In explaining why he has declined daily presidential briefings, President Elect Donald Trump said that he does not need to be briefed unless something changes, but that, “in the meantime, my generals…are being briefed.”
Apparently, Trump has great confidence in “his generals” to run the nation. Indeed, his selection of three ex-military officers to head up his national security team should sound an alarm of impending danger that resounds throughout the nation and the world. Unfortunately, while the mainstream media sleeps and Congress acquiesces, the evidence mounts for a credible threat of a looming military dictatorship under a Trump administration.
The mainstream media appears reluctant to jump to any conclusions about the implications of Trump’s militaristically top-heavy government. According to the Washington Post “Trump’s heavy reliance on military leaders marks a departure from the previous three presidents, who tapped a few generals for the highest jobs with mixed success and relied mostly on people who had spent decades in civilian service, as politicians or academics or lawyers.” And, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Trump is plumbing the global expertise and experience that comes with a life in the U.S. military, but he has also aroused concerns that his reliance on retired officers to lead security agencies ignores an important constitutional tenet of civilian oversight of the government.”
Clearly, the media has avoided forming any hypotheses about Trump’s intentions in stocking his national security team with generals. But, in not stepping up to the plate, the media may be helping to produce its own demise by failing to draw out the potential implications of reliance on generals to guide national security decisions rather than calling on civilians such as politicians, academics, and lawyers.
So far, Trump has selected three generals to lead his national security advisory team: John F. Kelly as Secretary of Homeland Security; James Mattis as Secretary of Defense; and Michael T. Flynn as National Security advisor. Also under consideration is Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers as Director of National Intelligence. The Trump team said that Kelly would “spearhead the urgent mission of stopping illegal immigration and securing our borders” and improve ties between U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
Having a military general coordinate such a mission with law enforcement comes dangerously close to violating the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which forbids using the military to enforce domestic policies. Mattis, while praised for his wit, is said to be the “quintessential marine” who sees the world exclusively in terms of the military. He is also said to hold a long-standing “grudge” against Iranians. Flynn is noted for having stated that “Islamism…is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet and it has to be excised.”
These words are quite chilling, indeed, coming from the chief national security executive tasked with helping the president make national security policy consistent with the United States Constitution. So why has Trump enlisted military minds such as these to shape national security policy?
The answer is unequivocal, and the media ought not to mince words. Trump intends to turn the United States into a nation that perceives its national security interests through the lenses of the military. If you care about civil liberties, you also sit down with civil libertarians; if you want constitutional solutions, you invite constitutional lawyers to the table; but if you primarily seek military solutions, you surround yourself with military minds.
Trump wants military solutions, so he has assembled a team of former soldiers. And, far from enlisting the help of civil libertarians, he has enlisted white men the likes of Michael Flynn who has made race a cornerstone of his political agenda. This is not unlike Adolf Hitler whose “chief of staff” was a military officer as was, his “Commander in Chief,” Walter von Brauchitsch. Clearly, having generals in high command, including ones who embrace racist ideologies, makes perfect sense if your aim is to build a military dictatorship, especially a xenophobic, racist one.
So what comes next? All dictators have a strong disaffection for free speech, peaceful assembly, a free press, and all other civil liberties essential to democracy. Such antipathy fits well with Trump’s own personal attacks on the media, those who criticize him, and those who demonstrate peacefully against him. Predictably, Trump will use his authority to put down such expressions of democracy. Indeed, his own ideal of what exercise of power means attests to this. From Trump’s approval of China’s quashing of peaceful student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square by bringing in tanks that (literally) crushed the peaceful protesters, to his praise for intolerant and oppressive dictators such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, it is clear that Trump’s idea of power is the exercise of absolute, militaristic control, including the putting down of “civil unrest.” Viewed in this broader context, Trump’s military selections are therefore not surprising.
So what if Trump is so inclined to use the military to silence the constitutional rights of American citizens. Isn’t there a system of checks and balances that would stop him? After all, there are still the legislative and judiciary branches of government that can provide a firewall, right? True enough, but this firewall is not impenetrable against a president like Trump who has demonstrated little respect for constitutional rights that protect civil liberties.
In fact, presidential powers in the U.S. already include the power to send in the military to put down uprisings. Pursuant to Article II, Section 2, Clause 1, of the Constitution, the President, as Commander in Chief, can declare martial law. This might occur if there is another terrorist attack on the homeland; and it might also occur if the president believes that protests against his policies present an “imminent danger” to national security; for it is left to the discretion of the Commander in Chief alone to determine if military force is necessary to put down domestic conflict.
