Intimate Conversations with America’s Change-Makers
Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
Dan Barkhuff, former Navy Seal and founder of Veterans for Responsible Leadership, talks about fighting Trumpism and the importance of belonging.
Veterans for Responsible Leadership is an organization founded to help fight Trump and to serve as a tribe to compete with the white nationalism of Trumpism. In addition to founding VFRL, Dan Barkhuff is an ex-Navy SEAL, emergency medicine physician, and star of two viral videos from the Lincoln Project: “Betrayed” and “Conservative”.
Ken Harbaugh: Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.
Dan Barkhuff: Can the Republican party extricate themselves from this? Frankly, I have no idea. But I'm done with the Republican party until there's not a single elected official who ever supported Trump, I will have nothing to do with them. So I don't know if that makes me an Independent or perhaps a Democrat, but I can tell you, I'm not a Republican.
KH: I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.
My guest today is Dan Barkhuff, former Navy SEAL and founder of Veterans for Responsible Leadership, an organization forum to help defeat President Trump. He featured in two viral videos from the Lincoln Project last summer, viewed millions of times, which were a direct appeal to conservatives and military veterans to elect a Commander in Chief worthy of that title. Dan Barkhuff, welcome to Burn the Boats.
DB: Thanks, Ken. It's great to be here.
KH: I want to talk about how the U.S military and its veterans view Trumpism, which even with the election of Joe Biden is by no means vanquished. But I think we need to get a bit of your backstory first. You're a Naval Academy grad, a former Navy SEAL, now an emergency medicine physician. Service obviously runs in your blood, but you're not from a military family. How did you get on this path?
DB: So I grew up in, my family wasn't like anti-military or anything, but we just didn't have any... I had the one grandfather who was stateside in World War II, never left the country. The other grandfather never served and my parents never served. It was just something I was always interested in. That was all I wanted to do was to be in the military. I don't know, that's just kind of how - ever since I was a little kid, I was playing soldier, that sort of thing, it just kind of captured the imagination. The service academies were the only schools I applied to out of high school. The Naval Academy was a place that at the time I strongly disliked, which is a pretty typical reaction I think. And the further away from it I get the more I realize how wonderful it was and how special the service academies are as institutions in developing leaders.
KH: One of the reasons I asked the question is that the military today, in fact year after year, seems to draw its recruits from an increasingly smaller share of American society. It is now geographically condensing to the South. It is demographically condensing in a lot of ways. Socio-economically condensing. And I'm wondering if that is part of the reason you have this tribalism within the military that is of real concern especially after what we saw on January 6th.
DB: Yeah. There's a ton to unpack there but people have worked on PhDs for this. This is not something I've come up with, but when we switched from conscription to an all-volunteer force - so 1973, the draft goes away, you can make great arguments and people did at the time and they were convincing arguments that we shouldn't conscript young men and just yank them out of their hometown and give them a rifle and send them to Vietnam. So that's how we got away from the idea of conscription. And when you have an all-volunteer military that's kind of largely based on sort of socio-economic incentives, right so people join the military to go to college, people join the military to get out of their hometown.
When you structure your force like that, when that's your input into the force, that financial sort of “see the world, get out of your hometown and do something,” that appeals to some segments of the population more than others. And it's a problem with the all-volunteer force that needs to be thoughtfully weighed against the risks and benefits, the pros and cons if you will of conscription and a draft because when you professionalize a military, when you only select people who are volunteering, what you end up with is a lot of people who think similarly joining the military. And as it happens, the people who think similarly and are willing to serve in the military for decades now have skewed conservative.
KH: Your observations about the professionalism of the American military today, one of the unarguable upsides of that is just how professionally the military conducted itself during the recent transfer of power. There were real concerns at various points that the military would be inappropriately deployed or taken advantage of. There were red flags all along with, for example, General Milley being asked to accompany the president in battle dress uniform on a march through a square that had been violently cleared of peaceful protestors. Yet the military held the line, its professionalism shone through.
