Military Chiefs Recoil at President’s Call to Deploy Armed Forces vs. US Citizens
Disagreement Over Use of ‘Insurrection Act’ Quells Fears of a Post-Electoral Crisis
By Al Giordano
In 2002, an attempted military coup d’etat was foiled because the generals did not have support of a critical mass of the officers. In 2009 another succeeded when the coup enjoyed full military support, and in 2011 a dictatorship fell the moment a critical mass of the Armed Forces refused to cooperate with a president’s orders to repress his own people. I reported those stories in Venezuela, Honduras and Egypt, extensively interviewed the key players on the ground about what had happened, and derived lessons from them. It is in that context I observe what is happening in the United States today.
Coups d’etat – the Cambridge Dictionary defines a coup as “a sudden illegal, often violent, taking of government power, especially by part of an army” – were something that many Americans long presumed was something that happened to other countries. (Citizens of other lands often posit that the US doesn’t suffer coups d’etat because it has no US Embassy, given that American foreign policy has historically backed or plotted coups in other countries.)
As far back as the rule of Julius Cesar in Rome, autocratic leaders have engaged in self-coups: When a government leader who came to power by legal means then usurps the nation’s constitution to assume dictatorial powers. Many of the most notorious villains of history rose that way: Napoleon, Huerta, Mussolini, Hitler, the Shah of Iran and Marcos to name a few (those who haven’t read history may have at least watched Emperor Palpatine engage in that very kind of self-coup in the Star Wars series on the silver screen). The tyrant typically came to an ignominious end, but the price in human suffering in the years between the coup and its fall was tragic for the many.
When on Tuesday, Donald Trump invoked the Insurrection Act of 1807 and vowed to put the Armed Forces on the streets of America to “dominate” – his word – the civilian population, this was the dog-whistle of a coup unleashed. Trump’s oft-expressed admiration for dictatorial leaders of other lands together with his constant complaints of the constraints placed on him by existing laws and institutions must be accurately read as the expression of his own fantasies to follow in the footsteps of history’s leading tyrants.
Because American public opinion has been so blissfully unfamiliar with the kinds of coups that have more regularly plagued other peoples, we are not inoculated or conditioned to recognize them. In the polarizing rhetoric of recent years, amplified by social media’s echo chambers, everybody, it seems, accuses of any leader or policy they dislike of being tyrannical to the extreme where the concept has lost its meaning. A store that requires customers to wear protective masks is called “tyranny.” One’s inability to get a haircut during a pandemic is suddenly “fascism.” Many on the left are as guilty of this overhype that represents almost any obstacle at all as a worst-case scenario. The DNC “rigged” the primaries. Israel is “Nazi.” A democratically-elected prosecutor is a “cop.” The cheapening and exaggeration of public discourse has softened Americans up to be mainly incapable of recognizing real authoritarianism when it bares its teeth.
Not a day goes by when Trump doesn’t tweet some new level of buffoonery that can understandably create the impression that he is singularly unskilled at anything. But he does have a talent. It’s the reason he is where he is: in power. His special gift is one of provocation, of cruelty, the infliction of emotional stress and of connection to that impulse that lurks within the recesses of all of us to wish terrible pain upon others. And while he continues to be unpopular among a plurality of the US citizenry, he has very successfully unharnessed the resentment and will to sadism in the hearts of a significant minority of the US population. Trump is in fact very good at that one very bad skill. Just as the coup-mongers before him each enjoyed support from sectors of their populations, there is a cohort of Americans who want Trump to tear up two-and-a-half centuries of American law, rights and due process, to burn it all down, and return us to a time when they could imagine themselves as the nation’s divine ruling caste once again. To them, that’s what “Make America Great Again” means.
Earlier this week, in Issue #122 of the newsletter (not a subscriber yet? Do so via this link and we’ll send it to you), The Race War of Donald J. Trump (May 31, 2020), we looked at how Trump’s view of what made America “great” is so colored and filtered by his own nostalgia for his own formative years: the 1960s. Not all sixties nostalgia is for the music, the social movements, the countercultural expansions on the terrain of sensory pleasures and freedoms and of letting those freak flags fly. Trump is representative of many of his generation who prefer an America before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when racial segregation was legal, “when men were men” and women were auxiliary, when gays were closeted, when excessive force was accepted police practice, when the underclass could be dominated in daily life by even poor white people, and when Richard M. Nixon successfully packed the resentment and backlash to the fast-sweeping changes into his election as president with slogans like “law and order” and “silent majority” – two of Trump’s favorite recycled tweets in 2020. “When the looting begins the shooting begins” – the tweet that finally led the Twitter platform to slap Trump on the wrist – came straight from the mouth of a racist southern police chief who had popularized the phrase in 1967.
