Don’t Count on the Military to Save Our Democracy (That’s Not Its Job)

A few weeks ago in these pages, I interviewed my friend, the filmmaker Ramona Diaz,  whose new feature documentary A Thousand Cuts (out now) details Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s persecution of his chief domestic critic, the dissident journalist Maria Ressa. He hasn’t yet had her poisoned, like Putin did to Sergei Navalny, but he’s arranged for her to be convicted of libel in a kangaroo court and sentenced to six years in prison. (She is out on bail while appealing.)

This week Ramona sent me a note about the upcoming US election:

As a person who grew up under martial law, I saw that Marcos needed the full support of the military. Which he did get but that had grave consequences for the morale of the military and hard lessons learned. So much so that today they don’t fully support Duterte. As someone told me, they’re tired of all the adventurism. And that’s why Duterte has not proclaimed martial law, because he’s not fully backed by the military. (Though now the pandemic has helped him consolidate power.)

So in the US, how will this work? I cannot imagine Trump has the support of the military, seeing as how he despises vets, right?

Her question is especially pertinent as we approach the most consequential US presidential election of modern times, only 49 days away, with an incumbent who has spent four years undermining the most fundamental precepts of our democracy, moving us closer to autocracy than almost anyone could have imagined, to include announcing that he will view any victory by his opponent in November as evidence that the election was rigged. 

The possibility that Trump will refuse to respect the results of the election and precipitate a constitutional crisis—once the ridiculed purview of far-out “alarmists”—has now become a regular topic on the front pages of our major newspapers. That’s shocking, of course—unthinkable, in fact, in any presidency since Rutherford B. Hayes. But it’s at least encouraging that the public has at last woken up to the threat.

Specifically, Ramona’s question of what the US military will do or not in such a crisis is on the minds of many, as well it should be.

The bad news, and the short answer, is: not much.


As Ramona notes, in most countries, an aspiring autocrat aiming at president-for-life status requires a critical mass of backing from the armed forces.

Not so in the United States. In order to pull off a de facto coup d’etat, Trump doesn’t need the support of the military, since in the US, the usual paradigm works backwards.

As we saw in the aftermath of the St. John’s debacle, when a bevy of retired generals and admirals led by former Secretary of Defense and retired Marine four-star Jim Mattis rejected the notion of deploying active duty troops against American civilians (was that really up for debate?), the US military is loath to even give the appearance of involvement in partisan politics. That’s a good thing….one of the basic principles that the Founding Fathers were adamant about, in fact, having witnessed the uniformed military misused by many a crowned head.

But the downside of that aversion is that it allows a wannabe tyrant like Trump to neutralize the military as a force that will check his own despotism.

Since the default position of the US military is to stay out of domestic political affairs at all costs, all Trump has to do is give the illusion of victory in the election—or create enough doubt and chaos about the legitimacy of a Biden win, which is the same thing. The Pentagon does not want to be what Bush used to call “the decider.” If Trump can get the decision thrown into the House, or wind up before the Supreme Court, the US military will stay on the sidelines….even if the GOP majority in those august bodies manages to shamelessly award Trump a victory he didn’t win. In that regard, he will have neutered the power of the US military to intervene by using its own integrity against it. 

IMHO, in order for the US armed forces to step in this November and prevent Trump from illegally holding onto the presidency, things would have to reach the point of a blatant Pinochet-like power grab such that I simply can’t imagine in the US. (Even though there have been plenty of things that no one could imagine happening in the US that have already happened in the past four years.)

Not that there couldn’t be an unfair election—there certainly could be. In many ways we’re watching one unfold right now, though ironically, in a way that favors Trump, even as he howls about how it’s rigged against him. It’s simply that I am quite sure that Trump is so good at creating doubt and chaos and deceitfully using the norms of democracy to his own advantage that he can conjure the appearance of credibility that he needs, an illusion convincing enough to deter the military from stepping in. No need to get the XVIIIth Airborne Corps on his side.

That is the scariest part of all.


Of course, we are looking at this from a progressive perspective, in which the military steps in to enforce the rule of democracy and remove Trump… his fingernails, presumably, with a death grip on the door jamb of the Oval Office, his body fully horizontal as four Army Rangers bodily try to carry him out.

(Don’t tell me you can’t picture it. Though actually I think the task of dragging his fat white ass out of the People’s House will probably fall to the Secret Service or US Marshals.)

But the opposite scenario is equally worth considering: that the US military might rally to Trump’s side.

There is enough Trumpism in the armed forces to make this a plausible concern. If Trump declared victory in a disputed election and called on the military to come to his aid, would the brass agree and give the order? I doubt it, for the same reasons cited above. The Pentagon is no more likely to order active duty troops into the streets Tiananmen style to enforce Trumpian Year Zero than it is to deploy its forces to combat it.

But that is not particularly reassuring either.

As in the other scenario, some civilian authority higher up the chain will have to make the call as to who is the rightful winner of the election, and I believe the brass will follow its lead. (Might certain units break ranks and rally to the United States of Trump? Almost certainly not. If we reach that point of dissension and mutiny, we are really in trouble.)

