The image that accompanies this post is my graph of US counties.* The y-axis is Trump’s share of the vote in 2016. The x-axis is the percentage of each county’s population that consisted of veterans under the age of 45 in 2020. I chose that statistic as a rough proxy for direct involvement with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The correlation is modestly positive and statistically significant.
When I ran a regression to predict Trump’s 2016 vote in each county based on 1) the proportion of young veterans, 2) the degree to which the county is rural, 3) the proportion of the county that is non-Hispanic white, and 4) the proportion of the population that was born overseas, all of those variables except the last one were statistically significant and positive. That means that, after controlling for race and community type, the proportion of young veterans still predicts the Trump vote.
This is merely a cross-sectional relationship, and it would be worth introducing a temporal dimension by investigating whether and how votes changed as the post-9/11 wars unfolded.
The pattern that I show here is compatible with several hypotheses. For example, maybe some communities’ cultures and demographics inclined them both to military service and to supporting Trump, or maybe deep disillusionment with the wars turned some people toward Trump in 2016 because he purported that he had opposed US involvement.
I will not claim that the basic relationship shown here is very strong, and I share it mainly for full disclosure rather than to support an argumentative position. (I wouldn’t try to use the regression as the basis of a professional article.) Yet I continue to suspect that blowback from two protracted military disasters is one cause of our current political discontents.
Americans’ assessments of these wars are filtered through ideology and probably fall into at least three categories:
- The invasion of Iraq was imperialistic and intended to favor multinational corporations; thus it was unjust from the start.
- The invasions were altruistic, aimed at exporting human rights and democracy; and as such, they wasted US lives and resources. OR
- The defeats represent corruption or decadence that must be addressed by making the USA “stronger.”
Any of those views is compatible with deep distrust of US elites, and perhaps above all of Democratic Party leaders who supported the wars. Meanwhile, MAGA Republicans benefit from both 2 and 3.
*The graph doesn’t display about a dozen outlier counties that have very high veteran populations. See also the 2020 election in the shadow of the Iraq War; the impact of post 9/11 war on our politics, etc.