Rather than as a reality television show, think of the developing Trump administration as a movie. So far, the military members of the cast include:
General James N. Mattis (Marines) — Secretary of Defense (former commanding officer of the current chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph F. Dunford (Marines))
Lt. General Mike Flynn (Army) — National Security Adviser
General John Kelly (Marines) — Director of Homeland Security
Still awaiting callbacks after their auditions: General David Petraeus (Army) and Admiral Michael Rogers (Navy)
Throughout Trump’s campaign, he disdained America’s generals. Now he can’t get enough of them. Back in August, military leaders expressed concern that a President Trump might issue illegal orders precipitating a constitutional crisis. Now Trump is what biologists might call their host species.
If life imitates art, then perhaps a 1964 movie, “Seven Days in May” is instructive. In the film, Burt Lancaster plays General James Matoon Scott, an egomaniac chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Scott assembles a group of officers to stage a coup against President Jordan Lyman, played by Frederic March. The general’s plans turn on a manufactured crisis that will create popular support for his cause.
The film’s lessons have little to do with the antagonists’ specific policy differences. Rather, it reinforces a concern that President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed as he was leaving office in 1961.
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, of the military-industrial complex,” the former general warned. “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
When President Eisenhower referred to “the disastrous rise of misplaced power,” he wasn’t talking about a president like Trump. But his antidote applies just the same: a vigilant, well-informed electorate. Today’s post-factual world and a leader who traffics in “fake news” make that increasingly difficult.
Lt. Gen. Michal Flynn fits Trump’s new normal. For years, Trump ‘s “birther” hoax propelled his political career. Likewise, Flynn has peddled so many falsehoods that his co-workers had a name for them: “Flynn facts.” Some of his most heinous falsehoods involved Islam, which he called “a political ideology that hides behind religion.” He has touted baseless conspiracy theories about Sharia law coming to the United States.
Fake News Can Be Deadly
Proving that if you plant apples, you grow apples, General Flynn’s son was behind the recent fake news story — “Pizza-gate.” The absurd claim that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria really riled a North Carolina man, who believed it. On Sunday, December 4, he marched into the restaurant with an assault rifle, apparently intent on rescuing the child-slaves.
After the incident, the younger Flynn tweeted about the “Pizza-gate” conspiracy theory, saying “it’ll remain a story” until it is “proven to be false.” Senator Joe McCarthy would be proud of that upside down approach to the relationship between journalism and the search for truth.
But that’s not the real story.
It Gets Worse
Mike Flynn Jr. had a Trump transition team email account. On November 17, he’d tweeted about his involvement: “I’ve been here last 2 days. Great atmosphere, great mood…. media lying about transition. Couldn’t be going better!” He was even getting a security clearance.
On the Tuesday morning following the Pizza-gate incident, Vice President-elect Pence — who chairs the Trump transition team — responded to questions from MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough about the younger Flynn’s role.
“General Flynn’s son has no involvement in the transition whatsoever,” Pence said. Thrice Scarborough pressed him on the issue; thrice Pence denied Flynn Jr.’s connection to the Trump team.
A few hours later, Pence dissembled as CNN’s Jake Tapper posed the same question to Pence seven times. By the end of the day, Flynn Jr. had resigned (or was fired by Trump himself) from the transition team.
Moral: Beware of Pence’s Boy Scout appearance. He often maintains a safe distance from the truth, too. But we should have learned that from the vice-presidential debate.
Trump the Military Man
President-elect Trump avoided military service because of bone spurs — he couldn’t recall which foot; maybe it was both. Subsequently, he admitted to feelings of guilt for not having served while other young men his age were dying in Vietnam. Perhaps his need to overcompensate for that underlying insecurity explains his boasts during the campaign that he knew more about ISIS than the generals, who had been reduced to “rubble.”
Now Trump has come full circle. Senior military men enthrall him. Maybe it’s the uniform. Maybe it’s their take charge attitude. But civilian control of the military stabilizes our democracy, and the plethora of former general officers in Trump’s administration is unprecedented.
They probably won’t comprise anything comparable to General James Matoon Scott’s band of rebels. But when former generals speak in unison on policy matters that our founders entrusted to civilians, their collective voice could dominate the room. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Trump the Impressionable
The danger is especially great with President-elect Trump. In addition to being untethered to facts, he has no philosophical core informing his decisions. That’s why he reverses his policy views on a dime — or according to whatever people want to hear — or based on what the last person in the room tells him. (The last item makes Steve Bannon’s proximity to President Trump’s Oval Office particularly frightening.)
Consider the moment that Trump’s Secretary of Defense-designate James Mattis so impressed him. At campaign rallies, Trump repeatedly endorsed waterboarding for the interrogation of suspected terrorists. But with a single offhand remark, General Mattis flipped him.
“[Mattis] said, ‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Trump reported later. He added that Mattis found more value in building trust and rewarding cooperation with terrorism suspects.
According to Trump, Mattis told him, “Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better.”
“I was very impressed by that answer,” Trump said.
Torture, Trump continued, is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.” But until his conversation with Mattis, Trump himself was one of those people.
In Seven Days in May, Kirk Douglas played another military officer, Col. Jiggs Casey. He didn’t agree with President Lyman’s policies, but he recognized the threat that General Scott posed to the Constitution. Trump is no Lyman.
One more point about the movie: Rod Serling wrote the screenplay. He’d also created and written an early 1960s series that opened with these lines:
“It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.”
The country has entered it.