Three retired Army generals recently wrote an op-ed at The Washington Post on their fears of a coup in the aftermath of the next presidential election in 2024. Their scenario: Biden gets reelected, but Trump or a Trump-like candidate refuses to concede. A hyper-partisan military splits, with some units throwing their support to the loser, leading to a coup attempt. The three generals further suggest that the military must act now to prepare for, and thus to prevent, such a coup.
I have several thoughts on this. First, and most obvious, is the military’s oath of office, which is to the U.S. Constitution. If the U.S. military, with all its authority in our society, and all the colossal sums of money we give it, can’t be trusted to honor its oath, then there is truly something fundamentally wrong with its leadership and its ethos. I would suggest immediate public firings and prosecution of any leaders who put political partisanship before the U.S. Constitution and the oath of office.
Second, what’s most striking to me is what these generals don’t say. They talk about partisanship and seem to assume the enemy is solely from the Trumpian wing of the Republican Party. If Trump would just disappear, along with his movement, America would be just fine. Really?
Here’s my take: Partisanship surely does exist, but it needs to be understood. It needs to be connected to America’s disastrous and dishonest wars and also to the greedy and dishonest behavior of the generals. If military veterans are dangerous, it’s because they feel betrayed. They believe their situation is hopeless — and thus many are alienated and angry. A Trump-like figure can exploit this alienation and anger precisely because the Democratic Party is doing so little to help the working classes, including military veterans. (Of course, Republicans are arguably doing even less.)
If you want fewer hyper-partisan veterans, give them something tangible, like higher wages, affordable health care, better job opportunities — some recognition that their sacrifices were not in vain. Show them you’re working to enrich all citizens, not just those who are already in the top 10%, or the top 1% for that matter.
That said, I want to stress the culpability of the U.S. military in creating the potential conditions for a coup. The warrior ethos of today’s all-volunteer military is corrosive to democratic society. It’s the generals who advanced this warrior ethos, and it’s the generals who accepted, even applauded, the elimination of the draft. They didn’t want a citizen-military that would question the constitutionality of aggressive wars overseas. Now, a few of them admit to worrying about those demobbed “warriors” who’ve learned to believe less in the Constitution and more in the shock and awe of decapitating strikes.
These generals further fail to note the total lack of accountability within the senior leadership of the U.S. military for Iraq and Afghanistan, among other disasters. Indeed, the generals have, almost to a man, cashed in, none more so than General Stanley McChrystal, who actually was fired for cause. The vast majority of today’s generals retire with six-figure pensions and go immediately to work for the military-industrial complex. In place of Cincinnatus or George Washington, their role model is Gordon Gekko.
Want to stop future coup attempts? Admit to veterans that the wars they fought were based on, driven by, and perpetuated with lies. Unite to advance true democratic reforms. Act to ensure all future wars are defensive and authorized only by congressional declaration. And return to the citizen-soldier traditions of Cincinnatus and George Washington. Most of all, seek peace, among ourselves and with all nations.
When I taught the core course in military history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, it focused on “major” wars. A review of my syllabus from 20 years ago confirms that we spent most of our time teaching military cadets about the American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Civil War, World Wars I and II, Korea and the Cold War, and Vietnam. There were special lessons that focused on airpower history and strategic thinkers like Clausewitz and Jomini, but the main focus was on “conventional” wars. I was OK with this, since mastering the course material was my main challenge, not challenging subjects within the course.
An astute student of U.S. military history would quickly note what’s missing. Genocidal wars against Native Americans were rarely mentioned. There were no specific lessons devoted to the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, the Filipino Insurrection, or any of America’s frequent regime-change wars in Latin America. American imperialism wasn’t specifically addressed. Critiques of American imperialism by critics like Mark Twain and General Smedley Butler were rarely (if ever) heard.
What that means is this: America’s young officers go out into the world with little knowledge of America’s military interventions beyond the victories (more or less) in World Wars I and II, stalemate in Korea, and a misbegotten war in Vietnam that America could (and perhaps should) have won with better tactics and/or less civilian interference, or so they are often taught. Small wonder that disasters like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and others occur and persist, though I wouldn’t put the blame for these simply on a lack of critical teaching about America’s various for-profit cock-ups and screw-ups.
