Trump, His Generals, and the Road to Authoritarianism

W.J. Astore

An article yesterday at NBC focusing on Trump and “his” generals got me to thinking on this subject again.  Its author, Suzanne Garment, suggests that Trump likes generals as obedient alpha males.  They lend him credibility without directly threatening his delicate ego.  And there’s truth in this.

trump generals
Trump and his generals.  Mattis and Kelly flanking Trump.  From the NBC article.

But I want to focus on other reasons for Trump’s preference for generals in high positions.  A year ago, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com on “All the President’s Generals.”  That article focused mainly on the potential impact of these generals on America’s foreign policy and domestic culture.  As I wrote last December:

Collectively, the team of Mattis, Flynn, and Kelly could not be more symbolic of the ongoing process of subversion of civilian control of the military.  With Trump holding their reins, these self-styled warriors will soon take charge of the highest civilian positions overseeing the military of the world’s sole superpower.  Don’t think of this, however, as a “Seven Days in May” scenario in which a hard-headed general mounts a coup against an allegedly soft-hearted president.  It’s far worse.  Who needs a coup when generals are essentially to be given free rein by a president-elect who fancies himself a military expert because, as a teenager, he spent a few years at a military-themed boarding school?

In all of this, Trump represents just the next (giant) step in an ongoing process.  His warrior-steeds, his “dream team” of generals, highlight America’s striking twenty-first-century embrace of militarism.

I continue to think this is true.  Trump is empowering further military adventurism, even as he reinforces military-style solutions to problems.  But there are other reasons for Trump’s tight and eager embrace of the military.

Basically, by embracing the military and elevating it (while feeding it lots of money), Trump has neutralized it as a rival to his power.  Indeed, he is borrowing from the military’s authority and standing within our culture to bolster his own.

Recall how Candidate Trump was often quite critical of the U.S. military.  He knew more than the generals, he said.  Their wars he often called wasteful follies.  He was going to win (or end) these wars, he claimed, and hinted that quite a few “loser” generals might be on the receiving end of his infamous “You’re fired” line.

You hear none of this today. Trump is at pains to praise the military and his generals. He says they’re on a winning path, even in Afghanistan (because of Trump’s decisions, naturally).  He rewards them with record budgets and unalloyed praise.

And it’s working.  The military (and the larger national security state) is content with Trump.  He’s letting them have their way, which is another way of saying Trump is having his way.

In American society today, there aren’t too many power centers that truly can challenge Trump.  The media he’s diminished with all his attacks (“Fake news!”).  A Republican Congress remains quietly subservient.  Trump is stacking the judiciary with conservative judges to his liking.  The Democratic Party remains feckless and divided.  Bankers and corporations?  Trump has hired the former and given a huge gift to the latter in the latest Republican tax cut for the richest.

When you think about it, the one power center that could challenge Trump is the military-industrial complex: America’s fourth branch of government.  Yet by hiring so many of its generals and by praising it while passing loads of moola its way, Trump has co-opted its authority and power, attaching it to himself in his role as commander-in-chief.

Trump’s last hurdle may be the Robert Mueller investigation into Russian meddling and possible complicity or obstruction by Trump.  If Trump gets past this (perhaps even by firing Mueller), is there anyone left with the balls, the sand, the spine, the guts, the moxie (choose your favorite measure of fortitude) and the authority to stop his ambition and designs as an authoritarian leader?

Jerusalem and an Alabama Senate Race

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Roy Moore: Was the timing of Trump’s Jerusalem announcement driven by his election bid?

M. Davout

The December 6 announcement by Trump of U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his administration’s intention to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to that storied city sparked much consternation and puzzlement, both prospectively and in its aftermath. The consternation, especially among career diplomats and Middle East policy experts, revolved around the likely effects of such a move both for Israeli-Palestinian relations and U.S. relationships with the larger Arab world. Wouldn’t this policy change, by making a unilateral concession to Israel, make even more difficult a two-state solution and unnecessarily inflame Arab world opinion?

