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Trump’s Disrespect for the Constitution Underscores the Need for an Apolitical Military
We can no longer take the military’s paradigm of separate military and civilian spheres for granted
Former President Donald Trump took to Truth Social on Saturday to claim once again that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and—inadvertently, one assumes—cast doubt on his willingness to fulfill the presidential oath of office if he is re-elected in 2024. Reacting to internal Twitter corporate files publicized by Twitter CEO Elon Musk and journalist Matt Taibbi on Friday, Trump suggested that “deception” practiced by “the Democrat Party” and “Big Tech Companies” to suppress a 2020 New York Post story potentially damaging to then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was further grounds for scrapping the 2020 election results:
Commentators are parsing many aspects of this statement, such as Trump’s characterization of the findings and his importunate refusal to accept defeat. For me, this statement brought to mind the military: specifically, the challenge of civil-military relations. Presidents take an oath to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”—language echoed in the oath that members of the military take when they enlist and promise to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Trump’s claim that the purported “massive fraud” of a biased social media “allows for the termination of all rules, regulation, and articles, even those found in the Constitution”—emphasis added—only underscores the challenge the former president’s behavior has posed for maintaining a military that stays out of civil affairs and remains loyal to the Constitution, rather than the person of president, whose orders they also swear to obey.
As I noted in my first column for The UnPopulist, there’s accumulating evidence that we shouldn’t take the U.S. heritage of the military’s nonintervention in civilian government for granted. The concerns here are not that the military will storm the White House and reinstate Donald Trump as president, or that our generals will insist on presiding over new elections. Rather, the concerns are about an increase in military lapses and indiscretions—rash remarks or minor mutinies by officers or their units—that could embroil the military, one of America’s few remaining respected institutions, in the culture wars, generating new perplexities over the stability of U.S. democracy.
An Apolitical Ideal
Because the American tradition of civilian primacy over the military spans nearly 250 years, it’s easy to overlook the questions that civilian and military policymakers face in trying to sustain this heritage today. For instance, how should military members—and particularly military commanders—ply their expertise while truly deferring to civilian authorities when civil and military leaders work together to achieve policy aims? How should civil authorities behave to sustain an attitude of deference among members of the military? What actions on either side constitute a breach of trust?
In the U.S. military, the modern basis for answering these questions derives from the seminal 1957 book The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington. In the book, Huntington develops a model of civil-military relations in which civilian authorities operate in a “political” sphere of activity and military authorities operate in a “military” sphere of activity, with little overlap between the two. The civilians’ political sphere is “political” in the broadest sense of the word: “Politics deals with the goals of state policy,” Huntington writes, and politics thus means more than partisan wrangling over party and ideology; it encompasses statecraft and the formulation of government policies that guide, among other things, military ends.
The military sphere, in contrast, involves such fields as military strategy, tactics, weapons, technology and deployment of personnel. Members of the military should cultivate professional expertise in these areas so that they can execute military operations effectively and inform and advise civilian leaders about the military’s capacities on the battlefield—but, adds Huntington, they should recognize the military sphere as subordinate to the civilian-political sphere. This means allowing political leaders to determine government policy goals—military and otherwise—and not interfering in the realm controlled by civil government. In this sense, military members remain “neutral politically.” In return, civilian leaders “must accept the judgments of the military professional” in the military sphere. In the two spheres’ limited region of overlap, where military policy and political policy meet, military leaders were to defer while still attempting to employ their expertise.
This Huntington ideal is often referred to as an “apolitical” military, and it seemed fitting for a post-World War II era. The U.S. military now marshalled breathtaking power and waged a continual Cold War. Its reach presented an unprecedented threat to civil rule, and Huntington’s bright-line spheres appeared to steer the military well clear of insubordination.
A Not-So-Apolitical Military
Huntington’s idea is still central to U.S. military’s understanding of its norms of conduct. Huntington’s vision was expressed perfectly in August 2021 by U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, after Trump suggested he might not accept the outcome of the 2020 election if he lost, and rumors swirled that the military might be called in to either support him or drive him from office. In response to questions posed by members of the House Armed Services Committee, Milley wrote, “I believe deeply in the principle of an apolitical U.S. military” and stated unequivocally: “In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military. I foresee no role for the U.S armed forces in this process.”
Unfortunately, as I indicated in my previous column, there are numerous signs of erosion in the embrace of this apolitical Huntingtonian ideal elsewhere among military and civilian leadership. Recent surveys of members of the military and of military cadets suggest that rather than members’ quietly and privately exercising their political rights, they frequently engage in free public political expression despite the military’s formal discouragement of this along Huntingtonian lines. This political expression includes social media posts of “insulting, rude or disdainful comments” about elected officials and even about the president, their commander-in-chief.
And military officials often encroach on civil leaders’ prerogative of determining war policy. Writing in Foreign Affairs, scholars Risa Brooks, Jim Golby and Heidi Urben describe the typical problem:
Civilian control is … about more than whether military leaders openly defy orders or want to overthrow the government. It’s about the extent to which political leaders can realize the goals the American people elected them to accomplish. Here, civilian control is not binary; it is measured in degrees. Because the military filters information that civilians need and implements the orders that civilians give, it can wield great influence over civilian decision-making. Even if elected officials still get the final say, they may have little practical control if generals dictate all the options or slow their implementation—as they often do now.