Trump – embattled by the coronavirus, the consequences of his own inept response to it, and the subsequent economic downturn that had his reelection hopes sinking by the day – saw in the unrest after the white-on-black police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis an opportunity to bring back his version of the 1960s. He seized upon the media’s use of the term “riots” to describe the indignant response in the streets and to provoke the modern-day public and institutions to react to it as so many did back in the good old days.
Trump seems to truly believe he can rerun Richard Nixon’s old “law and order” playbook to likewise win himself reelection while avoiding Nixon’s subsequent fate that led, two years later, to his resignation in disgrace.
But on Tuesday, when Trump called the American military into the streets in front of the White House to clear out a peaceful protest and pave his path to a photo op in front of a church, he miscalculated in his presumption that the US Armed Forces of 2020 was the same institution it had been in the 1960s.
Up and down the US military chain of command the response at all levels to Trump’s Tuesday stunt was one of revulsion and inconformity: He wants us to… WHAT?
Hell No, They Won’t Go
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper may have been initially willing to go along with Trump’s intent to deploy US forces on American streets against American citizens. He was physically present for Tuesday’s spectacle in Lafayette Park. But by the time he got back to his office at the Pentagon the rest of his command was already in open revolt – recognizable from this perch as the kind I’ve witnessed and reported in other countries when coups or self-coups became unraveled.
Having been trained himself as a soldier in the art of the “about-face,” Esper turned on his heels and addressed the news media the very next day:
“The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act now.”
Esper’s public statement blindsided Trump – and revealed that something truly unprecedented in US history is happening: The Armed Forces are telling the president, in full public view, that he is up against the legal limits of his powers and if he tries to make them choose between him and the constitution, they’ll stick with the law, thank you very much.
It’s difficult for many to see this yet for what it is because three years of claims and counterclaims, rumors, innuendo, disinformation and its constant corrections, have led to an overall fatigue and reluctance to believe anything could possibly be happening that is that extraordinary because we’ve daily been told that every minor development is itself extraordinary – only to yield regularly ordinary results. In most other countries, populations would receive events like that which the United States is experiencing as business-as-usual. But as mentioned above, Americans are quite newer to what in other places has been the norm for a long time.
For three years inhabitants of social media have been subjected to a cohort that has interpreted every sign of inconformity within US government institutions as proof that Trump was on the verge, any day now, of being ripped from power. An equal and opposite cohort, one that constantly seethes at what it sees as a covert “deep state” cabal that it insists really runs the government was engaging in its own kind of coup against the elected president. Both of these groups – on one side, some “Never Trumpers” and Twitter accounts that claim to be from inside of the institutions of power while reporting breathlessly on his imminent demise, on the other, Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept and similar publications and twit-ebrities prattling on about “the Russian hoax” and related paranoias – have overplayed their hands to the extreme where their credibility and influence have over time rightfully diminished. They’re the online version of the boys who cried “wolf” – and the boys who cried “there is no wolf” – one too many times. Meanwhile, the wolf remains at large.
What happened this week with Trump’s vow to militarize the domestic streets and the rapid response from inside the Armed Forces is qualitatively different than all the rumor-mongering that preceded it. First and foremost, it is all happening in full public view.
There is no way that Esper would have, as he did on Wednesday, expressed open opposition to invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807, if he did not know he was speaking for a critical mass of generals, officers and rank-and-file soldiers who are horrified by Trump’s call to deploy US military forces against US citizens.
Esper’s predecessor, also appointed (and later resigned then unceremoniously shown the door) by Trump, General Jim Mattis, instantly weighed in even more pointedly against Trump’s authoritarian gambit. The man Trump often boasted was nicknamed “Mad Dog Mattis” wrote:
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens, to past generations that bled to defend our promise, and to our children.”
Such strong words only happen when military leaders know they are representing the wide opinion of the Armed Forces up and down the chain of command.
Indeed, when Secretary Esper spoke on Wednesday – it later came out, marked “UNCLASSIFIED” – he had already seen this memo by the Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, to all the branches of the Armed Forces:
“1. Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it. This document is founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. We in uniform – all branches, all components, and all ranks – remain committed to our national values and principles embedded in the Constitution.
“2. During this current crisis, the National Guard is operating under the authority of state governors to protect lives and property, preserve peace, and ensure public safety.
“3. As members of the Joint Force – comprised of all races, colors and creeds – you embody the ideals of our Constitution. Please remind all of our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”
Perhaps an indication of how urgently the letter – addressed to the commanders of the eight branches and entities of what is known as the Joint Force and who make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff – was written, General Milley then scrawled the date, June 2, 2020, above the text with a pen and then, down beside his signature, wrote in legible script:
“We all committed our lives to the idea that is America. We will stay true to that oath and the American people.”
Military inconformity with an executive in other lands has historically blown in both directions. It has fomented coups and it has prevented self-coups.
