Are Donald Trump’s military-based cabinet picks the warning signs of a military dictatorship? The possibility might seem like a stretch, even unthinkable, but so did the rise of a candidate like Trump in the first place. Since November 8, Trump has already appointed several senior military officials to high-ranking positions in his cabinet including retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis as secretary of defense, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as White House national security adviser, and most recently Gen. John Kelly as secretary of homeland security. Still more are being considered for other roles, including Gen. David Petraeus for Secretary of State, and Navy Admiral Michael Rogers as director of National Intelligence.
Those who see worrying signs in Trump’s heavy-handed favoring of military personnel include Peter White, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland’s Center for International Development and Conflict Management.
“The average number of military officers in nondemocratic governments’ cabinets generally ranges between 1½ and two officers, while the average number for democracies is always well below a single officer,” White wrote in a December 1 article. White also pointed out that the institutional culture of the U.S. military “is not organized around seeking political power. The principle of civilian control is well-established and widely respected. In its more than 240 years, the U.S. military has never attempted a coup.”
Still, as White acknowledged, even long-standing norms can be changed, “and the incoming administration has pledged to throw out many.”
“Whatever the good intentions of the former officers who’ve been nominated, having a host of former generals in traditionally civilian positions would begin to erode principles of civil-military relations central to democracy, including civilian control and the political neutrality of the armed forces,” he wrote. “Many failed democracies can testify that these are vital principles to hold on to.”
In a November 30 NYT Times editorial, writer Carol Giacomo noted that Trump’s appointees represent “an unprecedented concentration of military influence that deserves more public debate than it seems to be receiving.” The author worried as well that appointing too many generals to high-ranking White House posts “would throw off the balance of a system that for good reason favors civilian leadership.”
“The United States has long warned other countries about the dangers to democracy of overrelying on the military in place of civilian leaders,” Giacomo wrote. “If Mr. Trump fills his cabinet with generals, what kind of message will he send to the rest of the world?”
Trump’s clear favoring of the military to run key sectors of his administration may conjure images of banana republics and military juntas that are unsettling, to say the least. At the same time, the selections can hardly be surprising to anyone who has followed the past year’s remarkable unfolding of events. This is, after all, a man who proudly and repeatedly proclaimed himself “the law and order” candidate; spoke with barely disguised admiration about Saddam Hussein; pledged that “I alone” could solve the country’s problems; and threatened to jail his opponent if elected.
These moments, which are only a selection from the spectacle of Trump’s campaign, will be burned into the American national and political consciousness for decades to come. Trump’s behavior and actions undoubtedly run counter to centuries of expected norms in the American political arena. They are shocking in a country conditioned to expect at least the pretense of dignity in the electoral process. Thanks to Trump, that pretense hasn’t just been broken. It’s been atomized.
Ultimately, Trump’s behavior is only unprecedented in the US. For observers unspoiled by centuries of democratic tradition, it’s simply routine.