In some previous posts (here, here, and here), I have wondered why Donald Trump failed to declare martial law so that he could rule as a military dictator. Why didn't Trump do something like what General Min Aung Hiaing, the commander in chief of the Burmese military, did on February 1, when he declared that since the parliamentary elections in November had been fraudulent, the new Parliament would be disbanded, and the military would rule over Burma through martial law? Why didn't Trump say that since the Democrats had stolen the presidential election through a fraudulent vote count, he was justified in declaring himself the true president for a second term and ordering the military to support this? Or, alternatively, why didn't he declare martial law in response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, so that he could have established his rule over the country as Commander in Chief?
In reading the new book by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker--I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump's Catastrophic Final Year--I hoped to find the answers to these questions. Although Leonnig and Rucker do not say this explicitly themselves, my conclusion from their history of Trump's last year is that he did not have the guns or the guts for becoming a military dictator. He did not have the guns because military leaders such as General Mark Milley (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) made it clear that they would not allow the military to support a presidential dictatorship. And he did not have the guts because he lacked the courage to assert his dictatorial will in violation of the Constitution.
He displayed his unmanly weakness on January 6 when he failed to lead the march on the Capitol as he had promised earlier in the day, and instead he watched the attack on TV at the White House, as if it were an entertaining TV drama. Later, he meekly condemned the insurrectionary violence that he had inspired, and he told the insurrectionists to "go home with love and in peace." As Nicholas Fuentes of the white nationalist "America First" internet broadcasts has said, Trump on that day proved to be "very weak and flacid."
The most revealing part of this book is its account of General Milley's central role in upholding the constitutional limits on presidential power by asserting that the military take an oath to support the Constitution, which means that they would have to disobey any presidential order that violates the Constitution. In recent days, Milley has been asked to say whether this book's stories about him are accurate. He has answered by saying that he will not comment on the book. But he did say: "The U.S. military is an apolitical institution. We were then, we are now. The military did not and will not and should not, ever, get involved in domestic politics. We do not arbitrate elections. That's the job of the judiciary, the legislature, and the American people." This actually confirms what Leonnig and Rucker say about Milley's insisting that the military must not serve the political interests of the President or any other politician, and that once an election has been decided, the military cannot overturn the outcome.
Milley told his staff that he feared that Trump was looking for an excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act, so that he could call out the regular military to fight against his political opponents and to support him as a military dictator. "This is a Reichstag moment," he explained. "The gospel of the Fuhrer" (437).
The Insurrection Act of 1807, as amended a few times over the past 200 years, is a federal law authorizing the President to deploy National Guard troops and regular military troops within the United States to suppress civil disorder or insurrection. This establishes a statutory exception to the general principle that the federal military must not be used for law enforcement purposes within the United States. This creates a contradiction between the protecting the rights of citizens under civil law and the apparent need during some times of emergency to subject citizens to martial law. There is also a contradiction between requiring that the President's proclamation of martial law in a State be requested by the State authorities and the need of the President to act whenever the State authorities are "unable, fail, or refuse" to execute the laws protecting their citizens from violence.
A "Reichstag moment" refers to the Reichstag fire, an arson attack in 1933 against the German parliament building in Berlin. Adolf Hitler had recently become the Chancellor of Germany. He led the Nazis in charging that the fire was part of a communist conspiracy against Germany. He used this as an excuse to have President Paul von Hindenburg declare a state of emergency suspending civil liberties and then to have Parliament pass the Enabling Act that allowed Hitler to rule by decree, which made him dictator of Germany.
There were two Reichstag moments during Trump's last year in office when he threatened to invoke the Insurrection Act, but then failed to do so. The first was in June of 2020 in response to the Black Lives Matter protests. The second was in the two and a half months after the presidential election when he considered declaring martial law so that he could overturn Biden's election.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a forty-six-year-old Black man, was killed by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, in Minneapolis, when he knelt on Floyd's neck for nine minutes, with Floyd repeatedly saying "I can't breathe." When a video of this circulated online the next day, people across America reacted with disgust. Protests spread all across the country in almost every city. Most of them were peaceful. But some turned violent.
On the evening of Friday, May 29, the demonstrations reached the White House. Some of the protestors jumped over the fences around the White House complex. Fearing that the President was in danger, the Secret Service rushed up to Trump's private quarters and guided him, along with Melania and Barron, down to the emergency bunker under the East Wing. Two days later, when The New York Times reported this, Trump became enraged that someone had leaked this story, because it made him look scared and weak. A few days later, he said it was a "false report," although everyone knew he was lying.