DB: I agree. Things would look so different if our uniformed services had decided to do what has occurred in countless other militaries throughout world history and just followed orders. And I'm sure there'll be books to come out of this, and I don't have any special insider knowledge, but I guarantee that at some point Trump sent out some feelers to see if these guys are going to follow me. “Are these guys going to do what I tell them?” And I suspect that the answer was a resounding “no, we do not follow unlawful orders. We take an oath to the constitution, we serve Democrats and Republicans equally.” One of the silver linings of the Trump years, and it feels in some ways that there are far too few of them, but one of the silver linings is the military held their line and stayed true to their oaths.
KH: Yeah. I don't think you really need special insider information to discern that. I mean, the 82nd Airborne was ordered to the outskirts of Washington DC, awaiting invocation of the Insurrection Act. And our uniform chiefs, one in particular said, “no, that's not appropriate.” And then I’d love your reaction to the letter that was sent out in the days immediately preceding the inauguration of Joe Biden by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reminding everyone in uniform that their oaths were not to any single person, were not to President Trump in other words, but to the Constitution of the United States. That's unprecedented. The fact, one, that that had to be sent out, but two, that the Joint Chiefs spoke up so vocally.
DB: Yeah and there's a lot about saying that that, the word I would use is wisdom. That the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the decision makers at the upper levels of the uniform services, they were number one doing that because it's ethically and morally in keeping with the oath that they took. But it's also the long-term ramifications of following orders from a wannabe despot is people would lose faith in that institution of the military. And so it was very wise on their part I think to say, "Hey, no, we have no part to play." And I believe Milley at some point said, "The U.S military has no part to play in domestic elections," and that's true. And it's also a wise statement to put out in the light of what was happening.
KH: So this might be a good segue into Veterans for Responsible Leadership because as much reassurance as we may want to take from that action by the Joint Chiefs, from the professionalism of the military during this time period, what does it say about the inherent weakness of a system that relies on checks and balances? One of those being the legislative check on the executive that became so weakened that essentially the military, which was never contemplated by the framers of the Constitution as a check on the executive, that the military had to send a clear signal that it would not tolerate the kind of unlawful power grab that we almost saw.
DB: Yeah. It's interesting because the founders, and this is throughout the Federalist Papers, I mean it's in the Constitution itself, but they didn't anticipate or really want, frankly, large standing armies. They gave Congress the ability to pay for a navy, to raise an army, but the Continental Army disappeared after the Revolutionary War. Historically in America, it's only post World War II that we have this kind of large standing military-industrial complex, if you will. That's a relatively recent development in our democracy. And even if there were presidents in the past who might've had kind of - Andrew Johnson or Warren Harding who might've been kind of terrible presidents who had aspirations to use the military. Even Andrew Johnson, after the Civil War, the Union Army was pretty rapidly demobilized. So it's really only in modern contemporary times that we even have this problem. So it's an interesting twist and I think that again, our senior uniform services, I think they really did the right thing and set an important precedent. If American's going to maintain a huge standing military, there needs to be precedents that guide its use from domestic politics.
KH: But I would argue a precedent that was really tragic in its necessity-
DB: Absolutely, absolutely.
KH: And that really should be the leaders of the legislature who are telling the chief executive, "No, you can't propagate a big lie and not only get away with it, but be encouraged by a legislative branch” and you just saw leaders, senior leadership in the Republican party who knew better, extending this big lie about the election, which in many ways led to the events of January 6th.
DB: Absolutely. And Trump did a lot of damage and Trumpism is going to continue to do damage. But in my opinion, the biggest problem we're facing right now is we can't agree on what's true. And that goes back to the loss of the fairness doctrine and the rise of Fox News and MSNBC. And news becoming less trusted and more partisan has really, really kind of led directly to the tangents we see now, which is people thinking that Democrats are pedophiles and a long dead South American dictator is manipulating our elections. These are ludicrous views but they've gained acceptance. And that is, in my opinion again, the single biggest problem we have facing our country, our democracy, right now is we've got a bunch of people believing this hogwash.
KH: And you come to this conclusion as someone who was, if I'm not mistaken, a lifelong conservative, voted Republican in just about every election up until 2016. Summarize what began your awakening to the dangers of Trumpism?
