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 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?

4 thoughts on “Trump, His Generals, and the Road to Authoritarianism

  1. Bruce Hornsby and the Range laid this one down for good back in 1988. “A song about your friend and mine, Jimmy Swaggart”:

    Defenders Of The Flag

    It’s coming any day now said the captain
    It’s coming any day now cried the priest
    The people in high places may defend you
    But son you better hope they keep the peace

    Can’t you hear them calling
    Can’t you see them shine
    The city halls are falling
    The defenders drink their wine
    And when the party’s over
    Their stomachs start to sag
    Defenders, defenders of the flag

    The congregation’s waiting at the altar
    They can’t find the preacher anywhere
    They found him with the new girl from the choir
    Where they store the boxes of the book of prayer

    If these guys are the good ones
    I don’t want to know the bad

    You wonder how it happened
    They just picked it up from dad
    Faded old glory hanging like a rag
    Defenders, defenders of the flag

    The flag is flying high over the courthouse
    The wheels of justice never stood a chance
    The judge is down at Charlie’s on his lunch hour
    Checking out the picture show from France

    Carrying a fifth of whiskey
    In a dirty paper bag
    Threw the ball to home
    But they always missed the tag
    Faded old glory hanging like a rag
    Defenders, defenders of the flag

    As I like to say about these stuffed-shirt, ticket-punching, fuck-up-and-move-up, kiss-up-kick-down, sorry-assed excuses for military “intelligence” and “leadership” (sorry for the multiple oxymorons):

    (1) You can always tell when the U.S. military has lost another war: the minute they start calling it “long.”

    (2) If they knew what to do, they’d have done it already.
    If they could have, they would have; but they didn’t, so they can’t.
    Time’s up!

    (3) You can’t do a wrong thing the right way..


    1. Any mention of America’s current Commander-in-Brief and his/her “genius” U.S. generals reminds me of what Admiral Lord Nelson said about the British aristocrat captains commanding his ships before a big battle: “I can only hope than when the enemy reads the list of their names that he trembles, as I do.” I don’t know where we get these singularly mediocre people, but I would certainly rule out the deep end of the nation’s intellectual gene pool.

      I think I see it all coming back into focus now. Something from those long-ago days in Southeast Asia. From Bungle in the Jungle to Debacle in the Desert

      Maniacal Military Mottoes

      “Double Down on Dumb”
      Seems to be their rule of thumb.

      “If we’ve lost this thing before,
      Let us try again once more.”

      “Since no failure’s gotten fired,
      Let’s see even more get hired.”

      “Wasting blood and money? Sure!
      Not the illness. It’s the cure!”

      “Stupid is as stupid does.
      Nothing new. It always was.”

      Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2017


  2. Michael Murry wrote: >>I don’t know where we get these singularly mediocre people, but I would certainly rule out the deep end of the nation’s intellectual gene pool.<<<

    Allow me help, it is what we used to call brown nosing. Those who wish to advance must become a shape shifter at some point. Those who wish to advance must learn not to speak up. As someone who worked in Corporate AmeriKa for several large multinational financial corporations (thankfully now retired) we proles endured many "Strategic" changes, usually involving at some point down sizing, or benefit reductions.

    We sometimes had internal auditors that would arrive from Home Office. The auditors had to do a dance. If they were too critical, they risked their own careers, as criticism implied a management failure. The manager you made look bad could have in the future your career in his hands.

    Possibly with the exception of the Catholic Church and other Hierarchical Religious Institutions, the Military in it's present form is the penultimate example of blind obedience that you must have to earn those Stars on your epaulets. I suppose it also helps to have connections with the defense contractors and politicians.

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