generation, young people no longer saw work in government as a worthy calling and pursued careers in the private sector instead; if they were still publicly-inclined, they would work for an NGO or an international organization instead of the U.S. government. This hostility to the public sector was for a long time nonpartisan: think of the number of Hollywood movies you’ve seen where the protagonist uncovers a nefarious plot by a secret government agency to undermine the wellbeing of ordinary citizens.

For many years, the only part of the public sector that was largely exempt from criticism, especially from conservatives, was the military. How many times have you heard people at an airport or shopping mall go out of their way to say “thank you for your service” to someone in uniform? United Airlines still allows active duty military to preboard ahead of families with small children. Republican politicians in particular love to wrap themselves in the flag and vote for big defense budgets.

Donald Trump participates in showy displays of support for the military, literally kissing the flag at events and boasting about how strong the armed forces became under his presidency. But he only loves a military that is loyal to him. His private feelings, as revealed by Kelly and others, take Reagan’s hostility to public service to unimaginable heights that would have Reagan turning over in his grave. Donald Trump does not have a bone in his body that is inclined towards service to others; he sees everything in life through the lens of cold self-interest.

We need to undergo a cultural revolution in which public service once again becomes cool and honorable—not just military service, but work in the humblest of government agencies. When the United States entered World War I, future secretary of state Dean Acheson left Yale with many of his classmates to volunteer for service in France.  Can you imagine young Americans, and especially elite ones, doing something similar in 2024? There are many reasons why public service is unpopular now; fixing these obstacles and disincentives is critical. But more important is a cultural turn away from the kind of self-centered individualism personified by Donald Trump, which is admired by far too many Americans at the present moment. 

Francis Fukuyama is chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow and director of the Ford Dorsey Master’s in International Policy program at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Image: Gen. John F. Kelly, Commander, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), left, and former Commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and U.S. Marine Corps Col. Ray Kelly, right, render honors during a wreath laying ceremony prior to the start of the 95th Annual New York City Veterans Day Parade in New York City, 2014. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Matthew Stroup)

DemocracyMiddle EastPolitical PhilosophyUnited StatesU.S. Foreign PolicyFrankly Fukuyama