I’d never watched a U.S. presidential candidate who scared me – truly scared me – until the Republican debate on March 3, 2016. This candidate literally gave me the creeps. As a historian and as a retired U.S. military officer, his answer to a question on torture and the potential illegality of his orders if he became the military’s civilian commander-in-chief horrified me. The next day, I wrote a short blog post in which I argued that this candidate had disqualified himself as a candidate for the presidency. That candidate’s name was Donald Trump.
What did candidate Trump say that so horrified me? He said this: They [U.S. military leaders] won’t refuse [my illegal orders]. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me. After again calling for waterboarding and more extreme forms of (illegal) torture, as well as not denying he’d target terrorists’ families in murderous reprisal raids, candidate Trump then said this: I’m a leader. I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.
As I wrote at the time, “Our military does not follow blindly orders issued by ‘The Leader.’ Our military swears an oath to the Constitution. We swear to uphold the law of the land. We don’t swear allegiance to a single man (or woman) as president.”
“Trump’s performance … reminded me of Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to David Frost about Watergate: ‘When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.’ No, no, a thousand times no. The president has to obey the law of the land, just as everyone else has to. No person is above the law, an American ideal that Trump seems neither to understand nor to embrace.”
“And that disqualifies him to be president and commander-in-chief.”
Yes, I wrote those words just before the Ides of March. And yet here we are, with Trump as our president-elect and, come January 2017 the U.S. military’s next commander-in-chief. What the hell?
Confronted with criticism of his remarks that the U.S. military would follow his orders irrespective of their legality, Donald Trump soon walked them back. But for me his dictatorial instincts, his imperiousness, and, worst of all, his ignorance of or indifference to the U.S. Constitution, stood revealed in horrifyingly stark relief. Little that Trump said or did after this major, to my mind disqualifying, gaffe convinced me that he was fit to serve as commander-in-chief.
Here’s what I wrote back in March about the prospect of Trump serving as commander-in-chief:
Donald Trump: Lacks an understanding of the U.S. Constitution and his role and responsibilities as commander-in-chief. Though he has shown a willingness to depart from orthodoxies, e.g. by criticizing the Iraq War and the idea of nation-building, Trump’s temperament is highly suspect. His bombast amplified by his ignorance could make for a deadly combination. Hysterical calls for medieval-like torture practices are especially disturbing.
Another disturbing tack he took was to suggest that he’d clean house among the military’s senior ranks — apparently, America today doesn’t have enough men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, Trump’s all-time favorite generals. Patton was a notorious hothead, and MacArthur was vainglorious, egotistical, and insubordinate. Leaving that aside, Trump doesn’t seem to understand that the president is not a dictator who can purge the military officer corps. Officers are appointed by Congress, not by the president, and they serve at the will of the American people, not at the whim of the president.
Combine Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution with his cavalier attitude toward nuclear weapons and you truly have a combustible formula. Clearly, Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad was during the Republican primary debates, but few people in the media seemed to care. (Gary Johnson, meanwhile, was pilloried by the press for not knowing about Aleppo.) Trump gave statements that seemed to favor nuclear proliferation, and seemed to suggest he saw nuclear weapons as little different from conventional ones. He also repeated that hoary chestnut, vintage 1960, that some sort of “missile gap” existed between the U.S. and Russia: the lie that Russia was modernizing its nuclear forces and the USA was falling hopelessly behind. Again, there was little push back from the press on Trump’s ignorance and lies: they were enjoying the spectacle and profits too much.
When it comes to nuclear war, ignorance and lies are not bliss. Can Trump grow up? Can he become an adequate commander-in-chief? America’s future, indeed the world’s, may hinge on this question.