Military Tradition Saved American Democracy From Trump

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Trump wanted to be president-for-life. In so many words, our military said “no”.

Imagine what it must be like, to be in command of the mightiest military force in human history, and to have a real opportunity to take control of the most powerful nation on the planet if one so desired.

More importantly, given such a temptation, imagine what it must be like to choose not to do so.

America’s military has roughly 600 total generals and admirals on active duty, but the hierarchical nature of the military means only a relative handful controls the rest. The Posse Comitatus Act notwithstanding, the Joint Chiefs of Staff could, if they so desired, combine forces to seize control of the nation at the behest of a sitting president or, for that matter, at their own command. This is probably what lay behind President* Trump’s repeated efforts to ingratiate himself to the military by doing what he thought the military wanted. Among other things, Trump:

  • chose generals to serve in his cabinet,
  • demanded a military parade in Washington D.C.,
  • banned transgender men and women from serving,
  • and pardoned a SEAL convicted for crimes committed during deployment.

Perhaps those decisions did make Trump more popular among hardline Trump-can-do-no-wrong right-wingers (like this guy), but among most in the military — and especially among the officers — his orders made him very unpopular indeed.

Before going further, it should be noted that from the very beginning, Trump thought he could rule — not govern, but rule — by decree, thus the multiple instances of firing of subordinates (mostly) by tweet, and issuance of directives and orders by tweet. By the same token, he believed he could simply order the military to do as he wished, which is why he thought it was no big deal to order the National Guard to do whatever was necessary (which turned out to be tear gas) to clear peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park.

But Trump’s the Commander in Chief, right? The military is duty-bound to obey his every command, right?

Um, not so much.

Trump had already alienated the traditionally-conservative military by ordering them to desert our Kurdish allies, by demanding that military parade (newsflash: we who serve don’t like participating in parades — they’re a pain in the ass), and by publicly and repeatedly taking Vladimir Putin’s word over that of the professionals throughout our entire intelligence community (many of whom are themselves military veterans). It had gotten to the point that according to a 2019 Military Times poll, half of all enlisted and — more importantly — two-thirds of all commissioned officers disapproved of Trump’s performance.

Note that said poll was before:

  • the COVID-19 pandemic,
  • the firing of the commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt(CVN 71) for speaking up for the safety and welfare of his crew,
  • Trump’s public refusal to do anything to hold Putin accountable for bounties placed on our troops in Afghanistan,
  • Trump’s threat to deploy American military troops to cities across America to quell protests,
  • and Trump’s refusal to speak out against the militia who were planning to kidnap the governor of Michigan, and to thereafter hold a mock trial before executing her.

Even given all those actions, any one of which would have ended the career of any normal politician, Trump is still the Commander-in-Chief, and — judging by his barely-averted desire to attack Iran after he lost the election — is still itching to do something to make him look good in the eyes of those whose testosterone levels are too high for anyone’s good.

Is there any doubt that after the failure of all his other ill-considered attempts to nullify the election he lost, if Trump thought he could get away with it, that he would order the military to use force (if necessary) to keep him in office? But for all the authority of the office he still occupies, that’s something Trump simply can’t do. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t use the United States military to preserve his hold on the Oval Office, no matter how deeply he purges its civilian leadership.

Why? Because of the military’s 240-year tradition of nonpartisanship. We in the military take an oath of loyalty not to any one person, but to the Constitution itself. This is why the military will answer to the winner of the Electoral College. To be sure, the military — being comprised of mostly politically-aware men and women — is rife with politics, but the moment a president tries to use it as a pawn in internecine sociopolitical squabbles (or outright coup attempts), the military will close ranks and stand down.

That tradition, more than America’s alleged rule of law, more even than our freedom of speech and freedom of the press, is what has thwarted Trump’s desire to remain in power at all costs. If our military was like those found in almost any other nation (except those of the other first-world democracies), Trump could have wielded its might to stay in office. His words and actions — including all the times he has ‘joked’ about staying in office past the Constitutional limit of two terms — should make it obvious that he most certainly would if he could.

But he can’t, thanks to our military’s tradition of nonpartisanship. On January 20, 2021, they will acknowledge President Joseph Biden as the new Commander-in-Chief, and there is precisely nothing that Trump can do about it.

Written by

Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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