This was on my mind as I read Kevin Tillman’s recent article at TomDispatch.com. As Tillman notes, America’s regime-change wars and propensity for foreign coups came home to our own country on January 6th with the storming of the Capitol. That such an action so deeply shocked Americans is a sign of our collective amnesia when it comes to remembering the totality of our military history.
Here’s an except from his article, which I encourage you to read in its entirety at TomDispatch:
Kevin Tillman, Capitol Blowback
Just about everyone was shocked by what happened at the Capitol building on January 6th. But as a former soldier in America’s forever wars, horrifying as the scenes were, I also found what happened strangely familiar, almost inevitable. I thought that, if only we had taken our country’s imperial history seriously, none of us would have found that day either shocking or unprecedented.
Honestly, it could only seem that way if you imagined our domestic politics as completely separate from our foreign policy. But if we’re to learn anything from that maladroit attempt at a government-toppling coup, it should be that they are anything but separate. The question isn’t whether then-President Donald Trump incited the assault on the Capitol — of course he did. It is rather: Since when have we cared if an American president lies to incite an illegal insurrection? In all honesty, our commanders-in-chief have been doing so abroad for generations with complete impunity. It was only a matter of time before the moral rot finally made its way home.
Back in 2007, I actually met Nancy Pelosi whom those insurrectionists were going after — “Tell Pelosi we’re coming for that b**ch. Tell f***ing Pelosi we’re coming for her!” — in that very Capitol building. That day, my family was testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform concerning the U.S. government’s disinformation campaign about how, three years earlier, my brother Pat Tillman had died in Afghanistan (as a result of “friendly,” not enemy, fire). We would testify alongside former soldier Jessica Lynch who had suffered a similar disinformation fate in the wake of a tragic ambush of her convoy in Nasiriyah, Iraq, where soldiers died and she was taken prisoner. After the hearing, we discussed the case with Pelosi, who then took us on a brief personal tour of the halls of the building. Given the circumstances, it was a thoughtful gesture and a humbling experience.
So, it was personally quite unsettling to watch that rabid mob of insurrectionists storm our Capitol, some actively seeking to kill the woman who had walked our family through those same halls, wearing her signature green business suit. To see people desecrating that building over grievances rooted in demonstrable and absurd untruths manufactured by President Trump was both grotesque and shameful.
And yet, however surreal, disappointing, disqualifying, even treasonous that assault and the 57-43 Senate acquittal of the president would be, what took place should, in another sense, not have been a shock to anyone. The idea that January 6th was something new for this country and so a unique affront to the American idea of democracy, not to speak of common decency, was simply wrong. After all, ever since 1945, this country has regularly intervened in elections all over the globe and done far worse as well. What’s disorienting, I suppose, is that this time we did it to ourselves.
Around the Globe, Generation after Generation
My own limited experience with American interventionism involves the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. After the September 11th attacks, I enlisted in the U.S. Army with Pat. We would be assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment and our unit would in March 2003 be sent into Iraq, one of so many tools in the Bush administration’s war of aggression there. We would help remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein by force. It was hardly the mission I had in mind when I signed up, but I was naive when it came to foreign policy. Being part of illegal invasions, however, leaves lasting impressions.
That particular intervention in Iraq began with a barrage of administration lies about Saddam’s supposed supply of weapons of mass destruction, his reputed links to al-Qaeda, and the idea that we were liberating the Iraqi people. Some of us actually were assigned to run around Baghdad, “east, west, south, and north somewhat,” looking for those nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The whole invasion would prove catastrophic, of course, resulting in the destruction of Iraqi society, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, even as that country’s leadership was removed and its military disbanded (mission accomplished!). Of course, neither President George W. Bush, nor the rest of the top officials of his administration were held responsible for what happened.
So, when I watched the January 6th insurrection unfold, my mind was immediately drawn to the period leading up to the Iraq war — except this time, the drumbeat of lies had to do with massive voter fraud, voting irregularities, “dead voters,” rigged software, and other fabrications. Obviously, the two events were drastically different in scale, complexity, and destructiveness. Still, they seemed to share common fundamental threads.
