THE SANE HALF of the United States must be breathing a huge sigh of relief. Excerpts from I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, published today (15/7/21) in The Washington Post, reveal just how important the character of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has become to the fate of the American republic. Confronted with the demands of an out-of-control Donald Trump, a Chairman lacking in General Mark Milley’s determination to defend his country’s constitution may well have buckled. Fortunately, this general was not the buckling kind.
Informed that Trump and his allies were planning to claim victory in the 2020 presidential election and use their control of the federal apparatus to stage what amounted to a coup d’état, Milley is said to have responded:
They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed. You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with guns.
Very true, but in describing the reality of the situation with such uncompromising, gun-metal clarity, Milley was opening up a very large can of worms. The guiding constitutional principle in relation to the armed forces of the United States is that they must, at all times, remain under civilian control. The “Founding Fathers”, most of whom had received a classical education, were only too aware of the role Julius Caesar played in the downfall of the Roman Republic. Generals, they insisted, must be kept on tight civilian leash.
All well and good, but what happens when the civilians in charge (like the Secretary of Defence) are all the carefully selected political creatures of a man intent on making himself President-for-Life – and to hell with the Constitution! – what then?
Well, then it comes down to an unelected military officer deciding, on his own recognisance, that the orders of his Commander-in-Chief (i.e. the President) are unlawful and therefore unconstitutional, and consequently ought not to be obeyed by him, or anybody under his command. Paraphrasing the notorious formula of the US officer in Vietnam: “It would become necessary to destroy the Constitution in order to save it.”
A grim decision. But, the alternative decision: to obey the orders of a Commander-in-Chief who has just invoked the Insurrection Act, or declared a State of National Emergency, in order to steal the election from his opponent and feed the Constitution of the United States into the shredder; would have been even grimmer.
Perhaps word of Milley’s refusal to go along with Trump’s intended autogolpé (the Spanish term for a self-administered coup-d’état) tested the courage of Trump and his supporters to its breaking-point. After all, and as the failure of the attack on the US Capitol Building revealed, any insurrection attempted without the active co-operation of “the guys with guns” is doomed to fail.
Milley’s love of history stood the American people in very good stead during the final, harrowing weeks of 2020 and the first 20 days of 2021. Trump he insisted, was preaching the “Gospel of the Führer” and the USA was facing what he called “a Reichstag moment”. [The destruction of the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, by a young Communist arsonist, was seized upon by Hitler and his Nazis as proof of an impending Communist uprising requiring the suspension of the German constitution and the authorisation of rule by decree.] A week after the storming of the Capitol Building on 6 January, Milley raged: “These guys are Nazis, they’re boogaloo boys, they’re Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II”. How Trump must regret his failure to appoint someone other than Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs!
Though America made it through the perilous weeks of Trump’s incipient treachery and celebrated joyously President Joe Biden’s arrival at the White House, the United States military may soon be called upon to rescue the republic a second time.
So wedded has the Republican Party become to Trump’s “Gospel of the Führer” that they have launched an all-out assault on the democratic process in the states it controls. Supposedly convinced by Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”, the Republicans are now showing every sign of being willing to steal the 2022 mid-term elections.
If the comprehensive voter suppression laws they have passed allow them to reclaim both the House and the Senate, there are those within the Republican Party’s ranks who would not hesitate to have Congress declare the 2020 presidential election result null-and-void and seek to re-instate Trump in the White House. Were this scenario to unfold, President Biden would have two choices: acquiescence; or, to declare martial law, proscribe the Republican Party, and arrest its leaders, congresspeople and senators. Pending the calling together of a new Constitutional Convention, the drawing up of a new and unequivocally democratic (small ‘d’) constitution, and the holding of new elections, Biden would be required to rule by decree – and the US Military, the FBI and the CIA – the “guys with guns” – would have to let him do it.
In order to save the American republic, they would have to destroy it. Off the wall scenario? Let’s hope so. It would be unwise, however, to ignore President Biden’s impassioned speech, delivered earlier this week to constitutional scholars in Philadelphia, the key sentences of which were heavy with foreboding:
So hear me clearly. There’s an unfolding assault taking place in America today, an attempt to suppress and subvert right to vote in fair and free elections, an assault on democracy, an assault on liberty, an assault on who we are, who we are as Americans. But make no mistake, bullies and merchants of fear, peddlers of lies, are threatening the very foundation of our country ….. We’re facing the most significant test of our democracy since the civil war, That’s not hyperbole. Since the civil war. The Confederates, back then, never breached the Capitol as insurrectionists did on 6 January. I’m not saying this to alarm you. I’m saying this because you should be alarmed.
And who prevented the army of the racist, slave-owning, and profoundly undemocratic Confederate States of America from marching into the US Capitol? The United States armed forces led by General Ulysses S. Grant and their Commander-in-Chief Abraham Lincoln – that’s who.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 July 2021.