They go on to observe, “Both President Barack Obama and Trump complained that officers boxed them in—limiting military options and leaking information—and forced them to grudgingly accept troop surges they did not support.” The three writers also emphasize that for all the focus that was placed on civil-military relations under Donald Trump, problematic relations predated Trump and “did not end when Joe Biden took office.”
A Not-So-Apolitical Presidency
Still, Trump and his administration presented unusual challenges to Huntington’s ideal of separate political and military spheres. Golby has categorized these and similar challenges as “civilian activation,” as opposed to the “military activism” described in the examples above. Civilian activation involves “attempts by civilian leaders to co-opt the military for personal, partisan, or electoral gain.” Civilian activation invites the military into the civil, political sphere.
To some extent, every president and most elected officials engage in mild forms of this. Public officials visit military bases, attend military parades, and speak to military audiences knowing that they will be seen, photographed, and featured in news broadcasts surrounded by uniformed military personnel, who are publicly popular. Typically, however, these officials show a degree of restraint and attempt to limit—or at least appear to limit—themselves to official government business, as opposed to bids for partisan gain.
President Trump departed from that repeatedly. In February 2017, shortly after assuming office, he addressed service members at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Just 15 seconds into his speech, he said,
We had a wonderful election, didn’t we? [Shouts and applause] And I saw those numbers—and you like me, and I like you. That’s the way it worked. [Laughter]
His casual assumption that the assembled military members had worked together with him to vote him into office—that they were co-partisans in a political effort for his personal benefit—was striking. This breach of protocol was brief, but troublingly, the audible shouts and applause also suggested that many service members didn’t recognize the transgression. The impropriety of his comments was magnified by 2016 exit polls showing that people who had served in the military had voted for him 61% to 34% over Hillary Clinton, adding an unfortunate plausibility to the suggestion of a partisan active-duty military. Later, in July, Trump committed another breach at a naval ceremony by asking the crowd, including service personnel, to “call that congressman and call that senator” to give Trump “a little hand” in getting his budget passed—a budget that included a large increase in military spending.
In a potentially more serious incident in December 2020, following Trump’s election defeat, his administration considered using National Guard units to help forestall the presidential transition (it’s unclear whether Trump was personally aware of the idea). In a draft of a presidential executive order obtained by Politico, the president would have invoked various emergency powers to permit the secretary of defense to federalize state national guard units and seize voting machines, election equipment and election records in “designated locations”—presumably the disputed states—to search for evidence of foreign tampering in the vote count.
In other words, the president, the country’s most powerful civilian authority, would have introduced federal military units into a fundamentally civil process of ballot review—one already being handled by state election bureaus and state and federal courts. Worse, the president himself would have been a prime beneficiary, in his personal capacity as a political candidate, of the military’s intervention. This would have represented a civilian administration demanding a clear military breach of the Huntingtonian civilian sphere. Indeed, it would have been a direct violation of Gen. Milley’s earlier assurances to Congress.
A final breach was redolent of both the draft executive order and the MacDill speech. During Trump’s speech at “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, 2020, in Washington, D.C., he remarked to the crowd,
And I’d love to have[—]if those tens of thousands of people would be allowed. The military, the secret service. And we want to thank you and the police law enforcement. Great. You’re doing a great job. But I’d love it if they could be allowed to come up here with us. Is that possible? Can you just let him come up, please?
Here we had the president—the commander-in-chief—calling on military people to join him at the front of the crowd at a political rally in which he’d just claimed that his opponent’s winning vote total was “a disgrace,” that “we didn’t lose,” and that the election involved “theft.” Later, just before telling the crowd to walk to the Capitol, he commented: “And we fight. We fight like hell. And if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” The subsequent Capitol protest, based on Trump’s personal claim to the presidency, turned into a violent invasion of the legislature. In terms of civil-military relations, it was a horrible precedent.
Trump’s social media outburst on Saturday was disturbing as well. We can assume that most people in the military will recognize that suspending the articles of the Constitution would be as wrong an act for them as it would be for the president; the majority take their military oath seriously. But the former president is the consummate populist: He mixed his subversive remarks about the Constitution with a simultaneous appeal to “our great Founders” and a criticism of Big Tech—politically popular rhetoric that could mask the subversion and resonate with some in the military, especially given that the comments come from a former president.
Reinventing a Not-So-Apolitical Ideal
Trump’s presidency was hardly the only one that featured violations of Huntington’s ideal of separate civilian and military spheres of responsibility; there were conflicts under the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama as well. But the examples above and Golby’s work suggest that former president Trump was particularly prone to civilian activation.
This presents a challenge for the nation’s military leadership. It’s natural for Americans to assume that civilian leaders would be jealous of any encroachment of military personnel into the realm of civilian power. But the record shows that civilian leaders may not only become lazy about enforcing that boundary; they may actively invite the military to cross it.
It’s incumbent, then, on U.S. military leadership, the Biden administration and Congress, in its oversight role, to review how troops are trained to recognize and avoid missteps. And given signs that Huntington’s ideal isn’t being upheld, they should also consider whether the paradigm is itself problematic, as scholars like Brooks have suggested. It may seem trivial when a president coos to a military audience, but we should stop the process before it becomes a siren song.