Trump’s “Hail Hydra” dog-whistle of Tuesday met its Wednesday response of “Captain’s orders.”
This Is Why Diversity Matters
This is not your father’s Armed Forces. And that has everything to do with why the military brass, right up to the highest-level generals and commanders, has responded so refreshingly to a president’s attempt to deploy their commands against civilians back home.
The US military had for much of the nation’s history relied on a draft to fill its ranks: every young man of a certain age was required to register with the Selective Service agency and would be assigned a number. A lottery – much like that in the Hunger Games movies – would be held and if your number got called you were in the Army now.
While there were always exceptions to protect the upper classes – deferments for college students and some professions, and “medical deferments” that could literally be purchased for the right price (which is how a young Donald Trump successfully avoided military service, through a doctor’s claims he suffered from “bone spurs”) – overall the Armed Forces was highly reflective of the demographics of America. A significant number of sons of the upper middle class opted to defer college first in order to be able to serve. Such was the zeitgeist of the times.
It was during the Vietnam War that draft resistance (often labeled “draft dodging” by the war’s partisans) gained popularity among middle and upper-middle class young men, some who fled to Canada and elsewhere, others who openly confronted it and chose prison instead as a form of civil disobedience. The first televised war and the horrors it brought home nightly to TV news screens had stripped much of the romance out of being a soldier. Indeed that dynamic played a big role in turning swathes of public opinion against the war.
The last draft lottery was held in December of 1972, right after Nixon’s landslide reelection (where he had championed “a secret plan to end the war” in Vietnam). The plan ended up being “lose to the Vietnamese and get the hell out.” (I always bristle when some of the sixties generation say, “we ended the war in Vietnam.” They didn’t. The Vietnamese won the war militarily with innovative guerrilla strategy and tactics and the wide support of a highly informed population that sided with defending their land.)
While black and brown Americans had long been represented in the Armed Forces at somewhat higher percentages as they did in the US work force (due to less access to the deferments offered more well-off youths), the end of the draft meant the military would have to entice recruits to enter voluntarily.
Military recruiters headed to high schools to seek new soldiers during relative peacetime, promising certain financial and educational compensation to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford college. Sexy and action-packed ad campaigns blanketed the airwaves during televised sporting events, selling slogans like “Be All That You Can Be” and “The Few, The Proud, The Marines.” Training in employable skills was dangled as the carrot. The stick came in the form of the lack of economic and educational opportunities that faced many teens after finishing or leaving high school, and also an unfair criminal justice system that then as now targeted black and Hispanic youths. The Army was suddenly a ticket upward.
Pacifists of the day termed the dynamic, “economic conscription.” There was a lot of truth in that. The draft, while unpopular, was a far more democratic and egalitarian selection process. And yet we today are witnessing at least one very positive result: An Armed Forces that is more representative of a country’s poor and working classes is more difficult to deploy against the communities from where they came.
The Armed Forces from the late 1970s and forward began to draw a high number of poor and working-class young Americans who had energy, initiative, ambition to learn skills, and the branches began filling with higher numbers of African-Americans and Hispanics. Undocumented immigrants were promised citizenship in exchange for their service. Some who got caught up in the criminal justice system were offered a path out of jail if they would enlist. And since the country wasn’t at war, the Armed Forces became, gasp, an institution of higher learning. By offering more benefit at lower risk than before, it actually drew many of the best and brightest and most motivated young people of the generations that came after Vietnam.
The demographics of members of the US Armed Forces today give it a higher percentage of black and brown soldiers, sailors and pilots than in the US workforce at large. 43 percent of the men in Army are black, Hispanic, Asian-American or Native American. 56 percent of the women are.
The Armed Forces – which did not admit women into West Point until 1976 – is now 16 percent comprised of women, who are no longer ghettoized into “auxiliary” or separate forces.
One unexpected outcome of the sexual revolutions and liberations of the sixties came in the form of the movement by gays and lesbians who fought for the right to be in the Armed Forces without having to be closeted about it, simultaneous with the struggle to gain legal same sex marriage. This caused some paradox among members of the sixties generation: Hadn’t they fought all those years to avoid the military and institutional marriage? Pete Buttigieg is a high-profile recent example of a public figure who chose military service over other promising opportunities. As a result of those struggles, LGBTQ members are now protected by law in the services and a great many are no longer closeted.
The generals and brass of today know their troops. That’s their job. They know that their soldiers are not eager to head into the domestic streets to do battle with the communities they come from, and that asking them to do that would rip a fissure in all the discipline and obedience they have worked so hard to instill in their service members.
And there is another dynamic as well at play: Trump’s desire to send US soldiers against US citizens at home is experienced as a grave insult by many members of the services, especially those of the brass.
