The U.S. Military won't allow an insurrection
It turns out we're not in danger of a repeat of the Spanish Civil War.
Four and a half years ago, in the wake of Trump’s electoral victory, I wrote a blog post worrying about the possibility of a civil war in America. I don’t like to write posts like that (or like the one I’m writing now); it’s just something one occasionally has to do, because the alternative is hiding under a rock and waiting for the storms of history to pass. Anyway, I had been reading a bunch of history books about the Spanish Civil War, and I fretted that liberals and leftists in the U.S. were walking into a similar catastrophe:
This means that if the U.S. had a civil war along currently existing left-right lines - i.e., Republican voters vs. Democratic voters - the right would win. It would probably win more quickly and decisively than the Spanish right won…
I think many on the intellectual, elite left in America fail to realize this danger, or the probability of this scenario. From most left-leaning intellectuals I see only increasing stridency and demands for ideological purity…
I worry that this attitude, and these tactics, depend crucially on the assumption that we live in a constitutional, democratic regime that is so unshakably stable that raised fists, angry op-eds, and the ballot box will always be able to prevail. I worry that they have forgotten Mao's adage that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun," and that the other side - as the sides are currently drawn - has all the guns.
I advised liberals and leftists to moderate their tone, in the hope of winning over wavering centrists, especially in the military.
I think my message — that liberals needed to think through to the possibility of violent conflict, and not simply put it out of their minds — was a good one. And my advice not to give in to extremism and to build an ideological big tent, in order not to lose such a conflict, was and is sound advice. But I now think that my post was wrong in one huge, important respect: I underestimated the U.S. Military.
Like many liberals, I simply assumed that the conservative tilt of the people in the Armed Forces meant that if there were a Spain-style civil war between Right and Left, they would side with the Right. In fact, this probably is true for many Republican politicians around the country, who are becoming increasingly fanatical in their loyalty to Donald Trump. But the U.S. Military was a different breed. Trump started out his presidency with the support of a majority of the armed forces, but as the years shambled along, military opinion began to turn against him:
Crucially, the officer corps was even more strongly against Trump than the enlisted. At this point it started to become clear that we were not in a Spain 1936 type of situation — the military brass might split along partisan lines in the event of a conflict, but Trump would not have the majority on his side.
My dawning realization was reinforced during the George Floyd protests, when Trump tried to get the U.S. Military to act as riot police and quell the protests. I recall watching General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, walk through D.C. and deliver a pro-protest message to a news crew. This was followed by a series of pro-protest messages from high-level active-duty members of every branch of the Armed Forces. A few weeks later it came out that Milley had shouted down Trump in the Oval Office.
After these pivotal events, I realized that the military was not on Trump’s side. The largest protests in American history, accompanied by looting in every major city, were not enough to induce the Armed Forces to betray their oaths and turn on the American people, even when exhorted to do so by a sitting President. To me, that was the decisive moment.
Now a new book by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker reveals just how very not-on-Trump’s-side the top brass were:
Milley spoke to friends, lawmakers and colleagues about the threat of a coup, and the Joint Chiefs chairman felt he had to be "on guard" for what might come.
"They may try, but they're not going to f**king succeed," Milley told his deputies, according to the authors. "You can't do this without the military. You can't do this without the CIA and the FBI. We're the guys with the guns."…
Milley viewed Trump as "the classic authoritarian leader with nothing to lose," the authors write, and he saw parallels between Adolf Hitler's rhetoric as a victim and savior and Trump's false claims of election fraud.
"This is a Reichstag moment," Milley told aides, according to the book. "The gospel of the Führer."
Ahead of a November pro-Trump "Million MAGA March" to protest the election results, Milley told aides he feared it "could be the modern American equivalent of 'brownshirts in the streets,'"…
After January 6, Milley participated in a drill with military and law enforcement leaders to prepare for the January 20 inauguration…
Milley told a group of senior leaders, "Here's the deal, guys: These guys are Nazis, they're boogaloo boys, they're Proud Boys. These are the same people we fought in World War II. We're going to put a ring of steel around this city and the Nazis aren't getting in."
