You know that Americans are going through an extraordinary political moment when The Washington Post reports that “military leaders are rapidly consolidating power throughout the executive branch” — that they’re “publicly contradicting” the president and “balking” at carrying out his policies — and civilian politicians react with undisguised relief.
They are grateful that, while President Donald Trump transgresses and blunders, the generals in powerful jobs — National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — provide “a steadying hand on the rudder,” as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) put it.
Noninvolvement in domestic politics and submission to civilian control are hallmarks of a professional military under constitutional democracy. The United States has by and large practiced those principles while also preaching them, albeit inconsistently, to other countries.
Yet while the growing influence of military officers in the government, to the point of unsubtle pushback against the commander-in-chief, raises “totally legitimate” concerns, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said, those issues “should be addressed at a later time. In the meantime, we should be reassured that there are competent professionals who want to make smart choices.”
Like Schatz, I would rather be governed by McMaster, Kelly and Mattis than by Trump. Like him, I think they took thankless jobs in the administration out of concern for the national interest.
Unlike Schatz, however, I don’t think it’s too soon to fret about long-run consequences of looking to an unelected officer corps as guarantors of political stability and upholders of national values. This kind of thinking belongs on the list of things we dare not “normalize” in the United States, even with good intentions.
To be sure, this awkward moment in civil-military relations has been a long time coming. You don’t have to embrace “deep state” conspiracy theories to recognize that the rise of a huge permanent military in the years after World War II was unprecedented, or that it strains constitutional norms and structures. Many officers emerged from that establishment to serve in senior policy roles in the White House or the Cabinet, before the current group.
What is new, perhaps, is the fact that the military enjoys unparalleled support across the political spectrum (72 percent expressed high confidence in the latest Gallup Poll) while civilian institutions, from Congress to the media, whose constitutional role it is to check and balance the president, lack perceived legitimacy. No wonder many people are starting to say, or at least think, that only the military, or figures connected to it, can keep this country together.
By no means am I predicting a military coup in the United States or accusing anyone of advocating one. I am merely calling attention to how much power we already have conceded, expressly and by implication, to the officer corps and how much more we may depend on them before the Trump presidency is over. This is evidence of deep political decay, which started long before Trump’s election.
The key figure in American politics now may be Mattis, who regularly represents the United States in foreign capitals and has prevailed in a bitter internal administration struggle over what to do in Afghanistan.
If anyone in this polarized country can claim to epitomize national consensus, it may be the man known as “Mad Dog.” What would be the political consequences if the president were to fire him, just as he fired FBI Director James B. Comey? And what sort of crisis would ensue if Trump said or did something so outrageous that even the patient Mattis must resign on principle?
In a healthy democracy, political stability does not hinge on an indispensable general. In Donald Trump’s America, it might.
Charles Lane is a Washington Post editorial writer.