Of all the three main wings of the Republican Party, the national security establishment has always been the most difficult for Donald Trump to tame. Unlike the social and economic conservatives, who received carte blanche to get all the judges and tax cuts they could, the foreign policy conservatives have frequently lost power struggles over policy. They also reside in a field that, unlike domestic policy, still retains some vestiges of bipartisanship.
Trump’s supporters on the right, and a vocal chorus of anti-anti-Trump leftists, have presented this opposition as a Deep State plot. “It’s painfully clear that criticism of Trump from figures like Brennan, Clapper, and Hayden is motivated at least as much by their abiding loyalty to the intelligence apparatus he disdains, their longstanding hawkishness when it comes to Russia, and the need to distract from their own checkered histories, as it is by high-minded principles of democracy and patriotism,” wrote Branko Marcetic. Trump “advocated a slew of policies that attacked the most sacred prongs of long-standing bipartisan Washington consensus,” argued Glenn Greenwald in one of his many columns defending Trump as the victim of the security establishment. “As a result, he was (and continues to be) viewed as uniquely repellent by the neoliberal and neoconservative guardians of that consensus.”
Whatever low-grade rumblings of discontent, the security establishment is rising in open defiance of Trump right now. And its timing tells us a great deal about the nature of its opposition.
In the several days since Trump had police forcefully clear out a peaceful protest from Lafayette Square, the following has occurred:
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen wrote that he was “sickened” by the aggressive police response and called to “address head-on the issue of police brutality and sustained injustices against the African American community.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper apparently leaked to reporters that he was not given advance knowledge of the plan to clear Lafayette Park, and believed he was being sent to inspect a vandalized bathroom.
Former defense secretary James Mattis wrote an op-ed going even farther than Mullen’s, denouncing Trump as disrespectful of the Constitution and emotionally unfit for the job of president.
FBI officials leaked that the bureau wanted to distance itself from William Barr’s plans to use the department as political weapons against the protests. Director Christopher Wray told a press conference, “The protectors can quickly become the oppressors, particularly for people of color. Civil rights and civil liberties are at the heart of who we are as Americans.”
Defense staffers leaked that they had concerns about being used to engage in domestic surveillance on protesters.
Esper sent home hundreds of troops from the 82nd Airborne Division, in defiance of Trump’s desire to militarize the response.
Former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Ret. Gen. Martin Dempsey condemned Trump’s response as “dangerous.”
Ex-Defense Secretary William Perry endorsed Mattis’s condemnation of Trump’s response to the protests.
And today, David Ignatius reports that Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke out forcefully to Trump in the Oval Office against the president’s plan to use the military to curtail protest.
Running through these acts of rebellion, both public and private, are two themes. One is some basic sympathy with the cause of the protests. That should not be a surprise: Not only is George Floyd’s murder a galvanizing event, it has caused a supermajority of the public to agree that it reflects a deeper problem. Seventy-four percent of the public believes the killing reflects a deeper injustice. National security elites believe the underlying reason for the protests is fundamentally just.
Second, they are deeply concerned about Trump politicizing the military. Trump has already corrupted multiple arms of the federal government for his political ends, and the security establishment rightly wants to draw a line against a similar corruption of the military.
Of course, there is an element of self-interest at play: public support for the military relies on its image as a non-partisan actor. Turning soldiers into shock troops to put down Trump’s political opposition would do permanent damage to that image. But this self-preservation instinct is also a democratic principle. Keeping the military out of domestic politics is a separation that protects both.
But one should ask why the security establishment is revolting now? Why not after Trump’s submissive summit with Vladimir Putin, or multiple efforts to undercut Nato, or his scheme to blackmail Ukraine, or his abandonment of Kurdish allies? Last year, Matt Taibbi denounced “a government-in-exile, which prosecuted its case against Trump via a constant stream of ‘approved’ leaks,” which most often pertain to foreign policy.” But foreign-policy disagreements do not seem to be the heart of their unrest after all.
The answer is that its opposition is not fundamentally rooted in Trump challenging the American empire. Whatever their policy disagreements, Trump’s critics in the national security state fear most of all his corruption and authoritarianism. And the people who have rationalized his war on the “deep state” have been aligning themselves with democracy’s greatest enemy.