This is far more extreme of a condemnation of Trump than even I was willing to make. Milley, who was close to the center of the action and interacted with Trump on a daily basis, made Hitler comparisons that rival the shrillest resistance libs on Twitter. For years, liberals on Twitter were called hysterical whenever they expressed opinions like this, but now we find that behind closed doors, top generals were thinking the same thing. Milley viewed the MAGA movement as Nazi-esque, and was prepared to crush it with force. That view might not have been universal among the top brass, but the reporting in the book implies that it was very common.
In my 2016 post, I posed the question to liberals: “You and whose army?” Now we have an answer: Our own army. The United States Armed Forces.
The Right seems to have realized this too. Rightist figures are increasingly condemning the military as being “woke”, taking aim at recruitment ads that emphasize diversity and accusing offers of distributing woke literature. Condemnations of top brass like Milley are becoming open and common:
On Twitter, it’s common to see right-wingers revile the military, or say that it’s “decaying”.
In a way, this is actually reassuring. If rightists have begun to feel, as I began to feel in 2020, that the U.S. Military as an institution is not on their side, it means that there will be no repeat of the Spanish Civil War in America. No Franco will return from Morocco to lead the forces of reaction and crush the Republic. Military personnel will continue to lean conservative, but esprit de corps and ideological commitment to the Constitution will prevent that conservatism from turning into Trumpism. And rightist demonization of the military will stiffen the brass’ resolve to resist future Trumpist encroachments. Also, because the military is consistently the country’s most trusted institution, the anti-military campaign will probably do the rightists few favors electorally.
Also, we can now be pretty sure that future coup attempts in America will not closely resemble 1930s Japan, and will not have similar outcomes. Recall that in Japan’s 1930s coups — the first of which were every bit as shambolic and doomed as the one on 1/6 — rightists created chaos in the hopes of forcing the civilian government to relinquish power to the military. Ultimately, though the coups were put down, the perpetrators succeeded in their objective. In the U.S., however, rightists know that giving the military dictatorial powers would work to their distinct disadvantage. And so they will attempt to seize power or create chaos by other means.
Anyway, there are important lessons for both liberals and leftists here. Both tend to be suspicious of the Armed Forces — liberals because we know that military personnel tend to lean conservative, and leftists because they see the military as an arm of U.S. imperialism. But I’ve come to believe that this suspicion — which I used to share, as evidenced by my 2016 post — is unhelpful. If there’s one message liberals need to hear in America, it’s that we’re not the Revolution any more — we’re the Establishment, and we need to assume the responsibility that comes with being the Establishment.
That means upholding and supporting key national institutions like the military, even when those institutions contain many conservatives in their ranks. Not supporting them jingoistically or unconditionally, but at a deep, fundamental level. And furthermore, it means realizing that conservatives, and conservatism, have a place in America and are not going away, even if we disagree with them; as long as everyone does their job and fights to repel those who would bring our system down, we can coexist. (As a side note, liberals should also rethink their suspicion of social media companies, which acted decisively to cut off Trump’s media access in the wake of 1/6; in many ways this was more decisive than the repelling of the mob at the Capitol.)
As for leftists, they should realize that the U.S. Military is no friend of fascists, and owns quite a lot of guns.
The hardening of the U.S. military against fascism does not mean the U.S. is out of the woods in terms of civil strife, chaos, and the danger of a fascist takeover. Far from it. The chief danger now is political — the system laid out in our Constitution has loopholes that could allow GOP-controlled state legislatures to send unelected electors to Washington in 2024 in support of Trump’s bid to retake the presidency, and these fake electors might be certified by a GOP-controlled Congress.
That would spark a constitutional crisis. It would be clear that a reinstallation of Trump in power via fake electors would spell the effective end of American democracy, and yet the increasingly lockstep support of Republicans for Trumpism, and the likely GOP victories in the 2022 midterms, might force the country to choose between the technicalities of Constitutional procedure and democracy itself. That is not a day I am looking forward to, but it’s a day everyone in America needs to be preparing for.
But the danger of a rightist military coup or a Spain-style disaster now seem happily remote. The U.S. Military is proving to be the same thing it was in World War 2 — a bulwark against totalitarianism. The robustness of this core institution in the face of extreme pressure should make us more optimistic about our nation’s survival and continued effectiveness.