Our democracy is predicated on civilian control of the military. As Americans, it is in our DNA to fear the military’s influence on the president. Thanks, Founding Fathers. Wariness and distrust of the intentions of military brass created an aura of danger from which the president must be protected. But in a wild twist that only Trump could pull off, the generals surrounding the president are the ones protecting our democracy — from him.
Remember when Trump announced via Twitter a ban on transgender troops serving in the armed forces? Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, “I’m going to wait, again, until I get the direction from the White House, and then we will study it and come up with what the policy should be.” That was an echo of a statement from his office a day after the Trump tweets and from Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who added in his statement that all senior leaders will continue to “treat all of our personnel with respect.”
When Trump left a moral and leadership void with his woeful responses to the horror of Charlottesville, the chiefs of the military branches marched onto Twitter to declare unambiguously that they were “stand[ing] against intolerance & hatred.” Think about this for a moment. As the nation reeled from open bigotry in a U.S. city that led to the murder of a counter-protester, the military said what we needed to hear. But as the Navy grieved the loss of 10 sailors in a nautical accident, Trump eclipsed his short, yet solemn, condolences for their loss and his stirring words about the meaning of the military with a 77-minute tirade before a national audience. Nary a mention of their sacrifice. But I digress.
Mattis at the Defense Department and H.R. McMaster, a lieutenant general in the Army, as national security adviser have inspired a reasonable amount of confidence that Trump has rational grown-ups around him. The arrival of John F. Kelly, former secretary of homeland security and a retired Marine Corps general, as chief of staff gave hope that he would impose discipline on the West Wing. Two weeks after Kelly’s arrival, the building remains a raging dumpster fire.
But imagine how much worse the inferno could be if these men were not there. My colleague Charles Lane presents a word of caution that we should heed. “I don’t think it’s too soon to fret about long-run consequences — for civilian institutions and military ones — of looking to an unelected officer corps as guarantors of political stability and upholders of national values,” he writes before pointing to Latin America’s history as an example. “In a healthy democracy, political stability does not hinge on an indispensable general.” Of course, Lane is right.
Yet, in the age of Trump, perhaps I’m viewing each general around our erratic president as a latter-day Cincinnatus. “Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus,” Mary Beard writes in “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome,” her epic book on that empire and its emperors, “is supposed to have returned from semi-exile in the 450s BCE to become dictator and lead Roman armies to victory against their enemies before nobly retiring straight back to his farm without seeking further political glory.” President George Washington is an even better role model. The father of our nation followed in Cincinnatus’s footsteps and went back to his farm after his two terms as president.
Kelly, McMaster and Kelly are serving their country in ways now that safeguard our democracy and Constitution while enduring incredible damage to their names and reputations. Their enduring faith in the Constitution and the promise of America give me every confidence that after their tour is over in the Trump administration, they will ease into civilian life. It is only the right and honorable thing to do.
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