Two Paths to a Military Coup

Revelations about the break-down of civilian-military relations under Donald Trump show the many ways authoritarian clowning undermines democracy.

If this newsletter has a theme it can be summed up in a sentence: the threat of authoritarianism remains real. I’ve continued to hammer on this even at the risk of seeming obsessed with the past and unable to move on. I think both the coup of January 6 and the subsequent widespread adoption by the Republican Party of the lie of a stolen election shows how real the threat remains in the United States. Further, the Trumpian phenomenon has parallels in many other democracies. Authoritarianism isn’t the only issue of our time but it is a crucial one.

This is why over the last week I wrote about Trump’s continuing sway on the party and how it parallels the impact of Andrew Jackson, the ineffectuality of Liz Cheney’s alternative to Trumpism, the economic structure supporting right-wing advocacy of election lie, and the creation by Trump allies of a private spy network to entrap his putative enemies inside the FBI and national security apparatus.

There’s a strong argument that has been made against the type of writing I’m doing. Many formidable writers from across the spectrum (leftists as well as centrists, liberals as well as conservatives) contend that the authoritarian threat was overblown, that Trump was a weak and ineffectual leader who presided over a party that had difficulty governing even when they controlled all branches of government.

My counter-argument is that Trump’s weakness was connected to his authoritarianism. Unable to govern in a conventional way, whether because the GOP coalition had become internally divided or because of his own limited understanding of the political system works, Trump mobilized extra-political forces to impose his will. That’s the meaning of the private spy agency set up by his allies and, more visibly, the mob Trump incited to attack the Capitol Building on January 6.

The weakness in governing and the attempt to impose personal authority went hand in hand. Both were corrosive to democracy, but in different ways. This is most clear in civilian-military affairs, where Trump showed that there were two paths towards a coup, both of which played out.

On the one hand, Trump tried to use the military as his personal toy, in the familiar authoritarian pattern. He surrounded himself with generals, he had big parades for himself, he pardoned war criminals and he wanted to use the military to crack down on protesters.

Trump’s baneful effect continues with a raft of retired generals (echoing their French counterparts) proclaiming conspiracy theories about the election. I’ll return to the dangers of military radicalization encouraged by Trump in a future post.

The good news is that the military resisted Trump’s attempt to subdue him. In particular, during the fraught summer of 2020, the top ranks made clear that they were not going to let the military serve as shock troops against protesters.

But this resistance came at a price. Because from the start the military leadership didn’t respect Trump and because he was too ill-informed to shape policy, civilian-military relations broke down. The Pentagon carried out policy for four years often in open defiance of the duly elected president.

Axios just published a lengthy account of Trump’s failed attempts to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Syria, Germany, and other countries. The report makes clear that Trump was foiled at every turn by both the staff he himself assembled and also the national security establishment.

As Axios recounts:

Once in office, though, Trump's ambitions to withdraw from Afghanistan and other countries were subdued, slow-rolled, and detoured by military leaders.

Trump did not help his own agenda when he surrounded himself at the start with generals, many of whom had made their careers at U.S. Central Command. They fundamentally disagreed with the president's worldview. They were personally invested in Afghanistan. And several would come to see it as their job to save America and the world from their commander in chief.

The sabotaging of Trump’s agenda involved lying to him:

When it came down to it, Trump was indecisive. In the view of top officials, he did not seem to want to own the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal.

This allowed the Pentagon to dismiss his tweets and rants and maintain the status quo. They stuck to the National Defense Strategy — a document they fully believed Trump hadn't bothered to read.

Some senior officials also deliberately deceived Trump. "What Syria withdrawal? There was never a Syria withdrawal," Jim Jeffrey, Trump's special envoy to Syria and the anti-ISIS coalition, told Defense One in a post-election interview in November 2020.

"We were always playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there," he said, adding that the real number of troops in northeast Syria is "a lot more than" the roughly 200 Trump initially agreed to leave there in 2019.

The Axios article should disturb anyone who believes in democracy. The merits of Trump’s policies are a secondary matter. I happen to think that scaling back American forces from Afghanistan and other countries is a sound move. My only concern would be that I would never trust Trump to be able to execute such policies in a competent manner or way that minimizes harm.

But still, even if I thought Trump’s policies were dangerous and the generals who wanted to maintain troops everywhere were prudent, I still don’t want military leaders to be lying to civilian leadership or actively sabotaging the goals of a president. The reassertion of civilian control over the military has to be a priority for Joe Biden.

Trump’s weak and buffoonish authoritarianism incited two competing types of military coups: a coup by the military brass against Trump and a coup by Trumpists against the constitutional order. We’ll return to the second type of coup in our next post.

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