Donald Trump has crossed many red lines over the past three and a half years, but he has finally crossed one that could cost him politically. The trappings of his fascist march to St. John’s Episcopal Church and his blasphemous display of a bible (held backwards and upside down) in front of the church have elicited significant criticism, including from the highest military and civilian leaders of the Pentagon. The military obviously didn’t share the view of Trump’s press spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnaney, who compared the president’s bible-toting stroll to something “Like Churchill…inspecting bombing damage….”
The crossing of well-established lines in his “American Carnage” inauguration speech; his racist Muslim travel ban that the Supreme Court upheld; his failure to condemn the ugly display at the Charlottesville, VA protests in 2018 (“very fine people on both sides of the rally”); and his outrageous efforts to extort a political favor from the embattled president of Ukraine, which led to his impeachment in the House of Representatives, had short-term consequences that didn’t last.
But unprecedented public criticism from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley may have enormous staying power. Milley’s apology to the graduating class of the National War College ten days after walking through Lafayette Square is one of the most unusual and important events in civilian-military relations. His apology reaffirmed the importance of the oath to uphold the Constitution and the values of free speech and assembly that Trump and his sycophants trampled on. Milley reportedly challenged Trump’s interest in invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 to put active-duty U.S. forces on the streets.
It is ironic that military leaders are turning against Trump’s efforts to turn them into a domestic political errand in support of his reelection effort. At the very start of his presidency, Trump displayed his authoritarian style and personality by appointing retired and even active-duty general officers to key national security positions, receiving positive reviews from both conservative and liberal commentators for doing so. Trump was helped by the fact that Gallup polls revealed unparalleled support for the military across the political spectrum, registering high confidence from more than 70% of the people in numerous surveys. Even liberal Senator Richard Blumenthal (D/CT) remarked that placing generals in powerful jobs provided a “steadying hand on the rudder.” Very few pundits in the United States deplored the fact that we had reached the point where political stability relied on the steady hand of general officers.
One-by-one, however, these officers wore out their welcome, not with the public, but with the president of the United States. General Michael Flynn didn’t last a full month as National Security Adviser, but in that short period he managed to politicize the National Security Council as never before. He was replaced by an active-duty Army general. H.R. McMaster, who had never served a tour of duty at the Pentagon or in Washington and whose public remarks revealed little understanding of geopolitical issues confronting the United States. Key pundits in the mainstream media, such as David Ignatius and Michael Gerson in the Washington Post, and even liberals Nicholas Kristof and Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, praised McMaster as someone who would stand up to the president and his anti-establishment coterie in the White House. Unfortunately, McMaster, a three-star general, could not even stand up to the four-star general who took over the Pentagon, let alone the president.
General James Mattis was confirmed by a vote of 98-1 as Secretary of Defense even though he had been out of uniform for only four years instead of the statutorily required seven. Trump immediately humiliated Mattis by traveling to the Pentagon of all places to sign the Muslim travel ban and making a huge display of handing one of the pens used in the signing to an embarrassed secretary of defense. Mattis knew that any policy aimed at the Muslim community put at greater risk U.S. military forces serving throughout the Middle East. Additional embarrassment came in the form of a troop deployment on the border with Mexico in 1980, which found Mattis truckling to the president by favorably citing U.S. efforts against Pancho Villa in 1916 as a precedent for the president’s actions. Mattis lasted until the end of 2019, but a series of clashes with National Security Adviser John Bolton and his opposition to the awkward announcement of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria convinced Mattis to move on.
For a brief period, General John Kelly became the most influential military officer in the Trump administration, starting out as Secretary of Homeland Defense, but soon becoming Chief of Staff. There was no aspect of Kelly’s background to suggest he had the ability to successfully fill the second most important position in the government, and it was only a matter of months before his personal and political integrity were compromised and he revealed himself as a right-wing ideologue. But like McMaster, who was quoted as calling the president an “idiot” and a “dope,” with the mind of a “kindergartener,” Kelly eventually lampooned Trump’s general intelligence and labeled the White House “crazytown.” Kelly lasted until December 2018.
Finally, with the appointments of Esper and Milley, Trump appeared to have the loyalists he wanted at the top of the military chain of command. Immediately prior to the bible-waving stunt at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Ester supported the use of the U.S. military to “mass and dominate the battlespace” in U.S. cities holding massive protests against the sadistic murder of George Floyd, and Milley showed up for the march to the church in battlefield fatigues, which countered the traditional image of generals in full dress uniform at the White House. However, after scathing comments from retired generals such as James Mattis and David Petraeus as well as former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff such as Colin Powell, Martin Dempsey, and Mike Mullen, Esper and Milley clearly separated themselves from the president and regretted their role in compromising the Constitution’s emphasis on avoiding politicization of the military. The fact that hundreds of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne had been summoned to Washington to control peaceful protests punctuated the threatening response from the Trump administration.
The Pentagon’s opposition to the use of active-duty forces is important on several levels.The military leadership may recognize that Trump’s dangerous militarism nearly involved the deployment of U.S. forces against peaceful American protesters. The violent force used against the protesters in Lafayette Square, including National Guard helicopters that employed techniques used against insurgents in Iraq, must have shaken even the most loyal civilian and military officials in the Pentagon.
The military’s challenge to Trump’s misuse of U.S. forces could even lead to a reexamination of the mindless bipartisan support for bloated defense spending. Criticism of Trump from the military, a credible institution, could assist groups seeing to expand the popular opposition to Trump. Finally, Trump’s actions and rhetoric point to the importance of reversing his efforts to expand the War on Terror to U.S. soil by exaggerating the role of leftist groups such as Antifa. Attorney General William Barr’s linkage of Antifa to “domestic terrorism,” which must be “treated accordingly,” could be preparing the ground for such an expansion.
Trump has managed to weaken most of the guardrails that protect our fragile democracy from authoritarian leanings. He has neutered the entire Republican leadership; captured the command of the Senate; used the appointment of a lapdog attorney general to politicize the Department of Justice; selected a record number of conservative judges and created the most conservative Supreme Court in history; hollowed out some of the consequential departments and agencies of government; politicized the intelligence community; and illegally fired important inspectors general throughout the bureaucracy. In crossing swords with the U.S. military, however, he has alienated some segments of the conservative community and has finally alerted the entire country to the political threat that he represents to U.S. governance and even democracy.
Neither Esper nor Milley attended Trump’s commencement address last Saturday at West Point, where he distorted his own record on funding the Pentagon and ending “endless wars,” and made no mention of his dispute with the military over renaming U.S. Army bases throughout the South. Trump coopted the military from the very start with a sweeping expansion of all land, sea, and air assets as well as an unnecessary modernization of nuclear forces and creation of a Space Force. The fact that Trump’s military spending has never been linked to a military strategy is one more problem that his successor will face. Trump’s militarism has been abetted by the national veneration of force for political uses, but the military’s challenge to Trump’s excessive use of the military for domestic reasons could bring a seminal shift in U.S. attitudes.
The widespread call for fundamental change in our political, economic, and social policies may ultimately inspire a new generation of voters and end the cynicism that has dominated political debates in the past several years and helped elect an arrogant and ignorant president. The separation of the professional military from the authoritarian policies of the Trump administration could restore faith in U.S. governance.