DB: So everything you just said is true. I considered myself a right-of-center guy. I liked Mitt Romney, I liked John McCain. The first election I ever voted for, I believe was the only time prior to Trump I voted for a Dem, which was Bill Clinton right when I turned 18 in 1996 and then voted Republican thereafter. The red flag for me with Trump was kind of his cruelty early on. I knew that he lied. I knew him just like everyone else, as this kind of reality star, sort of uncouth shyster. And his cruelty, his cruelty towards a disabled reporter, towards a man who'd been locked in the Hanoi Hilton for five and a half years. When it served his interest to be that cruel, that was the thing I was like, "I cannot be for this guy." And I voted for Hillary, I voted for the email lady. I could not bring myself to vote for Trump. And I really didn't like Hillary either, but she was by far the lesser of two evils for me.
In 2016, there was a period from Trump winning the election to Michael Flynn lying to the FBI where I was kind of willing to give Trump a chance, “well, let's see what happens.” And then between him lying about the size of the crowd at the Inauguration and the Michael Flynn business, I decided to form VFRL. So VFRL was originally just a Facebook group that I started with probably a dozen folks who were kind of complaining on Facebook about politics which is that and baby pictures, like does anyone else do anything else on Facebook? And so it started with a few guys from the SEAL teams, a few guys from the Naval Academy. People started adding their friends and we had a couple of hundred members by that summer. And the thing that really, I was like, "Yeah, I have to do this, I'm on the right track," was Charlottesville for me. So back when there were the literally Nazis marching in the streets with torches in an American city, that kind of crystallized for me that this was a threat that needed to be addressed. So we kind of went along and learned what we were doing and incorporated as a PAC and all that stuff, and looked around for candidates to support and came up with sort of our core institutional values. And then we partnered up with Lincoln Project and that's kind of what happened.
KH: One of the things that VFRL, Veterans for Responsible Leadership, has done really effectively is cataloged a litany of slights that Trump has levied against the military, against veterans, against Gold Star families. But for me, it goes back to this observation you made about two different truths and this epistemic crisis we're facing as a society about what's actually happening. Because I talk to vet buddies of mine who support Trump and some of them will flat out deny that Trump has disparaged Gold Star families. Or that the Trump administration requested that the name John McCain be covered up on the warship to spare President Trump from laying eyes on it during a visit to the Pacific fleet. How have you seen that play out, this parallel information universe that veterans are just as much sucked into is as anyone else?
DB: That's the whole game, that's the whole issue is we can't agree on what's true or not. And so, I forget who said this, it might've been Obama. In the last year, someone said, "Hey, if you consume the same media that these people consume, you would think the same things that they think." So if I watched Fox News 24/7 and then decided Fox News wasn't quite giving me my fix and moved on to OAN and Newsmax. If I followed along with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and kind of these stars, I probably would think similarly. People develop their worldview based on the facts they're presented with. And the far right media has done an excellent, effective job frankly of getting folks to believe what they want them to believe. With Trump, it gets to the class of the big lie that we hear about from Joseph Goebbels and things like that. They've really allowed people to buy into the idea that our elections are fake or compromised and that's not true. The people who monitor these elections say that is categorically untrue but people believe it's true. And that's a really, really hard thing to deprogram is that the institution is rigged.
KH: Do you think vets are susceptible to that in a way that other groups are not? Are vets especially vulnerable?
DB: The problem with vets as a demographic, number one, you can say all that stuff about, "Oh yeah, they're trained." The thing that worries me the most about veterans is yeah, sure they were trained in techniques and tactics and procedures and that kind of stuff, and how to shoot a gun and all that kind of stuff. But at some point, they were trained that you can use violence to solve problems. And so that is entirely appropriate when you're on a foot patrol in Ramadi. But deprogramming that and making sure that everyone knows you got to leave that overseas, that is not how you solve domestic problems in the United States of America, that's the scary part. The scary part is those guys on January 6th, who in the midst of a crowd were filing up on patrol, on their way into the Capitol. They were probably ready to use violence to achieve a goal, which is something that just has to be left in the war zone. To me, that's the scary part is when you have combat veterans, you've got people who know how to use violence and willingly have used violence in the past to achieve a goal.