Imagine if Trump or anyone called a licensed plumber to his house and when the plumber gets there he says, “the dishes are a disgrace in the sink. Look at them! There are cockroaches crawling on them! I didn’t leave those dishes. Obama left them! Go clean that.”
In domestic law enforcement there are a critical mass of police who accept that part of their job is to clean up messes tangential to crime fighting. But the Armed Forces is a very different kind of culture.
Now imagine that the plumber is a hydraulic engineer with a graduate degree – the Armed Forces thinks of itself that way – and being told to clean up Trump’s mess back home when you signed up for a highly specialized job mainly outside of the house to protect it from external flooding. And Trump is telling you “go clean up my mess.” It’s insulting to them. And ought to be perceived that way. The “commander in chief” hasn’t a clue as to who he is trying to command to do what.
A Prison of His Own Making
That the chairman of the Joint Chiefs felt it necessary to put into writing that the American Armed Forces would “support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it” (emphasis added), along with the other clear indications in that letter, should clear up what had been an open question and worry on the minds of many: What if Trump loses the November election but refuses to recognize the results or leave?
In such an authoritarian gambit, the Armed Forces would remove and a renegade president trying to overstay his due date – physically to the brig if need be. Trump lost the room at the Pentagon when he sent federal troops to clear a peaceful demonstration across from the White House in order to conduct a photo op. Even if he removes and replaces this defense secretary, the next one would inherit an Armed Forces chain of command that has already decided it is not going to play along with Trump’s dream of militarizing the streets of America. He apparently failed to do his “Aspiring Dictatorship 101” homework on the necessity of tyrants to hold the war room.
Current Defense Secretary Mike Esper was summoned to the White House after his own comments on Wednesday.
After reportedly being “excoriated” by Trump, Esper backpedaled on his previous statement that he would send military troops that had been deployed to Washington DC back to barracks.
But watch what they do, not what they say: The federal troops Trump has surrounding the White House – purportedly to protect it from peaceful protestors – after they first refused to answer reporters’ questions about their agency or branch of origin, turn out to be not members of the US Armed Forces. Rather, they are Bureau of Prisons personnel redeployed from Texas by Attorney General Bill Barr.
In that sense, Trump is being guarded by – wait for it – prison guards. Their skill set is walling people in, not keeping people out, for which they have no training. The “screws,” as they are commonly called by inmates, are the lowest of low on the law enforcement totem pole, considered widely by other branches with badges to be the dumbest, most corrupt and most criminal of the field. Any of us who have been a guest at their establishments know full well from experience, prison guards are by and large the opposite of an elite, highly trained force. That they are deployed outside the White House could only have happened if the military forces Trump wishes would be “dominating the streets” continued to decline to do so.
There is also a grand possibility that some or many of these Texas prison guards aren’t even technically law enforcement. Texas was the first state to privatize prisons and has the highest inmate population housed by private-sector pokeys in the nation. The Bureau of Prisons, Homeland Security and other agencies have also been privatizing facilities in recent years.
“Lock her up” has become “lock me up.” The poetry of it all is something to behold
What Trump wants and what he can get away with are not one and the same. Trump may think that by attacking and discrediting vote-by-mail as fraud he is laying the groundwork for rejecting the results of November’s election, should he lose it, for clinging to power anyway.
Tuesday’s memorandum by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs – and, more importantly, that it represents the overwhelming opinion inside the Armed Forces – has drawn the line: It is the US Constitution they have sworn to protect, not the man renting the building. That line was laid down this week, made necessary by Trump’s Tuesday gambit.
That scenario only comes into play, of course, if Trump loses the election. Now, Trump could still win the election. But that part is up to us. If you vote him out, he will be gone, by military force if necessary. The post-electoral coup d’etat scenario has been canceled. Donald Trump is now Hosni Mubarak – only, different than in Mubarak’s Egypt, there is an election coming months from now that is entirely winnable by Trump’s opposition – if we remain laser focused on that task.
What a time to be alive.
The other thing we all need to do is stay alive. The virus is warming up its second act. It very likely gained new ground during the crowded events, conflicts and 10,000-plus arrests of the last week. The time has not yet arrived to drop our guard against the pandemic or pretend it’s no longer here.
Stay safe, buckle up, and organize. It’s going to be a long and bumpy road to November yet.
NOTE: This has been Issue #123 of Al Giordano’s América, the newsletter sent to donors of $80 or more to the nonprofit Fund for Authentic Journalism, and sometimes excerpted here at Organize & Win. Very rarely we post the entire issue here and decided to make this one available to the public due to the historic and urgent nature of today’s story. To subscribe for the rest of 2020, receive each issue via email, including detailed Electoral College, US House & Senate projections ahead of the November elections, and full access to all the content and backstage comments area here at Organize & Win, subscribe via this link.
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