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The Scarlet & Black

Life During Wartime: Authorities on Democracy

By Max Fenton ’19

We are six weeks into the Trump presidency, and politics have already radically changed. Whether it is the cascades of information pouring from the White House, the administration’s blatant hostility towards the press, or President Trump’s own lack of political or military pedigree, all observers of politics can singly agree on this administration vastly differs from all previous ones. The cabinet of Trump represents one aspect of the uniqueness of Trump’s presidency. His first cabinet confirmation, retired general Secretary James Mattis for Secretary of Defense, obtained his position after the Senate changed the law concerning the “cooling off” period for active duty service members. The unusual nature of his confirmation did not hamper his confirmation. Mattis was confirmed with a 98-1.

Mattis is not the only retired general currently serving in the administration. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly formerly headed the United States Southern Command. Prior to his resignation after a disgraceful hiccup during his term, former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn served as Lieutenant General. His designated successor H.R. McMaster comes from the same rank, and their colleague Gen. Joseph Dunford, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a career military official with intimate knowledge of military matters. All clearly had considerable experience in active duty prior to their roles in the Trump administration.

Progressives naturally worried when they heard the early news that so many ex-military men would be involved in the incoming administration. Considering real fears about President Trump’s relationship with the media and political opponents, it seemed disturbing that the highest echelons of the military would have intimate involvement in policymaking. But a recent boom of op-eds has declared that the cabinet’s generals will carry the last bastion of democracy. Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote that the military serves a progressive role in failing societies, since generals have education, adhere to secular values and most of all, have competency. If the Trump administration continues its slide into disorder and chaos and drags American society along with it, can’t we count on military men to save the old order?

The Trump administration’s reliance on generals poses an interesting question for progressives. On one hand, many perceive the military as an authoritarian and reactionary institution. Countries with military-dominated leadership like Egypt and Thailand subject their citizens to repression and human rights abuses abetted by the junta in power. But on the other hand, with a Congress largely unwilling to push back against Trump’s worst impulses, could generals provide meaningful dissent to dangerous policies? Several leaks and press reports contend that the administration’s generals are increasingly dissatisfied with the chaos of the first few weeks. In fact, the Associated Press confirmed that Secs. Mattis and Kelly agreed that one of them must stay in the country at all times, if only to safeguard against Trump’s most fascist impulses.

Many liberals welcome military and intelligence intrusion into politics out of a vendetta for Trump. They see the military as guardians of competence and democracy in the face of ignorance and authoritarianism. Ultimately, though, I seriously doubt we can trust generals to serve as safeguards of democracy. The liberal democratic tradition would be exposed to an acid bath in the event of military-intelligence intrusion, disintegrated by the erosion of the civil-military division and the overthrow of elected government. Considering that these generals accepted positions in this administration, they are automatically suspect of sympathies to the most reactionary government this country has ever seen. We have already seen the resignation of one general because of his ties to a foreign power, and the question remains of how far Trump went to protect Flynn from leaks considering their lack of response to the Justice Department inquiries on the matter. In the extreme scenario of a Trump implosion, there is the question of military coup. Countries that have experienced military takeovers of civilian government — notably, Turkey, Egypt and Thailand — have seen their institutions gutted and civil liberties curtailed. Recent history has shown that toppling the elected government of a nation does not result in stable democracy, despite the claims of coup leaders. Though American politics are considerably more stable than these other nations, saying “it can’t happen here” would be foolish considering the times in which we live.

Ultimately, the only people who can save us are ourselves. We cannot sit back and allow powerful generals or intelligence officials to challenge the worst impulses of this administration. If we truly want to rebuild democracy when it is exposed to this caustic of a threat, people must claim power for themselves instead of leaving it to the highest authority.

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