There are scholar presidents, and presidents who don’t read much, and then there is President-elect Donald Trump, who has said he has no time for books at all. But he does enjoy a few historically themed movies—one of which is Patton, George C. Scott’s 1970 embodiment of the World War II general. Patton is one of the very few role models Trump held up during his campaign; he frequently rued the fact that the military lacked modern-day Pattons, and when he picked retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as his defense secretary, Trump proclaimed Mattis “the closest thing we have to Gen. George Patton.”
Trump’s affection for Patton matches a renewed love for the general on the Fox right; he’s the idol of a certain conservative worldview. One of Bill O’Reilly’s best-selling conspiracy books, Killing Patton, offered a preposterous mishmash of WWII vignettes and undocumented conjecture about the December 1945 traffic accident in which Patton was fatally injured.
Patton was a genuine war hero in the fight against the Nazis. An architect of modern tank warfare, an exacting, spit-and-polish commander, rabble-rousing speaker and adept tactician, he rolled to victory in Europe with the absolute conviction that God was on his side. After whipping the German army, Patton was fired — a betrayal, in the view of anti-Communists who supported his call for taking war to the Soviets.
Given Trump’s evident admiration for generals and his reliance on them in his Cabinet, however, it’s worth considering the rest of Patton’s record. His success in wartime has, over the years, whitewashed the rest of his character. His views on race and America’s role in the world were retrograde even in the 1940s—and so forcefully articulated that it’s hard to understand why contemporary Americans have such an easy time admiring him. His life isn’t just an example of winning—it’s an object lesson in how hard it is to transfer skills from a ruthless campaign to the complex tasks of real governance.
Patton came from a long line of soldiers. He was home-schooled on the classics until age 12. Like Trump, Patton came from money; he lived well off the battlefield, with a string of polo ponies accompanying him on stateside postings. He fought in Mexico, was gravely wounded in WWI, gained fame leading the Allied invasion of Casablanca in 1942, successfully led the Seventh Army invasion of Sicily and swept into Germany as a conqueror at the helm of the Third Army.
Patton, whom reporters dubbed “Old Blood and Guts,” was a happy warrior. At a somber December 19, 1944, command meeting following the massive German attack that began what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge, Patton saw a tactical opportunity. “This bastard has put his cock in a meat grinder and I’ve got the handle!” he said.
Patton’s rescue of cornered GIs at Bastogne erased his most famous blunder of the war, which occurred in two hospital tents in Sicily in 1943 when he infamously confronted two traumatized soldiers and slapped them. Patton had no concept of the disease that was then called shell shock, and we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wars were about winning and glory, and his subsequent apologies, ordered by his friend and superior, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, were entirely pro forma. He told colleagues that the soldiers were cowards and that the slapping—he also brandished a pistol at one of the soldiers—had saved their souls. “It is rather a commentary on justice when an Army commander has to soft-soap a skulker to placate the timidity of those above,” Patton wrote in his diary.
Eisenhower resisted calls to fire Patton, whom he viewed as a “problem child” who was “indispensable to the war effort and one of the guarantors of our victory.” To Patton’s disappointment, Ike refrained from giving him the highest commands he craved. Still, he had a huge following in the military and among the public, which he stoked with frequent appearances in the press.
This fall, talking about his secret plan to defeat the Islamic State, Trump said that Patton and Allied Pacific commander Douglas MacArthur “must be spinning in their graves” at how publicly America was discussing the plan to retake the Iraqi city of Mosul. But Patton didn’t always operate in secrecy: He was often open about his plans to encircle and destroy German-held cities, gleefully describing the coming bloodbath at rollicking press conferences while his white bull terrier Willie lolled on the floor. (Though Trump himself is not a dog person, if a Florida socialite has her way, a golden doodle named Patton will be the official White House dog.)
But if Trump misunderstood Patton’s tactics, he had plenty in common with the general’s operating style, driven by promotion and loyalty and an open disdain for the press, even as he used it relentlessly to build his own brand. Patton and MacArthur “were the media whores of their time,” as Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner told Reuters, and that served a constructive purpose. Patton’s troops were proud to serve under the profane maverick and terrified of failing to achieve the goals he set for them.
Patton reveled in ignoring the experts and bulldozing his way forward in the face of criticism. “Let the gentleman up north [Eisenhower and his staff] learn what we’re doing when they see it on their maps,” he proclaimed before launching the March 1945 offensive in the Eifel Forest.
Twelfth Army Group commander Omar Bradley, who knew Patton well, described him as “colorful but impetuous, full of temper, bluster, inclined to treat the troops and subordinates as morons. He was primarily a showman. The show always seemed to come first.” Patton acted as though he didn’t care what people thought, but he “harbored a burning ambition for personal recognition,” wrote Eisenhower’s son John.
He valued loyalty above all—“A loyal staff is more important than a brilliant one,” he wrote—and his inner advisers rarely contradicted him, which was an obvious disservice. Any sign of weakness sent Patton into a rage. Many of his associates, including Eisenhower, felt that “Old Blood and Guts” showed increasing signs of mental imbalance.
Once the fighting in Europe ended in May 1945, Patton was denied a Pacific command. (MacArthur, a loose cannon in his own right, wasn’t keen on adding another to his staff.) Instead, he became military commander of Bavaria, where Eisenhower could keep an eye on him. It was there that the deep flaws in Patton’s limited imagination and Manichean mindset emerged, a bitter lesson that battlefield giants may flounder when they seek to transfer their skills to a civilian sphere.