Examples of American interference in the governance of foreign countries via coups, regime change, and other ploys are commonplaces of our modern history. Among the best known would be the replacing of a number of democratically elected leaders like Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh with the Shah (1953), Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz with Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas (1954), Chilean President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet (1973), or Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in a U.S.-backed coup (2009). In other words, we’re not talking about a few one-off mistakes or a couple of dumb wars.
In truth, there has been an endless supply of such U.S. interventions around the globe: invasions, military coups, soft coups, economic sanctions, secretly funding candidates of Washington’s choice, the fueling of existing conflicts, you name it and it’s probably happened.
Take for example our neighbors in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. I honestly don’t know if there is a single nation in Latin America that hasn’t fallen victim to a U.S. intervention of some sort: Argentina (1976), Bolivia (1971), Brazil (1964), Cuba (1961), El Salvador (the 1980s), Grenada (1983), Haiti (2004), Honduras (1980 and 2009), Panama (1989), Paraguay (1962), Peru (1968), Suriname (the 1980s), Uruguay (1973), Venezuela (the present moment). Maybe Costa Rica was spared?
What is your best guess at when the following passage was written?
Under a leadership of charlatans and bullies this great Republic clumped about among the nations like a lout, feared by most, respected by none. Nor were things much better at home where a thinly disguised racism was in the saddle, the people’s worst instincts were appealed to, and the noble sentiments of patriotism were reduced to the cliche of the bigot’s bumper sticker.
A sensible guess would be roughly 2018, focusing on the Trump administration. But it was published in 1973 by Richard Dougherty in “Goodbye, Mr. Christian: A Personal Account of McGovern’s Rise and Fall.” Dougherty, of course, was writing about the Nixon administration and its infamous Southern strategy.
Well, as my wife immediately noticed, things are worse today, since many Republicans have abandoned any pretense to thin disguises when it comes to racism. Two stories caught my eye this weekend. The first was Stacey Abrams’ angry and accurate denunciation of Republican voter suppression efforts as “Jim Crow in a suit.” As a friend put it, “the vote suppressors in Georgia are at work even now trying to block their [Black churches] ‘souls to the polls’ tradition.” The second was Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson’s statement that he wasn’t afraid of largely white pro-Trump rioters in the U.S. Capitol in January since they “love this country,” but he would, he confessed, had feared them if they had been BLM (Black Lives Matter) protesters. Johnson bizarrely added that the pro-Trump protesters “truly respect law enforcement” and “would never do anything to break a law.” Assuming Johnson isn’t completely mad, he’s obviously pandering to the Trumpian base as he’s up for reelection in 2022. Or perhaps he’s a mad panderer.
Again, America is allegedly a democracy. We should be doing everything we can to increase the number of people who vote. We shouldn’t be passing laws to make it more difficult for people to vote, specifically minority voters. Such laws are not only sordid and cowardly, they’re un-American.
About Senator Johnson: Strangely, I find his brazen bigotry to be useful. Useful in reminding us that America has far to go before we put racism behind us. Politicians used to use dog whistles, so to speak, to make racist appeals to like-minded haters. Now they simply say the quiet part out loud, not caring who hears it, because they figure they can get away with it. They think it’s a winning tactic. We have to prove them wrong. Racism, whether blatantly obvious or thinly disguised, must be rejected by all Americans.
To return to the quotation from Dougherty: How many nations around the world respect America for its ideals and actions, and how many pretend to respect us because they fear our bullying and loutish actions? Honest answers to this question should disturb us. Division at home and fear abroad is a recipe for neither domestic tranquility nor international comity.
The Senate Trial of Donald Trump begins today, though the outcome seems clear: Trump will be exonerated for his alleged role in inciting the Capitol riot.
Democrats will do their best to put all the blame for this riot on Trump. They would be better advised to focus on why Americans stormed the Capitol to begin with, and why 74 million voters chose Trump — despite all his flaws — as their champion back in November.
Trump voters shouldn’t be shoved en masse into a basket of deplorables. Nor should they be dismissed as being beyond redemption, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That an incompetent buffoon like Trump could win so many votes says as much about the (lack of) appeal of the Democratic Party as it says about the grifter skills of Trump.
