The Right Versus the Military

General Mark Milley has emerged as an unlikely bulwark against authoritarianism

Throughout Trump’s presidency there was a running debate on the left about fascism. Was Trump, as many ]thought, an authoritarian threat, a proto-fascist if not fascist tout court? Or was the fascist accusation, as others insisted, an over-reaction that ignored Trump’s ineffectuality, the simple fact that he was an often weak president incapable of implementing his policies.

I was torn on this debate because I thought both sides made plausible points. I suggested a compromise which was never widely accepted: Trump was an aspiring authoritarian whose bid for rule like an autocrat would fail because of his own personal traits (his lack of interest and knowledge in the details of governing), his lack of a large enough mobilized base that could serve as a private army and the institutional restraints of the political system. But this aspirational authoritarianism had the potential to weaken American democracy and set the stage for a future crisis.

As we get more reporting about the Trump era, I think there’s more and more evidence supporting the idea of a failed but still dangerous wanna-be Duce. In an article pinging off a new book, CNN reports that Trump wanted to use the military to crush protestors:

The top US general repeatedly pushed back on then-President Donald Trump's argument that the military should intervene violently in order to quell the civil unrest that erupted around the country last year. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley often found he was the lone voice of opposition to those demands during heated Oval Office discussions, according to excerpts of a new book, obtained by CNN, from Wall Street Journal reporter Michael Bender.

Titled "Frankly, We Did Win This Election: The Inside Story of How Trump Lost," the book reveals new details about how Trump's language became increasingly violent during Oval Office meetings as protests in Seattle and Portland began to receive attention from cable new outlets. The President would highlight videos that showed law enforcement getting physical with protesters and tell his administration he wanted to see more of that behavior, the excerpts show.

"That's how you're supposed to handle these people," Trump told his top law enforcement and military officials, according to Bender. "Crack their skulls!"

Trump also told his team that he wanted the military to go in and "beat the f--k out" of the civil rights protesters, Bender writes.

The fact that General Mark Milley resisted Trump’s commands is both heartening and disturbing. After all, the line separating democracy from military intervention in domestic politics shouldn’t have to depend on military leaders keeping their oath to the Constitution. There should be other safe-guards in place. Trump’s presidency shows how weak those safeguards are.

Since Trump’s departure from the White House, a rift has opened up between the American right and the military. Republican politicians like Senator Tom Cotton and Congressman Matt Gaetz have taken to calling the military “woke” or infected with “critical race theory.”

Testifying before congress, General Milley offered a spirited defense of studying critical race theory and other radical intellectual traditions:

The right has responded with fury, with Fox News' host Tucker Carlson saying of Milley, “he is not just a pig, he’s stupid.”

Carlson’s colleague Laura Ingraham meanwhile is calling for a defunding of the military unless they stop the CRT business.

The last time the political right so openly feuded with the career military was in the early 1950s, when Joseph McCarthy tried to extend his red hunt to the Pentagon. That was a huge strategic mistake on McCarthy’s part and the beginning of the collapse of his political career. The military, at the height of the Cold War, simply had too much bipartisan popularity to be so brazenly attacked.

The situation today is different. The military is still a popular institution but the lack of an existential foe like the Soviet Union opens up the possibility for a much more sustained fight between the right and the military.

General Milley is an unlikely lightening rod in this fight. He was, after all, elevated by Trump. Still, he is, for better or worse, the bulwark against the right-wing onslaught.

It’s hardly a coincidence that the right now sees the military as the enemy. After all, they disobeyed Trump and were the major barrier for Trump carrying out his plans, both during the protests of 2020 and during the January 6 riot. The current right wing campaign is clearly designed to cow the military and make it more obedient, with one eye on the next Republican president. The crisis of American democracy that started under Trump isn’t over. The Trumpists are trying to reshape institutions to destroy the restraints that held them back.

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