In August, two retired military officers published a piece in Defense One which literally encouraged America’s top military leadership to have the 82nd airborne to descend on Washington in the event of a disputed election and escort President Trump out of office.
“In the Constitutional crisis described above, your duty is to give unambiguous orders directing U.S. military forces to support the Constitutional transfer of power,” they write. “Should you remain silent, you will be complicit in a coup d’état.” In other words, the military must prevent a coup by staging one of their own. Thankfully, the Pentagon publicly condemned John Nagl’s and Paul Yingling’s musings.
In some regards it is unremarkable in a nation with millions of military veterans that two of them would have some kind of Clockwork Orange-style MSNBC viewing party and put crayon to paper long enough to come up with this violent fantasia. However, the problem isn’t so much that Nagl and Yingling gamed out this scenario—every election that I can remember for the last 30 years has featured fringe voices expressing concern that the current occupant will refuse to leave.
The real problem is that, for once, a respectable media outlet went ahead and published it. If anything, the Defense One op-ed was just the most explicit example of the anti-Trump coup pornography that’s become a staple of mainstream media. And when the media is not baselessly fretting Trump will refuse to leave office, they’re outrageously and falsely characterizing Trump and his administration in ways that justify his violent removal.
The Washington Post recently ran an “analysis” in the business section, quoting a bunch of academics warning that Trump was leading America into autocracy. The article ended with this kicker quote from a Swedish political scientist, Staffan I. Lindberg at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg: “‘if Trump wins this election in November, democracy is gone’ in the United States, [Lindberg] says. He gives it about two years. ‘It’s really time to wake up before it’s too late.’”
Does the Post ask Lindberg for anything not wholly impressionistic to justify his dire and specific prediction? Aside from offensive tweets and ego-driven rhetoric, has Trump done something really autocratic, like, kill American citizens without a trial? Maybe he led a charge to effectively nationalize one-seventh of the economy?
No. But such pronouncements sound awfully ominous to credulous readers. And the Post piece was comparatively restrained: the same day, Vanity Fair had historian Peter Fritzsche on its podcast to explain that the Trump campaign cares more about race than Hitler. If Trump will end American democracy in two years and is more race-obsessed than the architect of the holocaust, why wouldn’t we call out the 82nd Airborne to perp walk him down Pennsylvania Avenue?
“Stop Deposing Yourself!”
There are, of course, problems with this plan. Earlier this month, Georgetown law professor Rosa Brooks wrote about her role in a Democratic party confab where various left-leaning leaders produced a report called the the “Transition Integrity Project” that gamed out responses to various disputed election scenarios.
“A landslide for Joe Biden resulted in a relatively orderly transfer of power,” observed Brooks. “Every other scenario we looked at involved street-level violence and political crisis.” If Trump wins in a definitive landslide there’s still violence and a political crisis? After years of dishonest accusations about Russia collusion and other nonsense, should we bother to ask what responsibility Democratic party leaders and the media have to prevent violence if Trump wins in November? Or should we just accept this report’s conclusion as a way of blackmailing voters into making sure Biden wins handily?
In this context, however, Blackmail is a fairly inconsequential crime. After former Trump administration national security official Michael Anton wrote a piece in this very publication criticizing the report, Nils Gilman, a former Pentagon official and co-creator of the Transition Integrity Project suggested Anton be killed by firing squad.
Gilman is previously on record saying that after the Trump administration, America should explore the possibility of “a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, something South Africa used to confront the legacy of Apartheid in a way that enabled restorative justice.” It might be easier on everyone if Gilman merely explored the possibility of having his head examined.
Given the IMAX-level projection involved in the Transition Integrity Project, it’s unsurprising to learn their full report is obsessed with exploring coup-like scenarios. “Of particular concern is how the military would respond in the context of uncertain election results,” notes the report. But the military response is not as uncertain as people too blinkered to separate the fate of America from that of the immediate success of the Democratic party think it is.
Decades of cultural and economic stratification, not to mention a soupçon or ten of naked anti-American contempt on the Left, means that military service has become a right-leaning and regionally Southern affectation. We can say with a high degree of confidence that a majority of the active duty military voted for Trump, so it seems unlikely the 82nd Airborne is going to follow orders to remove Trump while votes are still being counted.