If Democrats want to continue winning elections while actually doing their jobs as public servants, they’d advance policies that would help ordinary Americans. So far, signs that the Democrats understand this are few. Joe Biden has already said the Covid relief package may not advance the policy of a $15 minimum wage. Covid relief checks, promised at $2000 and pronto, are already reduced and delayed until March at the earliest. Medicare for all is dead; so too is a single-payer option. Biden and Pelosi have promised only extra funds for people to buy high-priced private health care coverage in Obamacare markets.
Americans support Medicare for all. Americans support a higher minimum wage. Americans desperately need Covid relief now. And so far Biden and his establishment Democrats are failing on all of these. This isn’t a bug or glitch in the Democratic matrix, it’s a feature. “Nothing will fundamentally change,” Biden said before his election, and that’s the one promise he may well keep.
Joe Bageant knew the score. A self-confessed “Appalachian native who grew up dirt-eating poor,” Bageant explained how he’d “managed to live a couple of decades in the middle class as a news reporter, magazine editor, and publishing executive.” He also knew to keep his eyes and ears open, writing in September 2008 that “the liberal middle class is condescending to working-class redneck culture–which is insulting, but not a crime. The real crime is the way corporate conservatives lie to my people, screw us blind, kill us in wars, and keep us in economic serfdom.”
If you read “corporate conservatives” as Republicans, you’d be only half-right. As a term, “corporate conservatives” includes Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and most of the people around them inside the Washington Beltway. That doesn’t bode well for “redneck culture”–and it most certainly doesn’t bode well for the country.
Americans are tired of being lied to and disrespected and mistreated. They are also in many cases desperate for help. Angry and desperate people do not make for normalcy. Nor are they an obliging audience for the tepid and often phony acts of corporate politicians, whether Democrat or Republican.
Reading an article by historian Dennis Showalter*, a friend and mentor, reminded me of how the Nazis mobilized “the petty spite and everyday resentment” of “frustrated little men and good Germans” of the early 1930s. About these people Showalter wrote: “They wanted help. They wanted to voice grievances. They wanted to be heard. They turned to the Nazis because the Nazis expressed sympathy for their problems and implied the possibility of solutions in the framework of a new order.”
Trump’s appeal, of course, was to an old order (Make America Great Again). But it wasn’t entirely retrograde or racist. Trump succeeded in showing sympathy for ordinary Americans, e.g. their loss of jobs due to trade deals that favored the richest of Americans, and he did promise solutions even as he failed to deliver on them. Even after all his debacles and disasters, 74 million Americans still voted for him instead of the Democrats.
A few days ago, I was watching an interview of Ralph Nader as he described the powerbrokers of the Democratic Party. A few of his choice words about them: arrogant, bureaucratic, decrepit, exclusive, and indentured (to corporations and special interests). I don’t think Nader is wrong here.
So, as the Democratic Party postures and sputters against Trump this week, they’d best remember that the real issue is helping ordinary Americans, including those in “redneck culture.” People want to be heard, and if Democrats are unwilling to hear them, others will.
* Showalter, “Letters to Der Sturmer: The Mobilization of Hostility in the Weimar Republic,” Modern Judaism, 3 (May 1983), 173-87.
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All this talk of coups, and U.S. military veterans’ involvement in the same, reminds me of an article I wrote for TomDispatch.com exactly eleven years ago in 2010. In the article, I suggested the possibility of “a very American coup” in 2016, and I wrote that “A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.” Recent events at the U.S. Capitol suggest that many Americans do have scores to settle, and some of them are disaffected veterans.
Of course, my vintage 2010 crystal ball wasn’t completely clear, but I think I got a few things more or less right, especially my prescriptions for preventing coups, which still apply today, I’d argue. What do you think, readers?
The wars in distant lands were always going to come home, but not this way.
It’s September 2016, year 15 of America’s “Long War” against terror. As weary troops return to the homeland, a bitter reality assails them: despite their sacrifices, America is losing.
Iraq is increasingly hostile to remaining occupation forces. Afghanistan is a riddle that remains unsolved: its army and police forces are untrustworthy, its government corrupt, and its tribal leaders unsympathetic to the vagaries of U.S. intervention. Since the Obama surge of 2010, a trillion more dollars have been devoted to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and other countries in the vast shatter zone that is central Asia, without measurable returns; nothing, that is, except the prolongation of America’s Great Recession, now entering its tenth year without a sustained recovery in sight.