Over the weekend, Trump called his military leaders and other top advisors into the Oval Office to plan a way to end the protests. He proposed deploying the military in Washington and around the country. Milley and Mark Esper (Secretary of Defense) objected that employing active-duty troops to suppress civil unrest was almost always a bad idea, because it violated the principle that military force should not be employed for domestic political ends. Moreover, they argued that the protests were mostly peaceful exercises of the constitutional rights to freedom of speech and public assemblies to petition the government.
In the back of the room, Stephen Miller yelled out: "Mr. President, you have to show strength. They're burning the country down." Milley pointed a finger towards Miller and shouted: "Stephen, shut the fuck up. They're not burning the fucking country down" (156). But Miller continued: "It's an insurrection," and so the President should invoke the Insurrection Act. Milley insisted that law enforcement could handle the situation.
On Monday, June 1, Trump had a plan for a staged production to show that he and the military were in control of the situation. He called Milley, Esper, and others to follow him as he walked out of the White House and across Lafayette Square, which had been cleared of protestors. Trump then stopped in front of St. John's Episcopal Church and held a Bible in the air, the perfect photo op. Esper and Milley had not known that Trump was going to do this, and they were shocked that they had been photographed marching with him to his public display.
Two days later, Esper told reporters at the Pentagon that the military should not interfere with the Constitutional right of the BLM supporters to protest, and that he did not believe that the Insurrection Act should be invoked.
Trump was angry, and he called Esper to the White House.
"'You betrayed me!' Trump screamed at Esper. 'You're fucking weak! What is this shit? I make the decisions on the Insurrection Act. I'm the president, not you. You're taking options away from the president. This is about presidential authority. This is about presidential prerogative. And you're not the fucking president!'" (175)
On June 10, Milley spoke to the graduating class of the National Defense University, and he took the occasion to apologize for his appearance with Trump in Lafayette Square: "I should not have been there. My presence in that moment, and in that environment, created the perception of the military involved in domestic politics" (187).
Trump was furious. Meeting Milley in the Oval Office, Trump complained: "Why did you apologize? Apologies are a sign of weakness."
"This had to do with me and the uniform and not politicizing the uniform," Milley answered. "I'm not apologizing for you. I was apologizing for me."
What stands out, however, in this debate in the White House is that with all of Trump's insistence that "I make the decisions on the Insurrection Act," he never did decide to invoke the Act. He was too weak to exploit the opportunity of the first Reichstag moment by declaring martial law.
The second Reichstag moment began on November 4, the day after the election. Joe Biden was in the lead; but Trump had declared "we already have won it." And as he had suggested during the campaign, he said that Biden could not have won the election without fraudulent voting, and therefore Trump could refuse to step down.
Beginning in June, Milley had told his aides that his mission was to "ensure the United States of America has a free and fair election with no U.S. military involvement whatsoever" (189). That meant that if Biden won, the military must not be used by Trump to stop Biden's inauguration on January 20, 2020.
On November 9, Trump fired Esper and replaced him with Chris Miller--a Trump loyalist--as Defense Secretary. On November 10, Trump began filling other top Defense Department positions with his loyalists.
General Milley began receiving phone calls from friends fearful that this was preparation for Trump's military coup to overturn the government by declaring martial law under the Insurrection Act with Trump as military dictator.
"'They may try, but they're not going to fucking succeed,' Milley told them. 'You can't do this without the military. You can't do this without the CIA and the FBI. We're the guys with the guns'" (366).
On November 14, the Proud Boys and other extremist Trump supporters came to Washington for the "Million MAGA March" to "Stop the Steal" of the election by Biden and the Democrats. In the evening, violence broke out. Milley told his aides that this looked like the American version of "brownshirts in the streets"--the paramilitary forces that protected the Nazi Party rallies.
Trump's lawyers filed over three-dozen lawsuits to overturn the elections. But they all failed--even when the judges were Trump appointees. (I have written about Trump's bizarre court cases here and here.)
On December 14, the Electoral College met in every state. Biden received 306 electoral votes to Trump's 232. On December 15, Mitch McConnell spoke: "The electoral college has spoken. So today, I want to congratulate President-elect Joe Biden." Trump called McConnell to curse him for his disloyalty. This would be the last time the two men spoke for the rest of Trump's presidency.
On December 18, Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell were in the White House laying out a plan for Trump to cancel Biden's election. Flynn proposed that Trump invoke the Insurrection Act to declare martial law, so that the military could rerun the election and show that Trump was re-elected. Powell proposed that Trump should issue an executive order naming her a special counsel to seize voting machines in key states so that she could expose the fraudulent voting. Trump never carried out their proposals.