In that sense, the more pertinent question is not what the US Army will do, but what our political institutions like Congress and the courts will do when principle collides with partisanship. Above all, the question is what will the leadership of the Republican Party do? And that is really terrifying, because I think we all know that answer.

Again, this is all the more reason why Trump will arrange matters so that military force is not necessary. It won’t be, if he can successfully create sufficient smoke and fog that enough Americans take his side, or buy the lie that there is doubt about who’s the real victor, or otherwise throw up their hands while our institutions are paralyzed (or willfully abused for his ends) and the chattering classes clutch their pearls and pen forcefully worded op-eds about how we have to let the system work, even though an armed robber has jammed a crowbar into said system while he steals us blind and manages to get the police to stand by and let him, or even assist in the crime.

Don is very good at all that.


Some on the left have scoffed that the “military” has already employed force against peaceful protestors, pointing to Lafayette Square, Portland, and elsewhere. The claim is off base, but fed by right wing rhetoric and actions that deliberately muddy the waters.

Trump and his advisors would like us to believe that our military is already all in on using deadly force on fellow Americans. But that ain’t the case. The federal and local law enforcement agents who have engaged in violence against peaceful protestors are not the active duty US military. The militarized look of these police officers confuses matters (one of many issues with that phenomenon), but the distinction is crucial, even as the administration would like to blur it.

Likewise, the National Guard is not the active duty military either. For those who don’t understand the difference (and apologies for being pedagogic), the National Guard is a part time reservist organization under the control of the governor of a given state, and often used for policing civil disturbances, among other peacetime applications. (It was Ohio National Guardsmen who shot and killed four at Kent State, for instance.)

That is something very different than the domestic use of the active duty US military, under command of the Pentagon, a force designed and configured solely to fight and kill enemy combatants on the battlefield. (The NG can, however, be federalized by the POTUS, which is part of where this could get complicated.) During the BLM/George Floyd protests in early June, the mere dispatch of an active duty military police battalion from Ft. Bragg to DC, even if its members ultimately never left their garrison, was worrying enough that it prompted the pushback from Mattis et al. (The MPs are at least trained in riot control, which many of the anonymous federal agents in unmarked uniforms—rumored to be repurposed Bureau of Prisons officers, on the model of Putin’s “little green men”—were not.)

But the use of these paramilitary police units shows how Trump can apply brute force even if active duty soldiers are not available to him. Most notoriously, his DHS sent more of those anonymous feds in to the streets of Portland to engage in brownshirt-style violence toward protestors there.

Trump is also big on freelance thuggery. Note his cheerleading for white power vigilantes armed with semi-automatic weapons, like the “Liberate” mobs (don’t call people with guns “protestors”) in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and even homicidal teenagers like Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. Trump has regularly encouraged political violence for the past five years, all the way back to the campaign trail. If he can’t have the 82nd Airborne, he will settle for the Proud Boys, Duck Dynasty-style militiamen, and the smirking, tiki-torch carrying frat boys of Charlottesville.

His enthusiasm for the First and Second Amendment rights of armed citizens left of the political center is considerably less vigorous.

Roger Stone has already encouraged Trump to declare martial law. As reported by the Guardian, Stone told InfoWars’ Alex Jones:

Trump should consider invoking the Insurrection Act and arresting the Clintons, former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, (Mark) Zuckerberg, Tim Cook of Apple and “anybody else who can be proven to be involved in illegal activity.”

He also said: “The ballots in Nevada on election night should be seized by federal marshals and taken from the state. They are completely corrupted. No votes should be counted from the state of Nevada if that turns out to be the provable case. Send federal marshals to the Clark county board of elections, Mr President!”

Similarly, last week, on September 11th (nice touch), shock jock Mark Levin called for Trump to use the military against Black Lives Matter protestors and others, whom he called “traitors” and “punks.” (You kids get off my lawn!)

Yeah, I know, Stone is a lunatic and convicted felon who rightly ought to be in prison, and Levin is the poor man’s Limbaugh (who is the poor man’s Father Coughlin) and both are showbiz hucksters who deserve exactly none of our attention.

But what about Michael Caputo, assistant secretary of public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, who went on a 26 minute video rant on Facebook that included the suggestion that “there are (left wing) hit squads being trained all over this country” preparing for violent opposition to a second Trump term, “and when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin. He added, ““If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get,” he urged his followers.

This is a high-ranking federal official in a Cabinet department. (Caputo, by the by, is also in charge of messaging for the CDC, which in that same Facebook rant he claimed contains a Deep State cell of “seditious” anti-Trump scientists deliberately driving up the COVID death toll.) This is the kind of talk that is bouncing around Trump Nation ahead of the election. We ignore it, or scoff at it, or dismiss it as a joke at our peril.

Particularly because what Michael Caputo is saying is almost exactly the same thing that the President of the United States is saying.


So how much support does Trump really have among the US military community?

I spent the first 28 years of my life steeped in that world, from being born in an Army hospital in Germany in 1963 to the day I left active duty in 1991 and put Ft. Bragg in my rear view mirror. But that was almost thirty years ago; I don’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the contemporary US military.