KH: The investigation of course is ongoing, but it doesn't take a genius to see people in body armor with zip ties and connect that to all of the chatter leading up to the riot and realize that violence was intended - well in the aftermath, I mean, five people died. So I think your observation hits home. One of the things that you have said about VFRL that I think relates, it certainly struck a chord with me, is this quote, I believe from the New Yorker, "The idea of VFRL is to provide a tribe to compete with the white nationalism of Trump." That I think speaks to the need for belonging amongst so many of these vets who were drawn into these just awful vortices of hate and white nationalism, because of that desire for purpose and belonging. And it's obviously fed and fueled by hatemongers. But there is something primal at the root of this desire to belong to something bigger than yourself that I think is characteristic of military people.
DB: Yeah, absolutely. Have you read Tribe? So he talks about, you're on deployment with a group of men. Your value, your worth to that group of men is in your ability to protect that group. Are you willing and capable of defense? And the point of the group is defense. So that forms kind of these really powerful bonds of friendship and brotherhood and sisterhood. And you come back to the U.S and you demobilize, and every veteran who's gotten out kind of goes through this moment where all of a sudden you're not part of a team anymore. I think a large percentage of us kind of look for something to fill that. I'll give you an example. So I'm a big kind of martial arts guy. So I do a lot of boxing, a lot of jujitsu and MMA and stuff like that. The Jujitsu class that I go to, there's probably 20 students in the class. There's I bet 10 to 12 of them on any given day are prior military service or are veterans. It's a lot of fun, it's a blast. But we're in addition to, "Yeah, we like to triangle people," people are there because they're doing something physical, they're doing something hard, they're doing something that has a little bit of risk around other people. And when we're there, we're not doctors, or lawyers, or cops, or firefighters or whatever, we're black belts and purple belts and white belts. And we're there for the jujitsu. And a lot of people are looking for something like that. And I'm not saying everybody has to take an MMA fight or anything, but a lot of people when they get out of the military, really, really miss that kind of camaraderie and brotherhood that we just kind of take for granted as something in our lives when we're in the uniform.
KH: How have your SEAL buddies and fellow vets reacted to your outspokenness on this? There is this tradition of quiet professionalism, but clearly you and many others, I count myself among them, feel like when a line is crossed, you don't stay quiet.
DB: Yeah. That's the hardest thing, it still is. Ken, you're a great guy, but I don't want to be doing your podcast this morning. That was the hardest thing for me. I really did believe in the idea of kind of quiet professionalism. I do think that our nation is best served when we don't confuse kind of martial prowess for the ability to think about solutions to societal problems. Frankly, the SEAL teams, we've had a problem with this. I mean we've had guys get out and write books, we've had guys get out and hold office on the fact that they were a Navy SEAL. We've had people kind of act unethically. There's Eric Greitens, there's Ryan Zinke, a bunch of folks who, in my opinion, have done a disservice to the idea of quiet professionalism in the SEAL teams. And it was really hard. That was by far the hardest thing for me to do was to be like, "All right, man, you just have to do this and you're going to take heat." I'm positive, I know for a fact that there are many probably current and ex Navy SEALs who disagree with me. Maybe they love Trump. Maybe they think all Navy SEALs should just keep their mouth shut and part of me agrees with that. But in this case, it felt like the risk to my family and my country outweighed that sort of quiet professionalism.
KH: Have the teams, or has the SEAL community writ large done anything to address this? Or is it something you just sort of tolerate as SEALs re-enter civilian life and get to do whatever they want?
DB: There's a SEAL ethos now. And that came out when I was in at some point and it specifically lays out how one is supposed to act. I think the cases of folks getting out and kind of betraying that ethos are relatively small. And if someone gets out and they decide to open a shooting range, “I'm Steve Smith and this is my shooting range. And I had 20 years in the SEAL teams and that makes me a subject matter expert." That's a little different to me than going on tour with Kid Rock, which is “I just want to party with groupies and be famous.” So it's not like you can't ever talk about it, that's not kind of the right thing to do. But kind of cashing in when we've had dozens and dozens of SEALS who've lost their lives- And in accordance with that ethos, I think if you're a Navy SEAL and you're listening, I think you ought to think twice about getting out and writing that book.
KH: Well I want to change the subject because my abiding feeling towards the SEAL community - and I'm not one, but I know a lot of them - is that they are incredible patriots and have done more for this country than just about any one group I can think of. The burden that they carried and continue to carry since 9/11 is one that very, very few people appreciate. Just the number of deployments and the OPTEMPO with very, very little credit for them or their families.
