You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Command Error

The Liberal Fantasy Is Just That

On the military in a fascist America

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

One evening in the autumn of 2019, I was seated at a banquet dinner with some of the capital city’s best and brightest. It was a very Washington dinner, full of lawyers, lobbyists, and People Who Know People, chatting about politics over plates of rubbery chicken.­

The 2020 presidential election was still a year away, and Nancy Pelosi, then the speaker of the House, had recently announced that she was launching an impeachment inquiry into potential abuses of power by President Donald Trump. When the dinner speeches were over and everyone at my table was nicely lubricated with second-rate wine, I tossed out a question that had been weighing on my mind: “What if Trump loses the election … but refuses to step down?”

This was greeted with dismissive chuckles, and one of my tablemates—a well-connected lawyer with impeccable liberal credentials—assured me, to enthusiastic nods of agreement from others around the table, that this would never happen. “No way! He’d never try that. And if he did, the military would never let that happen.”

My tablemate’s cheery claim rested on multiple erroneous assumptions. For one thing, the U.S. military has no role in overseeing elections or ensuring that other institutions or actors respect their results. Even if “the military”—a vast, sprawling, and far from homogeneous enterprise consisting of roughly 1.3 million active-duty service members and more than 750,000 reservists and National Guard troops—believed an incumbent president had lost a bid for reelection, there’s simply no legal or organizational mechanism for the military to force out a recalcitrant lame-duck president who refused to leave office.

Who would give such a command, and to whom? Although the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the nation’s highest-ranked military leader, the chairman’s role is advisory in nature and comes with no power to issue commands to combatant forces. The other members of the joint staff—the Army chief of staff, the chief of naval operations, and so on—similarly lack that power, which resides instead in the 11 unified combatant commands (U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, and so on). Only the commander of U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, has the authority to order federal troops into action domestically, but, even then, combatant commanders can’t issue such orders on their own initiative; the orders must come from the secretary of defense, who would be serving at the pleasure of the president who was refusing to step down. (National Guard troops are under the authority of state governors, unless federalized, but in such a case the secretary of defense would similarly be part of the chain of command.)

Despite the utter implausibility of my tablemate’s assertion, some variant of this notion has, in the years since then, become a recurring—and bizarre—liberal fantasy: the idea that the U.S. military will somehow save us from Donald Trump. It’s bizarre because, at least since Vietnam, liberals have been understandably skeptical of using U.S. military power to promote democracy—if democracy cannot be won through the ballot box, it is unlikely to be secured with bullets. But even leaving such considerations aside, it’s fantasy because the idea that the military will serve as an effective bulwark against autocracy is premised on deep misunderstandings about how the military operates.

It’s true, of course, that Trump did try to stay in office after losing the 2020 election, and clear statements by military leaders at the time denouncing the January 6 insurrection and reminding U.S. troops of their constitutional duties likely played some role in ensuring Trump’s eventual sulky departure. And no question, American democracy will likely be in need of rescue if Trump is reelected. If he makes his way back to the White House, Trump will do his best to turn the United States into a corrupt, kleptocratic autocracy.

During his first term, Trump appointed relatively institutionally minded figures to senior roles in his administration. Rex Tillerson, John Kelly, Jim Mattis, Mark Esper, Dan Coats, and the like were hardly starry-eyed liberals, but they shared a broad commitment to traditional norms of democratic governance and the rule of law, and they reined in some of Trump’s most egregious excesses. Thwarted, Trump soon replaced them with less experienced but more compliant officials—but his capacity to turn federal power to his own ends was limited both by his new inner circle’s lack of experience and by his own chaotic personality.

Things will almost certainly be different in a second Trump administration. Trump himself is no less chaotic—if anything, the numerous pending criminal investigations against him have amped up his narcissistic rage. But he’s no fool, and he has learned from his early mistakes. If he gets a second bite at the apple, Trump will come into office with a cadre of seasoned political operatives, handpicked for their personal fealty, and a detailed plan. He has made no secret of his autocratic intentions.

Trump’s plans with respect to the civilian executive branch have received much coverage. He has openly declared his desire to purge the career civil service—and society more broadly—of those he views as ideologically suspect (“the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country”). He has similarly declared his intent to use the tools of executive power to seek retribution against those he views as his enemies—a vast and ever-expanding group that now includes everyone from journalists and elected officials to prominent first-term Trump officials such as retired Gen. Mark Milley.

His plans for uniformed personnel have received far less scrutiny, but controlling the military is a major part of Trump’s vision for his second term. While he has expressed only contempt for military personnel naïve enough to believe in selfless service, referring to those who had lost their lives as “losers” and “suckers,” Trump is fond of military pomp and circumstance, and fonder still of power. He has signaled his desire to use the U.S. military to suppress domestic protest and aid in mass roundups, detentions, and deportations of undocumented immigrants, whom he views as “animals.” He reportedly hopes to use missiles and military troops against cartels inside Mexico and has, at times, openly flirted with the idea of using nuclear weapons against North Korea and Iran.

While few of these ideas are likely to garner support from military leaders, no one should count on the military to “save” us from Trump’s efforts to refashion the United States in his own dark, chaotic image. Trump is keenly aware of the unique regard in which Americans continue to hold the military. This makes the military both a tempting tool and a frequent target of his ire. Disappointed during his first term by the failure of those he called “my generals” to offer him blind obedience and adulation, Trump has vowed to make the military knuckle under in a second term.