The puzzlement stemmed from the timing. Why announce this now? Israel declared Jerusalem as its eternal, united and undivided capital in 1980 and the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem in 1995 but U.S. presidents, including Trump, have signed a waiver of the law every six months for the last two decades justifying their actions in terms of national security concerns. Why didn’t Trump wait another six months or year or announce this policy change six months ago?

The consensus answer to why Trump broke with precedent is that his actions are being driven by domestic political priorities, in particular, the support for a militant Israel evinced by members of his white evangelical base as well as of deep-pocketed rightwing donors such as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Johnnie Moore, co-chairman of Trump’s unofficial faith advisory board, said in the aftermath of Trump’s announcement that, “The issue was–to many–second only to concerns about the judiciary among the president’s core evangelical supporters.”

While this macro-scale view of Trump’s domestic political support might explain why he is choosing to break with U.S. foreign policy precedent and risk so much, it does not explain why this break is happening now.  For a more nuanced and plausible answer to this latter question, one has to zoom in for a closer look at Trump’s domestic political landscape and ask what Jerusalem might have to do with a closely contested Alabama senate race between Republican Roy Moore, proud fundamentalist and accused pedophile, and Democrat Doug Jones.

For several weeks after the accusations against Moore for sexual abuse and harassment of teenage girls during the time he was in his thirties, he seemed radioactive to the national Republican establishment. Trump changed that with his December 4 early morning tweet endorsing Moore. The very next day, Steve Bannon, Trump’s alt-right alter ego, spoke at a Moore rally in Mobile, Alabama. And on December 6, Trump upended U.S. policy in the Middle East with his Jerusalem announcement.

Is the quick succession of these events a coincidence? Or is it evidence that Bannon continues in his former role as Don Trump’s consigliere? Changing U.S. policy was something Trump had wanted to do from the start. He was evidently persuaded to forego the move six months ago and sign the waiver. However, the unexpected events of late November turned what would have been a shoo-in for the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama into a slogging match with a capable Democratic contender. Might this turn of events have seemed to Trump (if not also to Bannon) the perfect moment to throw some red meat to the base in Alabama and motivate any evangelicals having second thoughts about voting in an accused pedophile to go to the polls on December 12?

Whatever the motivation for Trump’s move on Jerusalem, one thing is certain. This president’s first and (apparently) only priority is to please his base by fulfilling as many of his election season promises as he can. In doing so, he demonstrates that he truly is the President of Red America.

M. Davout (pseudonym) is a professor of political science who teaches in the Deep South.

Donald Trump and His Global War on Truth

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Too many lies

W.J. Astore

Donald Trump is waging a global war on truth.  He is the anti-truth president.  From Trump steaks to his “university” to his support of the “birther” movement against Barack Obama, he’s perpetually selling lies.  Now he’s selling lies on a global stage.  By making everything potentially a lie, e.g. climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” Trump is doing his best to demolish facts, paving the way to do whatever he pleases.

Trump believes he can have his own facts and tweet them too.  We can blame Trump for being the vain, venal, and vile man that he is, but America elected him (yes, not all Americans, but enough to carry the Electoral College).  He’s a con man, a crafty one, and the media can’t look away, nor can the rest of us.

How did we end up with Trump and his assault on truth?  I’d like to focus on two reasons.  The first was noted by Bernie Sanders back in September of 1998.  Then a congressman, Sanders noted how the Democratic Party under the Clinton regime, with its corporate-friendly pursuit of “free” trade and feel-good globalization, was screwing the working classes.  Sanders then issued the following warning (in an editorial in The Nation entitled, “Globalization’s the Issue”):

Right-wing populists like Pat Buchanan are lining up to ride to power on public fear and anger about globalization.  If corporate globalism continues to result in deteriorating conditions of life for ordinary Americans, we’re likely to see a rise of scapegoating demagogy and virulent right-wing economic nationalism.

Scapegoating demagogy?  Trump and Mexicans, Trump and Muslims, Trump and immigrants in general.  Right-wing economic nationalism?  Trump and “making America great again” through massive military spending and weapons exports combined with tax cuts that are sold as helping the poor even as they reward the rich.

