It matters little whether orders to hide the U.S.S. John S. McCain from President Donald Trump’s sight during his U.S. Navy base visit came directly from Trump or, as acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney would have it, they were issued by a “23- or 24-year-old person” on the White House advance team looking to shield the touchy president from any reference to McCain, his political nemesis. Either way, Trump has gotten the U.S. military to pay him the deference a king expects.
Trump has steadily erased the boundaries that separate the military from politics. Last Thanksgiving during a holiday phone call with troops, he browbeat the unfortunate servicepeople on the other end of the line with his views on migrants, trade, and judges. In a December visit to troops in Iraq and Germany, he broke the standard rules prohibiting the politicizing of the military by giving overtly political speeches. In May, the Daily Caller reported his plans to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would allow troops to perform police work on the border. Pentagon press briefings, once at least a weekly occurrence, haven’t been held for more than a year. Why? Senior officials tell CNN’s Barbara Starr that “televised briefings stopped because of worries that TV watcher-in-chief, President Trump, would get angry if he saw something he didn’t like.”
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Many voters and pundits sleep easier at night by telling themselves this is just Trump being Trump, an outsider who doesn’t restrain his ego within the usual lines. But these are an authoritarian’s moves. They aren’t restricted to the soldiers and sailors under his direct command. He has also feted America’s other armed responders, like sheriffs and police chiefs, with pandering speeches that invite cops to crack heads if they feel like it. In a July 2017 speech at Suffolk County Community College before a backdrop of uniformed police officers standing in formation, Trump claimed that “the laws are so horrendously stacked against us, because for years and years they’ve been made to protect the criminal.”
Who is that “us”? Trump was never a cop, but his use of the plural pronoun is deliberate—he encourages the police to identify with him, directly and personally, and not with the chain of command or the laws that are supposed to govern their behavior. Addressing a group of sheriffs last September, he portrayed the police as disrespected and defamed—the way he views himself—saying, “We will not tolerate smears, or slanders, or assaults on those who wear the badge and police our streets.” Speaking over the chain of command to soldiers and police, El Jefe style, he fashions himself the final authority on the use of force. In an April visit to the Mexican border, he personally directed members of the U.S. Border Patrol to block migrants from entering the country and to ignore any judge who might contradict him, and he lamented the fact the military can’t get rougher on the border.
The stop-worrying-so-much crowd isn’t wrong that Trump is play-acting—populist style—for his political base, and that he has no intention to go full- or even partial-authoritarian on the nation by suddenly summoning his most loyal troops and police to his cause. But the precedent matters, and he’s increasing the chances of a more competent, future executive who might build on Trump’s personal cultivation of the military and police to behave more like an emperor than a president.
So far, Trump hasn’t co-opted the military as much as he’s cowed it. Since becoming president, he’s routinely injected politics into his speeches and appearances at military bases. “We had a wonderful election, didn’t we?” he said at MacDill Air Force Base in February 2017. “And I saw those numbers, and you liked me and I liked you.” In the early months of his presidency, he tinseled the higher levels of his administration with military brass—H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, James Mattis and Michael Flynn—calling them “my generals,” as if they were his possessions. The hiring spree failed, though, because Trump wanted only the style, not the discipline of the military way.
Even so, the only direct resistance the military has paid Trump has been passive: Earlier this year, senior uniformed and civilian Defense Department personnel sat on their hands when he criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the “radical left” in a campaign-style harangue. Not until the U.S.S. McCain incident did the military finally protest Trump’s politicization attempt, but then only in a weak-kneed, bureaucratic fashion as acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan directed his chief of staff to tell the White House to cool it. The only consistent criticism from the military establishment of Trump political shenanigans has come from retired military personnel.
Not every department of lethal force has bowed to the president. The FBI and the intelligence community, more often targets of Trump’s bile than of his fawning and flattery, stand out as exceptions. But he still strives to make the G-men and spooks his captives. He recently gave Attorney General William Barr unprecedented powers to declassify intelligence connected to the Russia probe that critics might end up politicizing intelligence and law enforcement. And just this week, he finalized plans to turn Independence Day on the National Mall, long an apolitical expression of love of country, into his own “A Salute to America” celebration.
Trump isn’t the first president to attempt to bend the military and police to him. John Kennedy appointed his brother Robert to the office of attorney general to give him better control over federal law enforcement. Richard Nixon founded an entirely new law enforcement branch, the Drug Enforcement Administration, from which he extracted extraordinary loyalty. But no president has injected politics into official agencies of force as Trump has.
In so doing, Trump has already sketched out how an American emperor would behave. Earlier this year in an interview, Trump warned “the left” it could expect extralegal violence from his best-armed supporters if it steps out of line. “I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump—I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough—until they go to a certain point, and then it would be very bad, very bad,” he said.
Soldiers, cops and bikers getting tough on “the left” in the name of their president. Chew on that image for a moment.
Ordering a destroyer moved from its berth so the maximum leader won’t have to think about a dead political foe sounds like a scene out of The Death of Stalin. What movie does it conjure for you? Send email to [email protected]. My email alerts watch Dr. Strangelove once a year. My Twitter feed rescreens The Thick of It. My RSS feed will watch no movie except Detour.