For the most part, he will have the legal tools to do so. He can request the retirement of flag and general officers who show signs of independence, for instance, and dismiss those who don’t take the hint. And he can make fealty to his agenda a condition of advancement for senior officers. This is already a core plank in the Heritage Foundation’s blueprint for a second Trump presidency, which is widely viewed as having Trump’s stamp of approval. It promises the White House will “rigorously review all general and flag officer promotions” to ensure that those with ideologically unacceptable views on “climate change, critical race theory, manufactured extremism, and other polarizing policies” will not be selected for leadership positions. Weeding out those with concerns about “manufactured extremism” is code for purging the military of officers who have spoken out against white nationalist organizations or condemned the January 6 insurrectionists.

Sensible military personnel will read the writing on the wall: Unless you want your career to come to an abrupt end, compliance is best. The U.S. military is, by design, a compliant institution, deeply acculturated to abide by principles of civilian control. While military personnel take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, they also have a legal obligation to follow orders, at risk of court martial.

This is, generally speaking, a good thing: No one who cares about democracy should wish for a military that’s prone to ignoring lawful orders from their elected commander in chief. True, military personnel also have a duty not to obey unlawful orders, but this should not give us much comfort; manifestly unlawful orders are vanishingly rare. If a president ordered troops to open fire on an unarmed civilian, in so many words, the military response would be a robust “No, sir!” But even the most dubious and morally bankrupt presidential directives tend to come cloaked in the language of legality. (Instead of “shoot that unarmed civilian,” imagine a different command: “Based on classified intelligence, I have determined that this individual is engaged in direct hostilities against the United States, poses an imminent threat, and is therefore a lawful target, and I order you to neutralize that threat.”)

Think back to the presidency of George W. Bush. Although the legal prohibition against torture was crystal clear, and techniques such as waterboarding have long been considered a form of torture by U.S. courts, Bush administration lawyers argued that if waterboarding was employed solely as a means of gaining information, without a primary intention to cause severe pain, it didn’t count as torture. Several senior military lawyers raised objections when the Bush administration directed that such “enhanced interrogation” be used against detained terror suspects, but the military rebellion, such as it was, was limited to a few strongly worded memos. No senior officers resigned, and the military did what it is designed to do: It defaulted to obedience, despite widespread misgivings among senior officers.

Even without the specter of a president bent on retribution, the vast majority of military personnel will err on the side of obedience if there is even the slightest uncertainty about whether a particular presidential directive is unlawful. And if the senior officers most inclined to object have already been demoted or dismissed, it is implausible that Trump’s orders will face widespread military resistance.

No one should kid themselves about the degree of legal latitude President Trump would enjoy. Bush administration lawyers had to turn themselves into pretzels to argue that torture wasn’t really torture­. But most of Trump’s stated plans won’t even require lawyerly contortions. Historically, there’s been a strong norm against domestic use of the military to suppress protest or engage in law enforcement activities, and some legal safeguards exist. But under the Insurrection Act, the president can employ the military domestically in response to rebellion or insurrection, or when “any part or class of [a state’s] people is deprived of a right, privilege, immunity, or protection named in the Constitution,” or when an act of rebellion or violence “opposes or obstructs the execution” of the law.

The Supreme Court has historically interpreted this as giving the president complete discretion to decide what kind of activity justifies domestic use of the military. “The authority to decide whether the exigency has arisen belongs exclusively to the President,” opined the court in Martin v. Mott in 1827. If Trump invokes the Insurrection Act and deploys military personnel domestically to quell protests or round up immigrants, there will be plenty of unhappy military personnel—but they are unlikely to have any basis on which to claim such deployments are unlawful.

And when it comes to military action outside the United States, the news is worse. Notwithstanding Congress’s constitutional powers and legislation such as the War Powers Act, successive presidents have enjoyed a virtually unconstrained ability to use military force beyond our borders. There would be plenty of military unhappiness if Trump directed attacks on Mexican soil or the use of tactical nuclear weapons, but it’s unlikely military leaders would have any lawful basis to object.

Military leaders who dislike the orders they receive sometimes engage in the time-honored Pentagon tradition of stonewalling and slow-rolling, looking for ways to quietly thwart the objectives of their civilian masters while maintaining a facade of compliance. But if President Trump uses his power to fire or demote insufficiently loyal general officers, as he says he will, even this dubious avenue of military resistance will likely be closed off.

This leaves the last and most desperate of liberal fantasies: some sort of straight-out, organized military resistance against an autocratic President Trump. It’s a wildly unlikely prospect, given deeply internalized norms of civilian control, and it’s also organizationally almost unimaginable, given the dispersed nature of U.S. military power and the military’s complex command structure. More to the point, it’s a terrible idea. Anyone who finds such a prospect appealing should be careful what they wish for: Studies of military coups suggest that even coups carried out against brutal regimes to restore democracy rarely have happy results and often end up increasing, rather than decreasing, the level of state violence.

In other words: If a society finds itself relying on the military to “save” democracy, there’s probably little left to save.