In Stalin’s Soviet Union, years into the Great Terror, the Soviet secret police began rounding up military leaders. In 1937, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky was arrested on manufactured charges of spying for the Nazis. After being tortured into confessing his “crimes,” he was summarily shot. Over the next two years, in the run-up to World War II, an estimated 35,000-plus Soviet military officers were shot, or sent to the Gulag, or simply dismissed from service. It was the logical endpoint of Stalin’s increasingly paranoid and ruthless leadership, a way of stamping out potential opposition from “enemies of the people” within the one institution in the country that might have been capable of standing up to Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian rule.
Similar purges occurred in Hitler’s Germany, where, from his early days in office the Führer sought to instill absolute personal loyalty in his military leaders by meting out exemplary punishments to recalcitrant officers. Dozens of generals were executed. Large numbers were sent to concentration camps or stripped of their titles. After the failed assassination plot against Hitler in 1944, many top military leaders were hung from meat hooks or shot.
Donald Trump’s extraordinary tirade last week against General Mark Milley, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which he mused on Truth Social about Milley being put to death, has to be seen in this context. It is but the latest installment in an age-old quest by dictatorial leaders for unquestioning loyalty and subservience.
Study any totalitarian governing system, any leadership based around a cult of the personality, and one will find examples of dictators stamping their power on a population in part by cowing the military — and doing so in the most brutal of manners, by executing officers who sought to distinguish between loyalty to country and loyalty to the individual leader. In North Korea, a former defense chief was reportedly executed for the crime of falling asleep during a military rally attended by Kim Jong-Un.
Trump has made it abundantly clear in his comments that he longs for a similar ability to bring “disloyal” U.S. military leaders to heel. The New Yorker recently reported that Trump spoke about wanting generals who would show him the same loyalty that Hitler’s military leadership (under constant threat of death) showed the Führer.
That Milley never quite showed that unquestioning loyalty to Trump has driven Trump to distraction. Two years ago, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa revealed that Milley was so fearful that an unstable Trump, in the days after the failed putsch of January 6, would try to launch a war against China as a pretext to create a military emergency and retain his hold on power, that he called his Chinese counterpart to assure him that the United States remained stable and that its nuclear arsenal was secure. Trump has long been infuriated by this revelation.
Last week, after the Atlantic published more details of Milley’s intervention in securing the arsenal and briefing military leaders on the need to not respond affirmatively to illegal orders, and detailed the general’s acute awareness of Trump’s abnormal state of mind, both before and after January 6, the ex-president’s anger erupted on his social media site, Truth Social. “This is an act so egregious that, in times gone by, the punishment would have been DEATH!” Trump wrote. His fascist congressional sidekick, Paul Gosar, went further, writing that “In a better society, quislings like the strange sodomy-promoting General Milley would be hung.”
Actually, in a better society Gosar, who has a long track record of totalitarian and white nationalist commentary, would be censured by every one of his legislative colleagues for such an odious statement and would be voted out of office in an electoral landslide by people of good conscience united by their horror at his sadistic, fascist impulses. Alas, we are not in such a better society. Trump has softened up both Congress and the broader public so much with his repeated exhortations to violence that a critical majority now seem inured to such blood-curdling prognostications. That’s not accidental, it’s strategic: it’s part of a totalitarian vision that Trump and his strategists are rolling out with increasing confidence.
During his presidency, Trump sought to bring to the streets of D.C. the sorts of military hardware parades long common in Moscow and in Pyongyang. More ominously, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd, the president strong-armed Milley and other uniformed military leaders into accompanying him on a walk — a political stunt — from the White House through riot-torn Lafayette Square and openly tried to invoke the Insurrection Act to use the military to quell the protests. He and his team of political and legal advisers also sought to use the military after the 2020 election to seize voting machines, going so far as to draft an executive order (thankfully never implemented) to that effect. Other advisers went even further, with Michael Flynn advocating a declaration of martial law.
This track record of seeking to use the military as a vast praetorian guard to secure the personal well-being and the continued hold on power of one man raised increasing concerns among members of the military’s officer corps. In the pages of Strategic Studies Quarterly, author Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote of civilian-military relations during the Trump presidency as being “at such a toxic level that they were in danger of triggering a constitutional crisis unlike any since the presidency of Andrew Johnson.”
When Trump floated the idea of crushing the Black Lives Matter protests through use of the military, a slew of top brass pushed back against the idea.
In the dying days of Trump’s tenure, Flynn’s calls for martial law were rapidly rejected by the Army leadership. And last week’s fascistic call for Milley’s death was met with something approaching disbelief by many military figures and ex-heads of the Defense Department.
Retired General Barry McCaffrey compared Trump’s statements to events that took place in Nazi Germany. Ex-Pentagon chief Mark Esper, who served under Trump, said there was a realistic fear that, if Trump were re-elected, he would take retaliatory actions against Milley and other military leaders he had fallen out with. In other words, if you elect a fascist, not surprisingly fascist things happen.
Milley himself said Trump’s comments “disrespected” the military; he subsequently toughened up his language, remarking, in his retirement speech, that “We don’t take an oath to a king, or a queen, or to a tyrant or a dictator. And we don’t take an oath to a wannabe dictator.”
Yet, outside of the military leadership, as well as three GOP presidential hopefuls who have long been critical of Trump, most GOP leaders and the majority of those seeking the GOP’s presidential nomination couldn’t muster the wherewithal to critique Trump’s fascist outburst. Vivek Ramaswamy was, his team told the media, so busy spending time with his family that he couldn’t make a comment on the issue. There was no organized GOP senatorial condemnation of Trump’s statement; and, in the House, Kevin McCarthy, preoccupied with the government shutdown trainwreck his own far-right Caucus members, including the ghoulish Paul Gosar and other members who have repeatedly resorted to violent rhetoric against their opponents, were intent on inflicting on the American people, was also stunningly silent.
Prior to August 1934, German soldiers swore an oath “to at all times loyally and honestly serve my people and country.” After August 1934, they were required to swear an oath to Hitler: “I will render unconditional obedience to the Führer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler.” It is this oath, and its consequences, that Trump was so nostalgic for in his longing for an obedient officer corps, and it is a similar de facto oath to the MAGA leader today that is now binding the vast majority of the GOP to Trump’s totalitarian vision.
The appalling silence from top GOP legislators in the wake of Trump’s ginning up the death squads against General Milley is the silence of those who themselves fear being labeled enemies of the people by the U.S.’s most dangerous demagogue.
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