There is an iconic scene in the film The Dead Zone where a thoroughly unglued President Stilson, played by Martin Sheen, bulldozes one of his generals into co-authorizing a nuclear strike. “You are not the voice of the people, I am the voice of the people!” Stilson rages. “The people speak through me, not you!” After the launch is effected, upon being told an attack is not necessary, Stilson says with a smile, “The missiles are flying, hallelujah, hallelujah.”
Folks have been batting that disturbing clip around on social media since before Donald Trump was elected president, partly because Sheen’s hair and demeanor are eerily similar to Trump’s, but mostly because they were afraid such a scene could actually unfold in real life. It was an early, semi-ironic warning of a doomsday scenario that could potentially come to pass if a human wrecking ball like Trump were to be elevated to a position of such astonishing power.
We are not quite there yet; the missiles still sleep in their silos for now. If the noises coming out of usually silent U.S. military circles are any indication at all, however, we are at this moment teetering on the verge of a domestic military conflagration unseen in all of U.S. history.
The nation’s capital is an occupied space. Federal agents from the FBI, ATF, the Defense Department, Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security, the Bureau of Prisons and other agencies, all in riot gear and some without identification, have swarmed around the White House, as well as around popular monuments such as the Lincoln Memorial.
“By late Wednesday afternoon,” reports The New York Times, “many of the streets around the White House were closed off to traffic and, in some cases, secured with newly installed black fencing that gave the area a feel of a caged outcry. Sirens blared from every direction, and helicopters loomed and zigzagged overhead in a signal of the obvious: These are not normal times.”
Today, upon the anniversary of the authoritarian Chinese government crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Washington D.C. is an armed camp bristling with war weapons, its residents the only enemy in sight. It stands as an unmistakable advertisement for what Trump would like to do in cities all across the country, especially the ones in states with Democratic governors: Invest them with soldiers, smash the protests that inconvenience his reelection campaign, and strike fear into the hearts of the citizenry.
Trump’s nigh-unprecedented belligerence toward the nation he purportedly leads has not gone unremarked upon by present and former military leaders, many of whom would be the sharp end of the spear should the president decide to go to war with Main Street.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who participated in Trump’s shameless display of violent showmanship outside St. John’s Church across from the White House on Monday, gave one of the more remarkable press conferences in recent memory two days later. Esper claimed he wasn’t aware that peaceful protesters were smashed to make way for the photo op, which is difficult to believe given all the screaming and flash-banging that preceded Trump’s little stroll.
At least one person didn’t buy Esper’s denials. James Miller Jr., a senior Defense Department adviser, resigned in protest after the events outside the church. “I hope this letter of resignation will encourage you to again contemplate the obligations you undertook in your oath of office, as well as your obligations to the men and women in our military and other Americans whose lives may be at stake,” Miller wrote in a public letter to Esper. “The sanctity of the U.S. Constitution, and the lives of Americans, may depend on your choices.”
Miller’s resignation and letter may explain why Esper put a whole summer Sunday’s worth of daylight between himself and the president he serves (for now) on Wednesday. Esper pointedly told the assembled press he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act, and said matters in the country had not risen to a crisis point that required the intervention of the military. Coming from a man in his position, this was a remarkable public rebuke.
According to reports, Esper was metaphorically walloped with a White House candelabra as soon as he walked back into the building, which apparently explains why he abruptly reversed an earlier order to remove active duty troops from the 82nd Airborne Division from their position just outside the city.
Still, this vivid public break from the president by the defense secretary at this moment of crisis is noteworthy, and Esper soon discovered he had company. After the order to remove those Airborne troops was reversed, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy joined Esper in saying the situation has not risen to the dire necessity of using soldiers against the population. “It is our intent at this point not to bring in active forces,” McCarthy told the Associated Press. “We don’t think we need them at this point.”
By Wednesday afternoon, the grim news cycle was stampeded by a written statement from former Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned from Trump’s Cabinet in 2018 to protest the president’s harebrained Syria policies. You won’t ever find me calling Mattis a hero on these pages, not after the carnage he unleashed on Fallujah while in command there. That being said, his words on Wednesday rang with a hard truth this nation, and the world, needed to hear:
When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.
Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.
Less reported, but far more ominous, was a letter dispatched on Tuesday by Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the leaders of all branches of the U.S. military. “Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and the values embedded within it,” wrote Milley. “Please remind all of our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with the national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.”
The only reason I can think of why a military leader of Milley’s high rank would dispatch a public letter to the leadership of all branches of the U.S. military, a letter asking them to remember their oath to the Constitution, is because he expects Trump to order them to break that oath. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, with this letter, appears to have thrown down a marker at the president’s feet: Such an order will not be obeyed.
If it comes to that, if Trump gives that order and the military refuses to comply, we will have a civil war between the civilian leadership and the armed forces, which could in turn lead to a civil war within the ranks of those forces. In the midst of a pandemic and with police continuing to actively attack peaceful protesters, such a turn of events would splinter and shatter an already fractured nation.
For the good of the country, for the good of the people, Donald Trump must resign. His fellow Republicans, who are the only ones at this point able to exert any effective pressure upon him, must rise from their docile slumber and convince the man that his time is over. Richard Nixon only resigned after Barry Goldwater informed him he had lost all meaningful support in Congress. Mitch McConnell must do likewise, right now, today, before there is more blood running in the streets. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t expect this turn of events to transpire, but if there ever was a time for it, it’s now.
President Mike Pence? It’s an utterly gruesome alternative, given his far-right Christian Dominionist beliefs. However, a President Pence would be significantly immobilized politically, much as Gerald Ford was after Nixon split town, while one of the main impediments to properly addressing the COVID pandemic would be removed.
We are on the brink. If Trump does not depart the office he has so thoroughly despoiled, I fear 2021 will make the horrors of 2020 seem like a garden party by comparison. Of all the bad choices arrayed before us, this is one of the better ones, which tells you all you need to know about where we stand.