Rise of the Generals

Why it’s entirely possible to be both horrified and heartened by the growing political influence of America’s military leaders.

With the White House in chaos, the generals are gaining power. Donald Trump’s new chief of staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, is attempting to impose military discipline on the president’s shambolic reality show of an administration. National security adviser H.R. McMaster, a three-star Army general, has cleaned house at the National Security Council, ousting conspiratorial hard-right nationalists Rich Higgins and Ezra Cohen-Watnick. McMaster also replaced Trump’s top Middle East adviser, the ultra-hawkish Derek Harvey, with Mike Bell, a retired Army colonel. According to the Associated Press, Kelly and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, also a retired Marine Corps general, have a pact not to be out of the country at the same time so that one of them is always here “to keep tabs on the orders rapidly emerging from the White House.” Suddenly, America has become a place where a general needs to be on hand at all times to babysit the president.


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It’s a sign of how thoroughly Trump has corrupted our democracy that this interlude of quasi-military rule comes as a relief to many Democrats as well as establishment Republicans. If we saw this scenario in another country—a populist demagogue of dubious legitimacy slowly being hemmed in by a clique of military men—we would easily recognize it as a sign of democratic backsliding. Indeed, the phenomenon of liberals looking to the military to protect them from fanatical bumpkins is a familiar one in Egypt, Thailand, and Turkey. The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk captured it in his surreal satirical novel Snow. “No one who’s even slightly westernized can breathe free in this country unless they have a secular army protecting them, and no one needs that protection more than intellectuals who think they’re better than everyone else and look down on other people,” says one of his characters, a theater impresario and partisan of the deep state. “If it weren’t for the army, the fanatics would be turning their rusty knives on the lot of them.”

Yet it’s entirely possible to be aghast at the growing political influence of America’s military and intelligence communities and still see it as preferable to an untrammeled Trump administration. Writing in the Intercept, Glenn Greenwald stakes out a left-wing anti–anti-Trump posture, sneering at liberals who welcome the rise of the generals: “As usually happens these days, these Democrats are in lockstep with their new neocon partners, led by Bill Kristol, who far prefer the unelected agenda of McMaster and Kelly to the one that Trump used to get elected.” But Greenwald’s argument is premised on Trump’s democratic legitimacy, which he assumes rather than argues. If you reject that premise, the rest of Greenwald’s argument collapses.


Greenwald describes Trump’s campaign promises as ones that “the American voters ratified” and elsewhere as “policies for which the electorate voted.” Yet the American voters did no such thing. Trump lost the popular vote. He won the Electoral College, a system that a plurality of Americans opposes but lacks the power to change. His victory was abetted by the interventions of a foreign power with whom his campaign at least attempted to collude. The number of people who want Trump impeached outstrips the number that supports him. The majority of voters tell pollsters they want Democrats to retake Congress in 2018 to act as a check on Trump, but due to a combination of gerrymandering, the Senate’s small-state bias, and the clustering of liberals in big cities, it’s far from clear that the majority will get its wish. “Even if Democrats were to win every single 2018 House and Senate race for seats representing places that Hillary Clinton won or that Trump won by less than 3 percentage points—a pretty good midterm by historical standards—they could still fall short of the House majority and lose five Senate seats,” writes David Wasserman in FiveThirtyEight.

In office against the will of the American people, enabled by a Congress indifferent to the desires of the majority, Trump has set about using the government to enrich himself. He has demonized large swaths of the public, created unprecedented systems of domestic propaganda, rewarded Russia for its interference on his behalf, nearly dismantled the State Department, and is preparing the ground for large-scale voter suppression to perpetuate his power. It is a sign of deep civic rot that the only people with the institutional authority to constrain Trump are generals. But their growing power is a symptom rather than a cause of democratic crisis.

“In terms of some of the popular terms that are often thrown around these days—such as ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘democratic norms’ and ‘U.S. traditions’–it’s hard to imagine many things that would pose a greater threat to all of that than empowering the National Security State … to exert precisely the power that is supposed to be reserved exclusively for elected officials,” writes Greenwald. He’s right—I can’t imagine many things. But I can imagine one.

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