Disillusioned veterans are unable to find decent jobs in a crumbling economy. Scarred by the physical and psychological violence of war, fed up with the happy talk of duplicitous politicians who only speak of shared sacrifices, they begin to organize. Their motto: take America back.
Meanwhile, a lame duck presidency, choking on foreign policy failures, finds itself attacked even for its putative successes. Health-care reform is now seen to have combined the inefficiency and inconsistency of government with the naked greed and exploitative talents of corporations. Medical rationing is a fact of life confronting anyone on the high side of 50. Presidential rhetoric that offered hope and change has lost all resonance. Mainstream media outlets are discredited and disintegrating, resulting in new levels of information anarchy.
Protest, whether electronic or in the streets, has become more common — and the protestors in those streets increasingly carry guns, though as yet armed violence is minimal. A panicked administration responds with overlapping executive orders and legislation that is widely perceived as an attack on basic freedoms.
Tapping the frustration of protesters — including a renascent and mainstreamed “tea bag” movement — the former captains and sergeants, the ex-CIA operatives and out-of-work private mercenaries of the War on Terror take action. Conflict and confrontation they seek; laws and orders they increasingly ignore. As riot police are deployed in the streets, they face a grim choice: where to point their guns? Not at veterans, they decide, not at America’s erstwhile heroes.
A dwindling middle-class, still waving the flag and determined to keep its sliver-sized portion of the American dream, throws its support to the agitators. Wages shrinking, savings exhausted, bills rising, the sober middle can no longer hold. It vents its fear and rage by calling for a decisive leader and the overthrow of a can’t-do Congress.
Savvy members of traditional Washington elites are only too happy to oblige. They too crave order and can-do decisiveness — on their terms. Where better to find that than in the ranks of America’s most respected institution: the military?
A retired senior officer who led America’s heroes in central Asia is anointed. His creed: end public disorder, fight the War on Terror to a victorious finish, put America back on top. The United States, he says, is the land of winners, and winners accept no substitute for victory. Nominated on September 11, 2016, Patriot Day, he marches to an overwhelming victory that November, embraced in the streets by an American version of the post-World War I GermanFreikorps and the police who refuse to suppress them. A concerned minority is left to wonder (and tremble) at the de facto military coup that occurred so quickly, and yet so silently, in their midst.
It Can Happen Here, Unless We Act
Yes, it can happen here. In some ways, it’s already happening. But the key question is: at this late date, how can it be stopped? Here are some vectors for a change in course, and in mindset as well, if we are to avoid our own stealth coup:
1. Somehow, we need to begin to reverse the ongoing militarization of this country, especially our ever-rising “defense” budgets. The most recent of these, we’ve just learned, is a staggering $708 billion for fiscal year 2011 — and that doesn’t even include the $33 billion President Obama has requested for his latest surge in Afghanistan. We also need to get rid of the idea that anyone who suggests even minor cuts in defense spending is either hopelessly naïve or a terrorist sympathizer. It’s time as well to call a halt to the privatization of military activity and so halt the rise of security contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater), thereby weakening the corporate profit motive that supports and underpins the American version of perpetual war. It’s time to begin feeling chastened, not proud, that we’re by far the number one country in the world in arms manufacturing and the global arms trade.
2. Let’s downsize our global mission rather than endlessly expanding our military footprint. It’s time to have a military capable of defending this country, not fighting endless wars in distant lands while garrisoning the globe.
3. Let’s stop paying attention to major TV and cable networks that rely on retired senior military officers, most of whom have ties both to the Pentagon and military contractors, for “unbiased” commentary on our wars. If we insist on fighting our perpetual “frontier” wars, let’s start insisting as well that they be covered in all their bitter reality: the death, the mayhem, the waste, the prisons, and the torture. Why is our war coverage invariably sanitized to “PG” or even “G,” when we can go to the movies anytime and see “R” rated, pornographically violent films? And by the way, it’s time to be more critical of the government’s and the media’s use of language and propaganda. Mindlessly parroting the Patriot Act doesn’t make you patriotic.