I'd love your thoughts on the future of conservatism / Republicanism as both have become intertwined with Trumpism. Can they be extracted or do you still consider yourself a conservative?
DB: I consider myself kind of a classical liberal. Perhaps in the mode of Paul Ryan even, although I dislike many things about Paul Ryan. Conservatism - so what is conservatism? So at least in my opinion, it should be an effort to conserve the things about our society that are overwhelmingly positive, to kind of stand on the shoulders of the men and women who came before us and build on their accomplishments. And typical conservative goals, smaller government, people are best off spending their own money instead of having the government do it. These are things that have gone far, far by the wayside in fealty to this Trump cult of personality. Can the Republican party extricate themselves from this? Frankly, I have no idea. But I'm done with the Republican party until there's not a single elected official who ever supported Trump, I will have nothing to do with them. So I don't know if that makes me an Independent or perhaps a Democrat, but I can tell you, I'm not a Republican.
KH: It seems pretty clear that VFRL isn't packing up shop with the defeat of President Trump, that you see a campaign laid out ahead of you that your work is far from done.
DB: Yeah, definitely. And so we talk about this. Our operations officer is this guy Mike Smith, who's a former F 18 pilot, brilliant dude. Like super squared away. And one thing he says that I've kind of internalized is, "This is a lifelong project because Trumpism can never happen again. And we're not done making sure." We're done with Donald Trump. Okay, great. We're done with that part of the effort. But making sure that fascism and disrespect of our democratic norms and our Constitution, making sure that that is not politically viable ever again is the work that needs to be done now. And there's a lot of different aspects of that. So part of it is that the media ecosystem and how do you address these things? Part of it is politically punishing the people who enabled Trump, the senators who went along with kids in cages and all of that. The senators who supported him, the congressmen who supported them, the congressmen who signed the amicus brief alleging election fraud in Pennsylvania. These are all battles that cannot be forgotten. We need to make sure that this cannot happen again.
KH: Thanks, Dan, I think we are aligned on that. We end every episode of Burn the Boats with the same question, and I feel like you'll have a lot to choose from in terms of answers. What's the bravest decision you have ever been a part of something done in the service of others?
DB: That's a good question. Real quick, so the way I think of courage is there's physical courage and there's moral courage. And physical courage is very risky and can get your blood pressure up and your heart rate up and all of that stuff. But in general, you don't run the risk of being shunned or being cast out of the group. We incentivize that in the military. You do something brave, you get a silver star. And everyone says, "Ken Harbaugh's a badass, he has a silver star." So people want to do that physically brave thing. That's just a fact of armies throughout history. But moral courage is lonelier. So moral courage, a lot of times you're speaking out against the tribe. Mitt Romney voting for impeachment. If you've read JFK's Profiles in Courage, he has a host of kind of political moments of moral courage. So for me, the physical courage part was stuff in the military which I won't get into and the moral courage part was probably the very first time I spoke out publicly against Trump, which was an op-ed that myself and another member of VFRL wrote about Trump when he spoke at the Naval Academy in 2018. And that was the first time I said “I'm taking the risk of kind of getting kicked out of my tribe.” And so for me, that was going out publicly and knowing that I'm an ex Navy SEAL, knowing that I'm a physician, going public and saying I'm willing to live or die on this premise.
KH: Thanks Dan. Really appreciate you joining us today.
DB: Ken it was fun. Thanks, man, I love the podcast.
KH: Thanks again to Dan Barkhuff for joining me.
For the past few months, we’ve been diving deep into just how fraught our politics are these days. So, on our next episode, we’re going to take a break. I’m talking to Carlos Gauna, an artist and videographer who has chosen to use his talents to raise awareness about ocean life. In particular, great white sharks. Using drone mounted video cameras, he has captured dozens of remarkable encounters - all of them peaceful, some of them quite moving - between great white sharks and humans. His videos have garnered millions of views and serve as a powerful tool for educating the public about the need to preserve, and respect, these magnificent creatures.
If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Isabel Robertson. Audio engineer is Sean Rule-Hoffman. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.