At the same time, it’s frankly insulting to think Republican voters in the military would blindly follow orders from Trump in the event he attempts a Fujimori-type autogolpe after an election loss, which again, there’s no evidence he’s even remotely contemplating.
The Real Conspiracy
So why keep asking the question about what the military would do? Running on a parallel track to all these stories about the need for a military coup against Trump has been an emerging narrative that Trump secretly hates the military and doesn’t care if they die. Stirring up antipathy among troops could simply be a straightforward, if dishonest, electoral strategy to peel away votes from a stolid Trump constituency, but as long as we’re handing out free passes to indulge paranoia, forgive me for thinking the relevant term of art here is “battlespace prep.” It might be helpful to drive a wedge between Trump and the military if you had, uh, “plans” for after the election.
Earlier this month, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg got wall-to-wall media coverage for a week after his anonymously sourced story claiming Trump called dead soldiers “suckers” and “losers.” This is in spite of the fact there are now more than 20 on-the-record sources with knowledge of the events surrounding Trump’s alleged comments throwing cold water on Goldberg’s account.
And since the New York Times credulously regurgitated more anonymous intel leaks in June, we’ve been hearing about how Trump ignored reports that Russians were paying the Taliban “bounties” to kill American soldiers. Last month, an NBC news report finally gave up the ghost: “U.S. commander: Intel still hasn’t established Russia paid Taliban ‘bounties’ to kill U.S. troops.” After three months of breathless reporting, it seems there’s “a consensus view among military leaders [that] underscores the lack of certainty around a narrative that has been accepted as fact by Democrats and other Trump critics.”
Hours after NBC News’ report, Biden’s campaign was still savaging Trump for “giving Russia a pass for putting bounties on the heads of American service members” and the next day Biden held a “Veterans Roundtable” campaign event where he tried to make an issue of the Russian bounties.
To my knowledge, not a single reporter has asked Biden about reports Russians were paying bounties to the Taliban in 2010 when he was vice president, and, if those reports were accurate, why Biden mocked Mitt Romney as “one of a small group of Cold War holdovers” for saying Russia was a threat in 2012. But don’t worry, the Joe Biden of 2020 is so chastened by his previous lack of concern for the troops that, the week after his “veterans roundtable,” he’s scheduled a campaign event with Hanoi Jane Fonda, a favorite celebrity of vets everywhere.
The Opposite of Fascism
Speaking of Afghanistan, it’s also worth remembering that we’re still at war—and we have been for 19 years. When regimes enter states of permanent war, the lines between enemies foreign and domestic begin to blur. Aside from the electoral backdrop, reports of Russian bounties this summer emerged just as Trump was engaged in his latest of a number of unsuccessful efforts to withdraw American troops in Afghanistan. Coincidence?
Trump got elected explicitly promising to reduce America’s global military presence, and while you might question his efficacy, there’s no denying he’s faced powerful resistance from a military-intel-media-industrial complex that has spent the last couple of decades turning foreign entanglements into an ouroboros tied up in a Gordian knot. Perhaps there’s a right way and a wrong way to draw down in Afghanistan, but Trump’s pronounced aversion to permanent war is certainly atypical of fascist autocrats.
The truth is that Trump isn’t fascist any more than the contemporary American Left is Communist, though that’s a more damning and instructive comparison than many realize. “To speak of [fascism] as the true political opposite of communism is to betray the most superficial understanding of modern history. In truth there is an opposite of all the ‘isms’, and that is negotiated politics, without an ‘ism’ and without a goal other than the peaceful coexistence of rivals,” wrote Roger Scruton in his indispensable guide to the ideology of the Left. If America’s Democrats, who in the last two elections have come perilously close to nominating a man who honeymooned in the Soviet Union, haven’t embraced full Communism, well, then there’s a good case they’re at least guilty of fascism’s shared sin of abandoning negotiated politics.
When peaceful coexistence is increasingly off the table, it’s worth asking where that leads us. Four years of elaborate Trump conspiracy theories—most of them involving Russia because irony is dead, dead, dead, and all of them premised on refusing to accept the results of the 2016 election—have finally made clear that there’s one key distinction between the excesses of the Right and Left worth fretting about in 2020.
“Of course there are differences,” adds Scruton. “Fascist governments have sometimes come to power by democratic election, whereas communist governments have always relied on a coup d’état.”