4. It’s time to elect a president who doesn’t surround himself with senior “civilian” advisors and ambassadors who are actually retired military generals and admirals, one who won’t accept a Nobel Peace Prize by defending war in theory and escalating it in practice.
5. Let’s toughen up. Let’s stop deferring to authority figures who promise to “protect” us while abridging our rights. Let’s stop bowing down before men and women in uniform, before they start thinking that it’s their right to be worshipped and act accordingly.
6. Let’s act now to relieve the sort of desperation bred by joblessness and hopelessness that could lead many — notably male workers suffering from the “He-Cession” — to see a militarized solution in “the homeland” as a credible last resort. It’s the economy, stupid, but with Main Street’s health, not Wall Street’s, in our focus.
7. Let’s take Sarah Palin and her followers seriously. They’re tapping into anger that’s real and spreading. Don’t let them become the voices of the angry working (and increasingly unemployed) classes.
8. Recognize that we face real enemies in our world, the most powerful of which aren’t in distant Afghanistan or Yemen but here at home. The essence of our struggle to sustain our faltering democracy should not be against “terrorists,” with their shoe and crotch bombs, but against various powerful, perfectly legal groups here whose interests lie in a Pentagon that only grows ever stronger.
9. Stop thinking the U.S. is uniquely privileged. Don’t take it on faith that God is on our side. Forget about God blessing America. If you believe in God, get out there and start trying to earn His blessing through deeds.
10. And, most important of all, remember that fear is the mind-killer that makes militarism possible. Ramping up “terror” is an amazingly effective way of shredding our Constitution. Putting our “safety” above all else is asking for trouble. The only way we’ll be completely safe from the big bad terrorists, after all, is when we’re all living in a maximum security state. Think of walking down the street while always being subject to a “full-body scan.”
That’s my top 10 things we need to do. It’s a daunting list and I’m sure you have a few ideas of your own. But have faith. Ultimately, it all boils down to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s words to a nation suffering through the Great Depression: the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. These words came to mind recently as I read the following missive from a friend and World War II veteran who’s seen tough times:
“It’s very hard for me to accept how soft the American people have become. In 1941, with the western world under assault by powerful and deadly forces, and a large armada of ships and planes attacking us directly, I never heard a word of fear as we faced three powerful nations as enemies. Sixteen million of us went into the military with the very real possibility of death and I never once heard of fear, except from those exposed to danger. Now, our people let [their leaders] terrify them into accepting the destruction of our economy, our image in the world, and our democracy… All this over a small group of religious fanatics [mostly] from Saudi Arabia whom we kowtow to so we can drive 8-cylinder SUV’s. Pathetic!”
“How many times have I stood in ‘security lines’ at airports and when I complained of the indignity of taking off shoes and not having water and the manhandling of passengers, have well educated people smugly said to me, ‘Well, they’re just keeping us safe.’ I look at the airport bullshit as a training ground to turn Americans into docile sheep in a totalitarian state.”
A public conditioned to act like sheep, to “support our troops” no matter what, to cower before the idea of terrorism, is a public ready to be herded. A military that’s being used to fight unwinnable wars is a military prone to return home disaffected and with scores to settle.
Angry and desperate veterans and mercenaries already conditioned to violence, merging with “tea baggers” and other alienated groups, could one day form our own Freikorps units, rioting for violent solutions to national decline. Recall that the Nazi movement ultimately succeeded in the early 1930s because so many middle-class Germans were scared as they saw their wealth, standard of living, and status all threatened by the Great Depression.
If our Great Recession continues, if decent jobs remain scarce, if the mainstream media continue to foster fear and hatred, if returning troops are disaffected and their leaders blame politicians for “not being tough enough,” if one or two more terrorist attacks succeed on U.S. soil, wouldn’t this country be well primed for a coup by any other name?
Don’t expect a “Seven Days in May” scenario. No American Caesar will return to Washington with his legions to decapitate governmental authority. Why not? Because he won’t have to.
As long as we continue to live in perpetual fear in an increasingly militarized state, we establish the preconditions under which Americans will be nailed to, and crucified on, a cross of iron.
William J. Astore teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology (email@example.com). A retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), he has also taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism.