The U.S. Army’s mission in Germany was to govern and start rebuilding a former enemy nation, a country gutted by its war machine and deflated by its surrender. Part of the task, President Harry Truman and Eisenhower agreed, was to “denazify” the country, which meant re-education, the fostering of democratic institutions and the punishment of Nazi war criminals to set an example for the would-be Hitlers of the future. Patton was astonishingly indifferent to this mission. He spent much of his time writing his wartime memoirs, hunting and fishing with subordinates, and riding in the countryside with his groom, Baron von Wangenheim, an Olympian equestrian and die-hard Nazi whom remnants of the SS had implanted in Patton’s staff to keep an eye on him and feed his lust for a war against the Soviet Union.
It was hard enough to get the streets cleared and keep Germans from starving to death; Patton wasn’t interested in denazification or creating a lesson for future tyrants. He thought it was “madness” to imprison Nazis, good soldiers who were much more valuable as future allies against the Soviets than the Jewish survivors he was charged with protecting and feeding.
Disturbingly, Patton had zero sympathy for the Holocaust victims living in wretched, overcrowded collection camps under his command. He was unable to imagine that people living in such misery were not there because of their own flaws. The displaced Jews were “locusts,” “lower than animals,” “lost to all decency.” They were “a subhuman species without any of the cultural or social refinements of our times,” Patton wrote in his diary. A United Nations aid worker tried to explain that they were traumatized, but “personally I doubt it. I have never looked at a group of people who seem to be more lacking in intelligence and spirit.” (Patton was no friend to Arabs, either; in a 1943 letter, he called them “the mixture of all the bad races on earth.”)
The orders from above—Eisenhower wanted him to confiscate the houses of wealthy Germans so Jewish survivors could live in them—embittered Patton. His beloved Third Army was decaying as troops decamped for home, discipline vanished, and meanwhile, “the displaced sons-of-bitches in the various camps are blooming like green trees,” he wrote a friend.
He saw journalists’ criticism of his handling of the Jews and the return of Nazis to high official positions as a result of Jewish and Communist plots. The New York Times and other publications were “trying to do two things,” he wrote, “First, implement Communism, and second, see that all business men of German ancestry and non-Jewish antecedents are thrown out of their jobs.”
As reports on the conditions in Bavaria began to alarm Truman, Eisenhower came down from Frankfurt on September 17 to join Patton on a tour of the camps where Jewish refugees were housed. He was horrified to find that some of the guards were former SS men. During the tour, Patton remarked that the camps had been clean and decent before the arrival of the Jewish “DPs” (displaced persons), who were “pissing and crapping all over the place.” Eisenhower told Patton to shut up, but he continued his diatribe, telling Eisenhower he planned to make a nearby German village “a concentration camp for some of these goddam Jews.”
While Eisenhower ordered him to stop “mollycoddling Nazis,” Patton lashed out at journalists and others he viewed as enemies. “The noise against me is only the means by which the Jews and Communist are attempting and with good success to implement a further dismemberment of Germany,” he said.
Patton’s callousness, anti-Semitism and indifference to the job of re-education were bad enough, but what really worried Eisenhower and Truman was Patton’s desire to start another war. The Soviet Union had been a close U.S. ally against the Nazis, but Patton was an early, fervent anti-Communist who loathed “Genghis Khan’s degenerate descendants” and felt Roosevelt had surrendered too much European turf to the Russians. He was obsessed with pushing them back out of Germany.
After bugging his office and phone, Eisenhower’s aides heard him discussing ways to gin up a war to drive out the Russians “with the help of the German troops we have.” The Germans, Patton said, were “the only decent people left in Europe.”
On September 25, Eisenhower removed him from his command. During their last showdown, Patton admitted faults but said his greatest virtue was his honesty and lack of ulterior motive. Ike responded that Patton’s greatest virtue and his greatest fault was his audacity.
His accidental death three months later may have been a blessing to Patton’s historical image, since it kept him from becoming just another one of America’s fanatical McCarthyites, the conspiratorial anti-Communists who tangled the country up in witch hunts for a decade after the war.
For some, Patton has come to embody a certain kind of American hero—the maverick warrior who rejects political correctness and ultimately trusts only himself. But Patton, as his biographers have detailed, also had an authoritarian streak, and those who have studied Trump up close see many of the same tendencies. As a miscreant 13-year-old rich boy enrolled at the New York Military Academy, Trump came under the thumb of a mini-Patton, Major Theodore Dobias—a growling, abusive martinet whom most students despised. Trump did well in the school, however, and viewed Dobias as a mentor, according to biographer Michael D’Antonio.
Trump and Patton even bear an uncanny physical resemblance, and there are other parallels: They were both born rich, they value loyalty, revile dissent, and value winning above all else, even to the point of self-damage. (Patton’s grandson, however, campaigned for Marco Rubio—“Mr. Trump, you’re no Patton,” he said.)
To those who’ve studied Patton closely, Trump’s view of the general as the ultimate winner is troubling. The headstrong gunslinger type can be effective in the right setting, and Patton was undeniably effective at the job he was sent to do. But he was even more plainly wrong about the big things, and represented a set of values that America had already left behind as it began to build its power on tolerance and engagement with the world, rather than nativist nationalism. And even admiration for Patton’s military prowess is worth a reconsideration: While he deemed himself the war’s best general, historians rank him somewhat lower than Eisenhower and George Marshall—some even place him below the Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov, whom Patton lampooned.
Whatever Patton’s battlefield genius, leading a campaign against mortal enemies isn’t the same as leading a country. Six weeks after the elections, Trump is still rehashing and relishing old battles from the trail. But leading the United States is not a campaign, and what matters is how he governs. And on that front, Patton’s life offers not much of an example at all.