By betraying the working classes and becoming yet another business party, the Clinton Democrats helped pave the way for right-wing populists and unprincipled opportunists like Trump.  Indeed, by running the corporate-friendly Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016, the Democratic Party turned its back on their own populist, Bernie Sanders, who genuinely was (and is) concerned with helping the working classes.

The second reason for Trump’s assault on truth has been all around us for decades, but it was exacerbated by the 9/11 attacks.  Think back to the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, and Watergate.  If there’s one thing we learned from these debacles, it’s how much our government lies to us.  Now fast-forward to 9/11.  In the aftermath of those attacks, the Bush/Cheney administration did its level best to deflect all responsibility, and especially their responsibility, for the attack.  Al Qaeda inflicted a major defeat on the U.S., yet no one took the blame.  The buck stopped nowhere.  Instead, Bush/Cheney drove a climate of fear and revenge, attacking Afghanistan followed by a disastrous war in Iraq.

By turning so quickly to war on a massive scale, Bush/Cheney knew that most Americans would rally around the flag.  They further cynically used the moment to pass the PATRIOT Act to extend their power and that of the government.  Choosing not to rally Americans, they instead made them fearful, obedient, and passive (Go to Disney!  Go shopping!).

The leaders and the government that so badly let us down on 9/11 worked to convince us that only those same leaders and government could keep us safe after 9/11.  Bush/Cheney and Crew, in essence, told a Big Lie that led, I think directly, to a Big Liar being elected as president in 2016.  But I don’t just blame Bush/Cheney.  The Obama administration refused to call these men to account, e.g. no prosecution for torture and other war crimes.  Furthermore, Obama expanded the legacy of illegal surveillance, excessive secrecy, and incessant warfare that has characterized the manic opportunism of a government that refuses accountability, whether for the defeat of 9/11 or for the ongoing disasters of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, et al.

Long in the making, Trump’s victory march of 2016 quickened its pace in the aftermath of 9/11 and all the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-anything-I-don’t-like, hysteria stirred up by Bush/Cheney and Crew.  But its impetus goes back further: to the lies and deceptions revealed by the Pentagon Papers, to the sordid lies and cover-ups of Watergate, and to the abandonment of the working classes by Democrats, the latter of which provided fertile soil for right-wing populist demagogy to take root and grow.

Whether led by democrats or republicans, our government has been telling us so many lies for so long that it’s not surprising we now have a president whose chief skill is as a con man and a liar.  His global war on truth is the culmination of too much governmental lying and too little attention paid to the real needs of ordinary Americans.

America’s Cowardly Prison in Cuba

W.J. Astore

The U.S. government still keeps 41 prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba.  Incredibly, some of these so-called alien enemy combatants have been imprisoned for up to 15 years without benefit of trial; indeed, without even being charged with a crime.  How is this possible in a democracy?  What does it say about our country?

I happen to own an old map of Cuba from 1897 that shows Guantánamo Bay, which is along the southeastern coast of Cuba.  Here’s a photo of a segment of my old map that shows the Bahia de Guantánamo:

IMG_1575

Who could have predicted that when our government, in an imperial land grab, “leased” this base from Cuba in 1903, it would become a century later the site of a loathsome prison for Muslim men snatched mostly from central Asia in a “global war on terror”?

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. government needed a place to send prisoners gathered in the chaotic roundup of suspects in the war’s opening stages.  Among other locations they chose the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo, considered a “safe” spot since it’s both isolated and not in the USA while also being far from the eyes of the media.  What was an expedient, a temporary holding facility, became permanent.  President Obama vowed to close it and failed; President Trump has vowed to expand it with fresh batches of prisoners.

In a remarkable piece at TomDispatch.com, Erin Thompson reminds us that the prisoners at Guantánamo are human beings.  She did (and does) this by curating and displaying their art works.  Their paintings, ship models, and other creations remind us that they exist, that they create, that they hope, that they dream.  The U.S. government has responded by asserting ownership rights over their art.