Treating rivals as enemies has been an identifying characteristic of the Trump administration. Trump has been at pains to denounce Democrats collectively as enemies. He’s denounced with relish the American press (like CNN) as enemies of the people. He knows such incendiary rhetoric inflames his base. He knows it divides Americans, which has made it easier for Trump to rule.
When you denounce your political rivals and the press as not just your personal enemies but enemies of the people, you’re setting the stage for violent actions. Trump’s stage-setting reached its logical culmination with the riots at the U.S. Capitol. Some of the rioters acted like an invading army, planting their own flag, attacking the police, occupying “enemy” offices, even looting. A few apparently contemplated political assassinations of their “enemies.” Having swallowed Trump’s lies, they apparently believed they were the patriots even as their activities amounted to a violent attack on Congress as it attempted to do its job in certifying Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 election.
Trump and his followers failed in their cosplay coup. Some of the rioters are being tracked down and arrested. Trump himself has already been impeached by Congress for inciting the riot. What should Trump now do?
It comes down to this: Trump instigated and incited a rebellion against Congress and violated the Constitution. His rebellion failed. Is it not time for him to pay a price?
I have a suggestion from history for Trump, a man who is much impressed by his own bravery. (Recall when he claimed he’d rush in without a weapon to take on the armed shooter at Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida.) Mister Trump, learn from Michel Ney, the “bravest of the brave,” the famous Napoleonic marshal who, when he was sent to arrest Napoleon after his return from exile, joined him instead — and paid the ultimate price.
Napoleon and Ney, of course, had their Waterloo. Napoleon was sent yet again into exile, this time much further away from continental Europe, never to return. How did Ney pay for his treachery — his rebellion? He commanded his own firing squad.
When you turn against your government, and when your rebellion fails, you should be prepared to pay for it. Ney knew this. And he met his death with courage.
I have it on the very best authority — Trump’s own words! — that he’s a brave man. With typical hyperbole, he’d probably add he’s the bravest of the brave. In that spirit, then, I urge him to follow Michel Ney. Man up. Give the order that Ney gave unblindfolded:
Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you … Soldiers, fire!
I know: Trump commanding his own firing squad? Unlikely indeed! Much more likely is Trump fighting to the last dying gasp — of Rudy Giuliani. And then not paying his estate for services rendered.
I’ve heard a lot of words and historical analogies applied to the Capitol riots. Was it a coup, an insurrection, a putsch? Was it like Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923? Or was it much more American, an exercise in White supremacy, more like a lynch mob, perhaps? M. Davout asks us to think more deeply about the past, as the Founders did, and turn to the Roman Republic and its own issues with mobs. Read on! W.J. Astore
Friends, Romans, Countrymen…Rioters?
In the days since the Capitol riot on January 6, pundits, politicians, and journalists have been underlining the shocking nature of the events of that day by comparing them to the sacking and burning of the Capitol by British troops during the War of 1812. Perhaps it is too big a stretch to compare the outcome of a military raid by a hostile foreign power to an attempt by a mob of US citizens to overturn a presidential election. A different historical precedent was suggested by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado (D) in the hours after the Senate reconvened to finish its work of certifying the 2020 Electoral College vote. (The entirety of his remarks can be found between time signatures 27:49 and 33:15 here.)
A visibly shaken Bennet, who at one point in his remarks notes that, “there is a tendency around this place …to always believe that we’re the first people to confront something,” starts off by suggesting that when the Founders wrote the Constitution they were thinking about “what happened to the Roman Republic when armed gangs, doing the work of politicians, prevented [Roman citizens] from casting their ballots for consuls, for praetors, for senators. These were the offices in Rome and those armed gangs ran through the streets of Rome keeping elections from being started, keeping elections from even being called, and in the end because of that the Roman Republic fell and a dictator took its place. And that was the end of the Roman Republic or any republic until this beautiful Constitution was written in the United States of America.”
Putting aside some historical inaccuracies (e.g., Roman senators were not popularly elected), Bennet’s point about the importance of Roman precedent for the drafters of the Constitution and their concern about the destabilizing effects of popular mobs is largely right.
However, the lesson that Roman mobs would teach us in our contemporary moment is more complicated than warning of the threat mobs can pose to a constitutional order.