And, given Trump’s predilection for distorting reality, finding the occasion for declaring martial law would not be very challenging for him. So, a President Trump who grew tired of being criticized could have more than his Twitter account to put an end to opposition, and it would be “perfectly legal.” Such unwarranted exercise of presidential powers is predictable according to some who have gotten to know Trump well. “I think before very long, its quite possible that he would find a way to declare martial law,” stated Tony Schwartz, ghostwriter for Trump’s Art of the Deal. According to Schwartz, Trump’s supporters include police, border guards, and the “far right wing” of the military. Chillingly, Schwartz made this prediction in October, before Trump was elected and had disclosed his military-laden national security team. Were martial law to be declared by Trump, government military personnel such as John Kelly, James Mattis, and Michael Flynn would have the authority to establish civil and criminal law. In this military environment, Congress would be a paper dragon, devoid of any real power. Civil liberties could “legally” be discontinued, and a state of absolute, military control of the sort Trump has already endorsed could be imposed on the land of the free.
The plot also begins to thicken with the CIA’s recent conclusion that the Russians have interfered in the presidential election for purposes of helping Trump get elected. Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, who is Trump’s pick for secretary of state, has cozy business relationships with Russian President Vladimir Putin and was in fact presented with the “Order of Friendship” award by Putin in 2013. It is also unremarkable that, on the same day Trump announced plans to nominate Tillerson for secretary of state, the Trump team refused to commit to keeping sanctions in place against Russia. When asked on Morning Joe about it, Reince Priebus responded, “You just have to wait and see,” thus foreshadowing the prospect of U.S.-Russian solidarity. Adding Trump’s own perspective on solidifying U.S.-Russian cooperation along with a military dictatorship taking root in the U.S., there is a chilling prospect of a new global geopolitics emerging, whereby world freedom would become a remnant of the past; and the last vestiges of freedom in Europe would soon collapse under the weight of this formidable world power. Trump’s loop warm, if not dismissive, pro-Russian attitude toward NATO and the protection of our European allies only adds to the bleak outlook for the survival of freedom in Europe under a Trump-Russia alliance.
Is such a prediction credible? Indeed, history is replete with dictators who have attempted to take over the world, and failed. But there are lots of would-be world dictators who have successfully drained the life blood out of their subjects in feeding an insatiable appetite for power and wealth. It is simply not worth the risk to wait and see what happens, given the high stakes. So, is there anything that can be done, within the limits of law and morality, to preempt such a potential irremediable and fatal attack on freedom?
The seeds may have already been sewn for the realization of a military dictatorship in the U.S. Some high profile Republicans such as Reince Priebus, Chairman of the Republican National Committee and Trump’s incoming chief of staff, have already become obedient cogs in a Trump administration. However, the Senate and particularly its Republican members need to vigorously scrutinize the possible confirmation of the overstock of military leaders on the Trump team. For instance, James Mattis has been a civilian since 2013. However, pursuant to federal law, he would need to be a civilian for seven years in order for him to be eligible for the office of secretary of defense.
This legal bar is there to guard against military rule, and it should be enforced, despite the likely pressure from the Trump administration to make an exception. This is not an ordinary presidential administration where congressional expressions of good will can be a virtue. It is, instead, one that aims at establishing a military state, and the Senate should use its legal authority to resist giving Trump what he wants. Senators, especially Republicans, need to place nation above party, and above their personal ambitions. In the end, if they permit the U.S. to fall into the abyss of a military dictatorship, they will defeat their own purposes by making pawns of themselves in a duplicitous game that leaves them powerless and irrelevant.
Congressional Republicans as well as Democrats also need to come on board in supporting a bipartisan congressional inquiry into the activities of the Russians in influencing the presidential election to help Trump get elected. Conclusions about such matters cannot rationally be settled by Trump’s unsubstantiated and self-serving dismissal of Russian involvement. Indeed, the possibility of Trump’s own quid pro quo with the Russians in helping to secure his election needs to be carefully investigated. Members of the Electoral College who are poised to cast their votes for Trump on December 19 should also be briefed on the facts about the Russian interference with the presidential election. As trustees of our democracy, these electorates need to vote mindful of the realities surrounding the election.
The Senate also needs to take Rex Tillerson’s ties with Russia very seriously in light of Russia’s interference with the presidential election, and in light of the prospect of Trump moving towards an alliance with this adversary. In refusing to confirm Tillerson, the Senate can make it harder for Trump to cement ties with Russia. Of course, it is anticipated that Tillerson will deny his partiality to Russia in order to pass muster with the Senate. However, it is no accident that Trump has chosen someone for Secretary of State who is Russia-friendly. Inasmuch as a Russia-U.S. alliance can signal the end of democracy in the U.S. and throughout the world, there is a powerful rationale for the Senate not ceding to Tillerson’s confirmation.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media should keep front and center coverage of the urgency for taking such measures. While these efforts may not stop Trump from exercising his presidential powers to cancel our civil liberties, they could make implementation more difficult. Otherwise, in simply taking a wait and see attitude, we risk standing by passively as the final curtain is brought down on the free world.