At the State of the Union, he valorized its veterans. But he despises the country the war turned America into. you don’t need to consult an actuarial table to understand that we’re slowly running out of World War II veterans for the president to salute in the box seats during his State of the Union address.
Long before Donald Trump, American presidents showcased WWII veterans at their SOTUs because our participation in the war remains one of the few universally celebrated chapters in American history. Almost everybody valorizes the national sacrifice of the war, even if they weren’t alive to experience it, and almost every politician calls for a return to the days when we marched to the orders of the president. By honoring WWII vets, presidents attempt to project us into that sacred time of extreme unity and to associate their agenda with those shared values. It’s smart politics. In his Tuesday night address, Trump applauded guest-vets Joseph Reilly, Irving Locker, and Herman Zeitchik as heroes of the “great crusade,” singling out Zeitchik specifically for his role in taking Normandy and liberating Dachau.
But the number of WWII veterans is dwindling. Only about 400,000survive—most of them now in their 90s—and the day approaches when none will be fit enough to travel to Washington to accept the honor. Where will presidents then turn to communicate patriotism and national purpose? Theoretically they could extol vets from the Korean War (more than 2 million) or the Vietnam War (more than 6 million). But one of those wars is too historically formless and the other too controversial to pack the same oomph.