When Does Paranoia Become Realistic Fear — Trump and the Military

Generalissimo Trump?
Generalissimo Donald Trump
Gen. George Patton
Gen. George Patton

By James A. Kidney

One challenge in this vicious, unsatisfying presidential campaign is for the average voter to separate legitimate worries about either candidate from paranoia.

The Trump side of the campaign thus far has had more trouble keeping to boundaries of reason than Clinton supporters.

Egged on by Fox News and Trump allies from Breitbart News, as well as the Rasputins of Clinton conspiracies, such as broadcaster Alex Jones, right wing bomb thrower Roger Stone (who, like Trump, learned nastiness from the late Roy Cohn) and David Bossie (author of, among other things, Hillary:  The Politics of Personal Destruction), the Trump camp is actively promoting long-time crazy notions such as that Clinton is responsible for the death of Arkansas state troopers and the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster.  They also are supplementing the oldies but goodies with newer tropes, such as that Clinton failed to protect U.S. personnel killed in Benghazi and that she disclosed important U.S. secrets through her regrettable State Department email debacle.  There is a wide selection of conspiracy theories to choose from.  A Wikipedia list of books about the Clintons shows many more attacking either or both of them than are favorable.

And there is always the reliable “____ will take our guns away.”  (Add whatever Democrat you wish to the slogan).

book-cover-paranoid-styleMany, many Trump supporters have clearly jumped from reasonable right wing worries about Hillary Clinton into the paranoia swamp.  After finally taking Trump seriously, many, many columnists have cited Richard Hofstadter’s 52-year-old book, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and identified Trump’s more rabid supporters as well as Trump himself as a vivid current example of the unyielding belief that the federal government is organized against them and must be defeated at all costs.  Trump has elevated the notion of a plan to “rig” the election against him, which many of his voters will accept as true regardless of the magnitude of a Clinton victory.

The paranoia is starting to show up among Clinton supporters as well, principally in unsubstantiated (so far) fear that Russian hackers who successfully stole internal records from the Democratic National Committee will influence the electronic vote count in Trump’s favor.

This web site was late to the game in finding an analogy between the Trump campaign and Hitler, but finally succumbed last month.  See, “Even Hitler Needed Friends” (Aug. 3, 2016).  Still, we still have resisted going all-in by describing Trump as a likely totalitarian dictator.  We have done so not because the notion is beyond the narcissistic, uneducable candidate, but due to faith in our military to reject orders from a man like Trump to attack law abiding citizens who oppose him.

We still want to believe that the military, from privates to generals, from soldiers, to airmen, to sailors to Marines, would see such orders as unlawful, even if delivered by the commander-in-chief.  We like to think that Sue Fulton, who questioned Trump on NBC’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum” this week and wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times headed “What Trump Doesn’t Understand About the Military” is correct. She concludes her column thusly:

As Mr. Trump left, we applauded courteously, until the signal that we were off the air. After a beat, someone yelled from the back, “Make America great again!” In the smattering of applause that followed, my friend, Tanya Domi, a former Army captain, growled, “America is already great!” to whoops and cheers. Of all the Army values Mr. Trump has flouted in this campaign — respect, selfless service, personal courage — perhaps the most telling is loyalty.

But Fulton’s column also notes that an NBC News/Survey Monkey poll this week of 3,358 veterans and current military finds that 55 percent of them favor Trump over Clinton.  Shortly before calling current military leadership “rubble” in the NBC forum, his campaign released a list of 88 former military officers supporting Trump’s candidacy.

Although the media reported that the names on Trump’s list were obscure, and far fewer than publicly supported Romney in 2012, Trump’s support from current and former military personnel and his demonstration of complete disrespect for our military leadership starts to push what was seeming paranoia about his ability to successfully employ the military in a campaign against our own citizens into the realm of legitimate fear.

(Hillary Clinton countered with a list of 95 retired generals and admirals supporting her.)

