The USS Donald J. Trump may be very likely in the future, but US Navy ship naming conventions are a little more complicated than one might think.
The recent completion of the USS Gerald R. Ford (along with its infamous electromagnetic aircraft launchers) has brought up an interesting question, the Navy's newly laid down USS John F. Kennedy reinforces this burning conundrum, and the recent deployment of the USS Abraham Lincoln to the Persian Gulf has brought debate to a rolling boil. Could there be a ship named after the current President Donald J. Trump?
Politics aside, this question is more complicated than you might think. However, the answer is yes, it is indeed possible. But to understand why, we need to first explore the history of the US Navy's naming conventions.
The US Navy's Ship Naming Conventions
Before we talk about the possibility of a USS Donald J. Trump, we first have to understand why ships get the names they do. These traditions go back a long way through naval history, and involve as much luck, superstition, and the rule-of-cool as they do politics and lobbying. By in large, since the launch of the Great White Fleet in the 1890s, the US Navy has named its ships after places, not people.
It is perhaps a bit ironic that many Navy ships have carried the names of terrestrial states, cities, and battlefields. Capital ships, and usually battleships, have almost always carried the name of states, such as Massachusetts, Iowa, or New Jersey. Cruisers, ships smaller than battleships but larger than destroyers and escorts, have typically been named after major cities, including Baltimore, New Orleans, and Pensacola. Many heavier classes were named after large cities and state capitals, signifying in a name the importance of the ship to the fleet.
Unlike their larger counterparts, destroyers were almost uniformly were named after people before 1945. However, because they were so plentiful, the Navy often drew on more obscure figures for the names of their ships. For example, the Fletcher-class destroyer USS John D. Henley was named after Captain John D. Henley, a Navy officer who played an important role during the early American Republic and the War of 1812.
Don’t feel too bad if you haven't heard of him. The Navy usually didn’t pick these figures based on a person's fame, but based on their contribution to the Navy's mission or a significant combat command. Though these two factors – significance and popularity – need not always be exclusive, as the USS The Sullivans suggests. The Sullivan brothers were a group of five brothers who were all killed when their ship, the USS Juneau, was sunk off Guadalcanal. In this case, the Navy hoped to help build support for the war effort by tapping into the well-publicized loss of the Sullivan brothers.
Destroyers were not the only ships in the named after people. Through the end of World War II, most aircraft carriers were named after major American battles, including the Franklin, Lexington, Midway, and Coral Sea. Except a large minority were not. Probably the most famous American ship in World War II was the USS Enterprise. Enterprise wasn’t named after a place, a battle, or a person, but rather another American warship which had carried the name. In fact, Enterprise CV-6 was the sixth ship in Navy history to bear that name, which was itself stolen from the Royal Navy.
Then there was a small minority of carriers named after major American figures, such as the Hancock, named after founding father John Hancock. Then Franklin Roosevelt died suddenly in March 1945. To honor his memory, new president Harry Truman directed the Navy to rename their next carrier the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. This was the first time that the Navy had named a ship so significant after an American president. Most importantly, the ship was renamed only after Roosevelt had died because, according to maritime tradition, ships named after living persons brings all kinds of bad luck.
Shifting Naming Conventions
Navy naming conventions since 1945 have evolved as a result of the changes in fleet composition more than anything else. Battleships and heavy cruisers have disappeared, and now state names are reserved for ships ballistic missile submarines such as the Ohio. Destroyers are still largely named after significant figures in Navy history, including the modern The Sullivans, Arleigh Burke, and John S. McCain, which is named after the elder two John S. McCains who were famous admirals.
On the other hand, aircraft carriers have taken a whole mess of different names over the years. Some were named after important figures, such as the Forrestal, which carried the name of a former Secretary of Defense. Others, like the Saratoga, were named after battles. Meanwhile, vessels such as the Enterprise, were still named after other ships. But until the mid-1960s, none again carried the name of a president, living or dead.
That is, until a rogue gunman shot and killed the young and popular John Kennedy in 1963. As president, Kennedy had done much to help revitalize the Navy. He also had a distinguished record during World War II, where he saved the men under his command with an ingenious coconut based rescue message. Given his popularity, the trauma around his death, and his distinguished service, it seemed to make sense to name a carrier after the president. In much the same vein as The Sullivan brothers, the Navy hoped to tap into popular sentiment to build support by naming its latest warship after the deceased leader.
However, the success of this plan had the unintended consequence of completely changing how the Navy named its carriers. It makes sense, since at over $6 billion per ship, carriers represent a major and perhaps controversial investment in its fighting capabilities. Past presidents represent both an uncontroversial but also immanently recognizable name to capture the public's imagination. After all, who doesn’t like the Abraham Lincoln. This is why seven of the last ten carriers have all been named after presidents. They include the Eisenhower, named after a general; the Ronald Reagan, named after an actor who severed in the army; and Harry Truman, an Army Artillery officer during World War I. Some of these men, as presidents, made significant contributions to the Navy. Others, such as Gerald Ford, have made contributions that are best described as questionable.
The USS Donald J. Trump
So, where does that leave the USS Donald J. Trump? As a sitting and popularly known US President, Trump has met the most important criteria for getting his own carrier. As far as contributions to the Navy, if his plan to increase the size of the Navy to 355 hulls succeeds, then he'll have done just as much for the Navy as Reagan or Eisenhower.
The only question that remains would be when. It would definitely be after the end of his tenure in office, and one might guess that the Navy would probably wait until after he died before considering the name. But in recent years, even that is no longer a hard and fast rule. The Navy named a research submarine after president Jimmy Carter, who was once an extremely distinguished submariner. More to the point, Jimmy Carter is still alive at the time of this writing.
The same was done with both the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, which were christened in the lifetime of their namesakes. So, we may see a USS Donald J. Trump hurling fighters off its deck sooner than you may think. The real question then will be whether the Trump will have steam or electromagnetic catapults.