Now, there remained one last chance for Trump to keep himself in power--the joint session of Congress on January 6 when Vice President Pence, as President of the Senate, would preside over the counting of electoral votes as certified by the States. Trump had been told by John Eastman (a law professor at Chapman University) that Pence had the authority to refuse to accept the certified electoral votes from some states where Biden won, and then the Republican-controlled legislatures in those States could declare Trump the winner of their electoral votes. Pence, however, believed that he did not have the constitutional power to do this, and that to do so would be an unconstitutional usurpation of power that would destroy the American system of constitutional democracy.
To put pressure on Pence and the Congress to overturn the election results, Trump organized the "Save America" rally at the Ellipse on January 6. He invited all of his supporters to come, saying "Be there, will be wild." Milley told his staff this would be Trump's attempt to provoke unrest as an excuse to invoke the Insurrection Act and call out the military. On January 3, the Washington Post published an article signed by all ten living former secretaries of defense warning that Pentagon leaders should never allow the military to interrupt the peaceful transfer of power after an election.
Trump concluded his speech on January 6 by saying that "Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us." "We're going to walk down to the Capitol and we're going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. . . . We're going to try and give our Republicans--the weak ones, because the strong ones don't need any of our help--we're going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country."
But when the crowd started walking toward the Capitol, Trump did not go with them. Instead, he went back to the White House to watch TV the rest of the day.
By 1:00 pm, the Capitol police were being overwhelmed by the mob of Trump supporters surging towards the Capitol building. By 2:10 pm, the first rioter had broken into the building, and a wild stream of rioters rushed into the building. Some of them shouted "Hang Mike Pence!." At 2:24 pm, Trump tweeted his support for this: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."
The Congressmen and Senators were forced to flee their chambers and to hide in secure areas, while the angry mob roamed the building looking for them. Pence took command of the military, ordering them to clear the building so that the work of the Congress in certifying the election could resume. He refused to leave the building because he insisted that the Congress should finish its work in the evening, and thus show to the world that the insurrectionists had failed: "We need to get back tonight," he said. "We can't let the world see that our process of confirming the next president can be delayed." As Pence gave his orders to the military, the commander in chief had no contact at all with any of the military leaders. He was too busy watching TV.
By 8:00 pm, Pence called the Senate back into session. At 3:24 am, the Congress voted to confirm Biden's 306 to 232 electoral vote win; and Pence formally declared Biden the next president of the United States.
Leonnig and Rucker write: "At no time that Wednesday since the Capitol siege began did these government and military leaders hear from the president. Not even the vice president heard from Trump" (481).
Trump did not march with his supporters to the Capitol. He did not command the military. He did not take control. He did not invoke the Insurrection Act. He did not declare martial law. He did nothing to overturn the election and establish his military dictatorship. He became a passive observer.
On January 20, Biden was inaugurated President; and Trump left the White House to fly to his new home in Mar-a-Lago.
Since then, hundreds of his supporters have been arrested for their participation in the Capitol insurrection. Trump did not pardon them.
I have written about the chimpanzee politics of Trump's attempts to become the alpha male. Now we see that he has never had the will to power to become America's alpha male.
Contrary to what many of his critics have claimed, Trump is not a populist strongman. Those who identify Trump as a strongman fail to see the discrepancy between his words and his deeds. He talks like a strongman, but he does not act like one. He's all bluster. That's what the Proud Boys and the other Trump extremists discovered on January 6. They took seriously his words about marching to the Capitol to "fight" for him. And then he abandoned them.
Hitler was a strongman. Stalin was a strongman. General Min Aung Hiaing of Burma is a strongman today. Trump is a weakman.
And that's good. Because his weakness of character--his lack of manly spiritedness--so enfeebled him that he could not impose a military dictatorship on the United States.
But should we worry that his experience has taught him that he needs to change his character--to become a true strongman so that he can successfully become a military dictator, perhaps when he's elected president again in 2024?
There is some hint of that in the interview that Trump gave to Leonnig and Rucker on March 31, seventy days after leaving the White House. Trump almost never expresses regret about anything he has said or done, presumably because that would be a sign of weakness. But in his interview, in response to questions about his response to the BLM protests, he said: "I think if I had it to do again, I would have brought in the military immediately" (516). Does this mean that if he is given another chance, he will immediately declare himself America's military dictator?
Recently, in a Claremont Institute podcast ("The Stakes"), Michael Anton interviewed an alt-right monarchist Curtis Levin; and they talked about why the United States needs an "American Caesar," who could rule as a military dictator. They suggested ways that Trump could do this after being elected in 2024. Does this suggest that some American conservatives--particularly those connected to the Claremont Institute--are now prepared to set aside the Constitution so that Trump can rule as a dictator? Let's hope not.