The case against Navy Seal Edward Gallagher is not complicated. Here’s what we know, based on public records and reporting:
Gallagher served numerous tours as a commando and hankered for combat. Specifically, he enjoyed killing people. “We don’t care about living conditions,” he told his superiors. “We just want to kill as many people as possible.”
In 2010, while on tour in Afghanistan, he was accused of shooting an Afghan child being carried by her father. A few years later, he was accused of running over a Navy police officer.
Before deploying to Iraq in 2017, Gallagher paid a friend and former Seal to make him a hunting knife and hatchet, then texted this: “I’ll try and dig that knife or hatchet on someone’s skull!”
In May of that year, Gallagher did just that. He heard on the radio that Iraqi soldiers had captured an Islamic State fighter. “No one touch him,” he told other SEALs, via radio. “He’s mine.”
Gallagher raced to the scene. As a medic, he initially administered aid to the fighter, a skinny teenager in a tank top. Then, with no warning — and to the horror of his fellow SEALs — he plunged his hunting knife into the sedated boy’s neck, killing him.
A week later, Gallagher texted a friend a photo of himself. In it, he is holding the murder weapon in one hand. With the other, he is holding up his teenage victim by the hair. The text reads: Good story behind this, got him with my hunting knife.
His fellow SEALs saw Gallagher’s behavior become more and more erratic. He led an unauthorized mission in which a platoon member was shot. Fellow snipers accused him of shooting innocent civilians, including a schoolgirl. Several SEALs reported that they saw him taking pills, including the narcotic Tramadol.
His own comrades viewed Gallagher as a drug-fueled war criminal who endangered them, and who slaughtered prisoners and innocent civilians alike. That is why more so many of them testified against him.
It’s important to understand the grisly allegations against Gallagher, and the people making those allegations (decorated fellow SEALS), because Gallagher is likely to serve as de facto mascot for Donald Trump, who plans to hold rallies with him.
It is certainly worth asking why the president of the United States would use an accused war criminal as a mascot for his re-election.
But that, too, is pretty simple. Trump’s appeal to his base is predicated on what social scientists called the authoritarian personality.
Like other authoritarian leaders, Trump constantly amplifies perceived threats against “his people.” Refugees fleeing danger become an invading army. American cities become “crime-infested” sites of carnage. Journalists become enemies of the people, just as congressional investigations become coup attempts.
This paranoid mindset allows Trump to present himself as a strong man who can defeat these dangers by force, a man ungoverned by rules or wimpy institutional norms or tenets such as the Geneva Conventions.
We saw this constantly during the 2016 campaign, as Trump courted violence at his rallies, and pined for the good old days when protestors could be assaulted. He openly fantasized about violence and bragged of sexual assault.
Trump himself dodged the draft to avoid fighting in Vietnam by claiming to have bone spurs. Accordingly, he views military service not as a dark duty requiring the utmost moral discipline, but as a thrilling opportunity to express power through sadism, to make himself feel safe by harming others.
Eddie Gallagher appeals to Trump because he’s precisely the kind of soldier Trump would be himself — if he wasn’t such a coward.
Within the context of the U.S. military, Gallagher’s murderous impulses caused his fellow commandos to turn on him.
But within the Trump regime, Gallagher represents a heroic archetype: the homegrown version of all those foreign despots to whom Trump endlessly kowtows, the ones who kill their citizens with impunity.
In choosing to lionize Gallagher, Trump is showing us, yet again, the kind of America he envisions: an authoritarian state in which white supremacists are “fine people,” war criminals are misunderstood victims, and anyone who stands up for the rule of law is a traitor.