Friday, October 20, 2017


Writing for The New Yorker, Masha Gessen argues that the events of this week are a taste of military dictatorship:
Consider this nightmare scenario: a military coup. You don’t have to strain your imagination—all you have to do is watch Thursday’s White House press briefing, in which the chief of staff, John Kelly, defended President Trump’s phone call to a military widow, Myeshia Johnson. The press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like....
Among other things, White House chief of staff John Kelly argued that soldiers are better Americans than civilians, and dead soldiers are the best of all:
... when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.

... It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom.

... At the end of the briefing, [Kelly] said that he would take questions only from those members of the press who had a personal connection to a fallen soldier, followed by those who knew a Gold Star family.... he was now explicitly denying a majority of Americans—or the journalists representing them—the right to ask questions. This was a new twist on the Trump Administration’s technique of shunning and shaming unfriendly members of the news media, except this time, it was framed explicitly in terms of national loyalty.
Does this mean a coup is imminent? I don't think so. We have moments like this every time a Republican is president -- we're told that the troops are better than civilians, that criticizing a Republican war means attacking those ordered to fight it, and that celebrity military men are not to be questioned. The latter include Oliver North in the Reagan presidency, Norman Schwarzkopf in the first Bush presidency, and Colin Powell under both Bushes. ("The troops" had a sort of collective celebrity at times in both Bush presidencies.) All of this put a chill some dissent, but we never reached full-blown fascism, even when the military superstars and the presidents they served had stratospheric approval ratings.

The reason, of course, was that Reagan and the Bushes may have wanted to silence critics, but they didn't have the will to stifle dissent and subvert democracy altogether. I still believe that Trump doesn't either -- he wants to get away with whatever he wants to do, but he doesn't have a well-thought-out idea of how a totalitarian state would function on his watch. He hasn't had the nerve to shut down any news organizations, to order any journalists killed, or even to defy any court orders curbing his powers. He hasn't tried to disband Congress. He's nodded and winked at white nationalists who engage in violence, but he hasn't signaled to them that they're free to commit acts of violence on his behalf without fear of penalty. Someone who came to power the way he did, with the rhetoric he used and the following he amassed, could have built a dictatorship out of it. But he just doesn't have the right stuff.

And a military dictatorship? Trump is too much of a narcissist to tolerate that. "The generals" are there to be servile toward him; Kelly's self-righteous superpatriotism yesterday was all in Trump's service. If there were a Trump dictatorship, it would be center on the God Emperor himself -- the generals would have to be subordinate.

We'll survive the John Kelly moment. Whether we survive the Trump presidency is another matter -- but the damage Trump does will continue to be like what we've seen: institutions left standing but damaged, competence replaced with impulse, self-aggrandizement as the organizing principle. It'll be a mess, but the generals won't take over.

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