That said, my experience from talking to people I know is that Trump’s support there is less solid than generally assumed. Sure, the military is a largely conservative world, and Cadet Bone Spurs’ chestbeating faux patriotism has won him a fair share of uniformed (and retired) supporters who have bought the con that he is a strong leader and tough on matters of defense.

But plenty of professional military people, especially senior officers and NCOs, are openly appalled by the man and his actions, much like their civilian counterparts in the national security and foreign affairs communities, the State Department, and US intelligence agencies. The damage Trump has done to the United States’ security and standing in the world are patently evident and don’t bear repeating here.

The recent bombshell story in The Atlantic— that Trump denigrated US war dead as “losers and suckers,” amid a longstanding pattern of other insulting remarks about the American military—has brought this dynamic to a head. It comes as no surprise, atop his draft dodging, his personal vendetta against a genuine war hero like John McCain, and his attacks on Gold Star families.

Oh, also: he’s a bought-and-paid for vassal of a hostile foreign power. Which the US military tends to frown on.

And it’s not just retired flag officers with PhDs and jobs at think tanks who have a dim view of our Dear Leader. Recent polling by Military Times shows nearly half of active duty military personnel (49.9%) have an unfavorable view of the president*, compared to about 38 percent favorable. 41.3% say they plan to vote for Biden, compared to 37.4% for Trump. And that poll was taken four days before the Atlantic’s story dropped.

But again, the issue of how much love there is for Trump in the armed forces is, in a way, irrelevant. He is the commander-in-chief, and the bedrock principle of the American military is its subordination to the civilian leadership. There was not a lot of respect for Bill Clinton among the US military of the 1990s, but respect for the authority of the office did not appreciably waver. Whatever individual US military think of this president or any president, they are duly sworn to obey his or her lawful orders.

The only question is what happens if his orders are not lawful.


Of course, we really don’t want the military to have to step into domestic politics. When that has happened in other countries, it has usually been to crush democracy, not save it. Generally speaking, tyrants are removed by popular uprisings, which the military may join, but rarely leads.

Anything that changes that longstanding precedent and taboo in the United States, even in the interest of a short-term good, brings long-term dangers. I would not want a Christian supremacist and right wing fanatic like retired General Jerry Boykin, who recently suggested that radical feminism was to blame for the murder of George Floyd, staging a dinner theater revival of Seven Days in May. Boykin was a fine soldier, but is cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. If he wants to turn America into Gilead, let him run for office, not seize power by force.

So given that the US military will almost certainly not play a part in the coming election in the conventional banana republic way, we the people have to be prepared to step up apply the necessary pressure should the worst come to pass. That doesn’t mean taking up arms, Michael Caputo. But it is damn serious nonetheless.

I humbly a propose a very obvious three-step plan.

Step 1: Sound that alarm now that Trump intends to pull this con and cling to power regardless of the vote. Trump has shown over the past four years that he excels at perverting the mechanisms of American democracy—impeachment, DOJ investigations, the appointment process, and so on—all in the service of his neo-autocracy. Come November, December, and January, I am quite sure he will use every available lever, legal and illegal, to keep Joe Biden’s hand off the Lincoln bible.

Per above, this clarion call is already going out. Let’s keep up the volume.

Step 2: Vote for Biden in such numbers that it’s a landslide that no reasonable person can deny. Since Trump’s not a reasonable person, we know that he will proclaim victory no matter what the numbers. So Biden has to be ready to declare victory swiftly on Election Day, should the vote count support that claim, putting himself in a position of strength rather that of the challenger trying to overturn the result—even a fake result—like Al Gore in 2000.

Step 3: Be prepared to get into the streets, Belarus-style, because we all know that no matter how big the Biden win, or how fast he justifiably declares victory, there will be elements both in the GOP leadership and in the red-hatted Republican rank-and-file who will go along with Trump’s scheme, whether out of true belief or mere cynicism.

It may come down to a massive mobilization of patriotic Americans taking to the streets to oppose this perversion of democracy and demand that the will of the people be obeyed. Will there be violence? I hope not. We won’t start it. But we won’t be cowed by it either, if this criminal administration and its supporters deploy it.

Events in Minsk point the way. Just this weekend the financier turned human rights activist Bill Browder retweeted an amazing video of non-violent women protestors pulling the balaclavas off state security goons during a public demonstration there. Watch these cowards scramble to hide their faces.

Rule of thumb: when you’re afraid to show your identity, you’re not on the side of the angels.

The bad news is that Lukashenko is still in power at the moment, albeit under pressure. We shall see what happens. Overthrowing tyranny takes time, patience, commitment, and determination.

That is a lesson for America in the months to come, one we may need.

Because at the end of the day, it’s not the job of the uniformed, active duty US military to enforce the rule of law and democratic norms on our own shores.

That’s up to us.


Illustration: US Marines running past the body of a fallen enemy soldier during the Korean War, September 1950. Credit: David Douglas Duncan

5 thoughts on “Don’t Count on the Military to Save Our Democracy (That’s Not Its Job)

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