America’s prison at Guantánamo Bay has been a spectacular fail.  Its very existence amounts to a huge propaganda victory for terrorists and would-be terrorists everywhere.  It’s a stain on our democracy (what’s left of it).  In the eyes of much of the world, it reveals the USA itself to be a terrorist.

The persistence of this prison shows America is losing its own “war on terror.”  Our government lacks the courage to try these men because of fear a few might go free and perhaps spearhead future attacks, despite a national security complex that spends roughly three quarters of a trillion dollars to predict and prevent such attacks.

To paraphrase Shakespeare in Julius Caesar: Cowards die a thousand deaths; a hero dies but once. By keeping this prison open, and by refusing to offer justice to its occupants out of fear of what they might do if released, we are dying a thousand deaths.

The Key Reason Why the USA Keeps Losing Wars

lie

W.J. Astore

In a word, dishonesty.  That’s the key reason why America keeps losing its wars of choice, whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or elsewhere.

Dishonesty is nothing new, of course.  Recall the lessons from the Pentagon Papers in the Vietnam War.  U.S. leaders knew the war was lost, yet they lied to the American people about seeing lights at the end of tunnels.  Recall the Iraq war and the “fixing” of intelligence to justify the invasion.  Today the newspeak for Afghanistan is “corners,” as in we’ve turned yet another corner toward victory in that 16-year conflict, according to military testimony before Congress this week.

About those “corners,” here’s a concise summary from FP: Foreign Policy:

Afghanistan turning a corner. Again. Or still? After 16 years of war, the United States and its Afghan partners “have turned the corner,” and Kabul’s battered forces are “on a path to a win.” the top U.S. general there told reporters on Tuesday.

But FP’s Paul McLeary notes that we’ve heard this before. American generals have been seeing victory on the horizon since at least 2007, and “Gen. John Nicholson is at least the eighth top commander in the last decade to forecast a pathway to victory in a war that has dragged on nearly all century, and his optimistic forecasts contrast starkly with deteriorating Afghan government control and a resurgent Taliban.”

The military and our leaders can’t even level with us on the number of troops deployed in Syria.  Consider this report today, courtesy of FP: Foreign Policy:

The Pentagon is good at a great many things, but they can do absolutely magical things with troop numbers. The U.S. Central Command announced this week that it was pulling 400 Marines out of Syria, where they had been providing artillery support for the Syrian Democratic Forces battling ISIS.

The number is remarkable given that the military continues to insist there are only 503 U.S. troops in Syria overall. And somehow, that 503 number has managed to remain exactly the same even after the Marines left. Recently, a general running U.S. special operations in Iraq and Syria said there were 4,000 U.S. troops in Syria. He quickly backtracked, saying the number was around 500 and holding steady, despite all actual physical evidence to the contrary.

Do we have 500 troops in Syria, or 2000, or 4000?  Who are our generals trying to fool?  Our rivals and enemies know how many troops we have in their regions and countries.  Why can’t the American people have a full and honest accounting of what “our” troops are up to in places like Syria?

Whether from the Executive branch or from the military, the dishonesty keeps coming.  This is exactly why we fail.

Why are we so persistent in our folly?  For several reasons.  Some people come to believe their own lies, their own happy talk.  Careerism plays a role; so does politics.  Money is a big concern, since there’s so much of it to be made in war.  Some people even think it’s OK to lie if it’s for the “right” reason, i.e. better to project an image of dumb strength than one of pacific wisdom.  America must never appear “weak”!  For some, that means never quitting a war, no matter how foolish.  Better to lie about “progress” than to admit problems that should lead to dramatic change.

Deception is at the heart of war, but we’re supposed to be deceiving the enemy, not ourselves.  We’ve allowed public relations — driven by dishonesty — to rule our thinking and reporting on war.  But, to paraphrase a saying of Richard Feynman with respect to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster,

To wage a successful war, reality must take precedence over public relations, for the war gods cannot be fooled.

And to borrow from the penultimate sentence of his report (using the Pentagon in place of NASA): The Pentagon “owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.”

Imagine if our leaders were frank, honest, and informative about our wars and their costs?  But they prefer dishonesty instead — and that is why they (and we) fail.