In the late Roman Republic, mobs were indeed politically mobilized against the constitutional order but oftentimes in pursuit of opening that constitutional order to the interests of the common people. Noted ancient historian Moses Finley wrote that, “it would not be far from the truth to say that the Roman populus exercised influence not through participation in the formal machinery of government, through its voting power, but by taking to the streets, by agitation, demonstrations and riots…” It is no small irony that the most (in)famous example of mob action in the Roman Republic was arguably in defense of the constitutional order when the populist tribunes Tiberius Gracchus and then his brother, Gaius, were defeated and killed by mob violence carried out at the instigation of Roman senators who felt their economic interests threatened.
When the histories of this time are written, will the attack on the Capitol be considered completely sui generis, unique and incomparable to other recent episodes of populist uprising? To be sure, the rioters in the Capitol were motivated by an unhinged demagogue telling a lie, unlike the BLM protesters against an unjust criminal justice system of last summer, or even the 2011-2012 Occupy Wall Street protestors against accelerating levels of politically dangerous social inequality. However wrong and pernicious the rightwing paranoia about the presidential election results was and is, it may become clear from an historical distance that the current instability of our constitutional system has as much, if not more, to do with the corruption of our political representatives by economic elites content to pile up obscene levels of wealth at the expense of the well-being of the rest of us.
Under the continuation of such a corrupted constitutional order, we can expect more popular uprisings, whether rationally motivated and aimed at reforming that order, or cynically incited and aimed at its overthrow. Only time will tell whether such protests, uprisings, and mobs will be in service of the Republic or of elites whose interests are contrary to those of the people.
M. Davout, an at-large contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science in the Deep South.
It wasn’t exactly the storming of the Bastille or the sack of Rome, but yesterday’s scenes from the Capitol were disturbing enough to the self-avowed “most exceptional nation.”
If only the mob of protesters had shouted “We want affordable health care for all!” or “Racial equality!” or “Peace now!” or “Money for the poor!” instead of “USA! USA!” and “Trump! Trump!” as they marched through the Capitol on Wednesday.
But I suppose protesters who shout for health care, racial equity, and peace get clubbed and gassed, whereas Trump supporters by comparison get handled with kid gloves.
Trump, the law and order man, has always been unlawful, a man of disorder. As I wrote early in 2016, Trump disqualified himself from the presidency with his empty and dictatorial boasting. That he would incite a mob to gather at the Capitol to contest the election result was hardly surprising. What is surprising is how the Trump mob so easily breached the Capitol’s defenses, such as they were. In at least one case, it appears the police removed a barricade and let the pro-Trumpers in. Someone should be fired for this national humiliation.
It’s a small miracle that only one person was killed, an Air Force veteran who was reportedly shot in the neck as she tried to break into an inner chamber room. An avid Trump supporter who’d traveled from California, she’d be alive today if not for Trump’s selfish and reckless call for a protest at the Capitol.
Of course, predictable calls for Trump’s impeachment are coming from Squad members like AOC and Rashida Tlaib. Really. In two weeks, Trump leaves office. And you want to squander energy and time in yet another unsuccessful attempt to impeach him. At the same time, you won’t even fight for a vote on Medicare for all.
Once again, America will likely take the wrong lessons from these riots. The Capitol police will likely call for more money, more resources, more officers, more guns, more security cameras, more barricades, etc. There are already calls for more Internet censorship. Homeland Security funding will surely get a boost. And certain people will dismiss too easily the alienation and indignation of Trump supporters.
What I mean is this: Americans are upset. Angry. Alienated. Confused. And rightly so. And until our government serves the people instead of corporate, financial, and similar lobbyists and special interests, the potential for future mobs will remain. Donald Trump is a total buffoon, a shell of a man, a narcissist with ambitions centered always on himself and his self-image. But imagine a more skilled manipulator, one less narrowly focused on himself, one with a stronger work ethic, one with boundless ambition for power. Such a person could truly lead an insurrection or coup, and yesterday’s scenes suggest such a takeover would be easier than we think.
The answer is not more guns, more security, more police, nor is it impeachment. The answer is a government accountable to the people and for the people. If we don’t want our government to perish from this earth, it needs to be of the people, by the people, for the people. But it’s not, and until it is, a repeat of yesterday’s scenes, but on a much larger and more violent scale, will remain a possibility.