What happens when the highest advisory and military decision-making offices in a government are headed by military brass? In Russia, siloviki make up President Putin’s closest advisors. In Turkey, the military acts as an authority for keeping domestic peace. In the United States, however, our democratic tradition guarantees civilian control over our military. Trump may be eroding that tradition in an effort to appear strong and decisive.
The United States has not had such a heavily militarized government since at least World War II. While past presidents have hired generals to head key cabinet positions such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, we’re entering uncharted territory: the traditionally civilian-controlled Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and National Security Advisor are to be headed by retired generals. This signals two things: Trump wants to bolster his national security credibility and, more importantly, he wants to appear authoritative and strong.
Donald Trump paints himself as a straight-talking, aggressive dealmaker and he appreciates those characteristics in others. Add medals and braids, and you have Trump’s ideal leadership. But this is not a remake of “Patton.” This is much more serious. In appointing generals to these positions, Trump is eroding the centrality of civilian decision-making in key U.S. government posts.
Despite occasional tension between the military and politicians, the Department of Defense remains under civilian control by mandate. Retired generals must wait seven years before they are eligible to take charge of the Department. James Mattis, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense, will need a waiver from Congress to bypass the seven year rule. The Republican majority will make sure the process goes smoothly. Further safeguards include a Department of Defense directive that essentially applies the same rules of the Hatch Act that prohibits partisan activities in the civil service to the military.
All these rules are in place to ensure peaceful transitions of power and a military that acts in the peoples’ best interests. Trump is slowly but surely eroding this ideal with his drive to assemble a government of strongmen and cement his authority.
The American government cannot afford a militarized executive branch. In blurring the lines between civilian and military, Trump is endangering the very institutions that ensure policies are pursued in the best interests of the people and a thriving democracy.
Donald Trump’s obsession with strength is now America’s greatest weakness.