Trump stated in the NBC forum not only that current generals of our armed forces are “rubble,” but that he would seek counsel from other generals as to how to deal with ISIS.  There has been criticism of long-standing echoing the implication, if not the specifics, of Trump’s complaint.  President Obama has fired prominent generals, though for various reasons, such as the clear public insubordination of Stanley McChrystal and the criminal breach of national security by former general but, at the time of his dismissal, CIA director David Petraeus.

The “alt right,” to which Trump now caters, has long believed that Obama fires officers just because they disagree with him.  Just Google “how many generals has obama fired” to find websites most of you never heard of (we hope) that suggest the dismissals are part of a Marxist plot ignored by the “mainstream media.”

It may be true that generals sense that Obama is uncomfortable with their presence and many of their recommendations.  Ironically, Clinton seems to score well with the military, based on current reporting.  See “Hillary the Hawk:  A History” in Foreign Policy Magazine and “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” in The New York Times.

So while Trump likely made no friends among senior military officers with his ill-chosen words, there is evidence that senior military officers are ready for new White House leadership which would be more respectful of and give greater weight to their views.  Trump’s senior military advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, told Fox News the day after the NBC forum that Trump’s rubble comment was “absolutely right,” but then gave it a new definition:  “I mean, there’s a lot of frustration within the ranks and there’s a lot of frustration I know in the senior leadership about what we’re not able to do.”

Fair enough.  It is not grounds to turn paranoia into reasonable and righteous fear by identifying reasons senior military may differ with the current commander-in-chief on how to proceed against ISIS.  In that, the military reflects the debate in civilian circles.  There is little to no evidence that the military is pursuing an independent agenda.

But Trump is not yet president.

Consider the dilemma for the military if there were non-violent protests against Trump or his policies in Washington that attracted many thousands.  (True, this form of protest has not been common in this century, but over 30 years elapsed between the veterans’ Bonus Army protests in 1932 and the anti-war marches in the mid-1960s.)  Would the military follow an order to apply force against these protestors if ordered to do so by the commander-in-chief?  The answer is: certainly.  Although protestors would be exercising their constitutional rights, the military would be justified in following the orders of the president, who might buttress his order with public false claims that the protestors were planning violent action.  It would be a brave general indeed who would refuse the order on grounds the protestors were peacefully exercising their rights.

redscare073What if using force in Washington prompted demonstrations in cities across the country as Americans realized the White House was using a military boot to stomp out dissent?  Would Trump, in his reckless and thoughtless way, demand the military act against these protestors, putting soldiers on every street corner in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York and San Francisco?

Would the military follow his orders?  Of course.

What if Trump ordered that live ammunition be used, on the grounds that shooting a few protestors might disburse everyone and return “order”?  Again, isn’t it likely the military would go along?  Trump would be their man in the White House and commander-in-chief.

Only if Trump ordered the troops to remain in place long after protests were dispersed to harass innocent citizens with spot searches, seizures on vague suspicions and the like would the military brass begin to question their orders.  But, again, Trump and his minions could easily come up with false plots against the country justifying use of force.  It was done in the past — during the so-called Red Scares of 1919, when individual rights were trampled based on anti-communist hysteria.  Trump’s fact-free attacks on undocumented immigrants, meaning mostly Mexicans and other Hispanics, strike a parallel sound to the ears of his followers.

Do “what ifs” warrant concern? Add another:  What if the question had been posed to candidates in 2000 about what they would do if Al Queda followers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon?  Paranoia is fostered by unlikely “what ifs,” especially in the 15 years since 9/11, but in electing a President maybe the last 16 years since 2000 have demonstrated that even rational judgments should consider the unlikely.

Add to the building blocks of paranoia or legitimate fear this factor:  Since 1973 this country has isolated its military from the civilian population.  We have developed a true warrior class in which less than one percent of the citizenry has served in the military.  While there are many military families in which the military parents spawn another soldier or sailor and their grandchildren follow the family tradition, most of America is clueless about the military culture and has never even met an active duty member of the military. It would be wrong and unfair to suggest this culture is prone to attack the citizens they are proud to protect.  But by the same token, the military culture is trained to obey the chain-of-command and respect a tough response to what is perceived as dangerous disorder.

Combine the reasoning above with other disturbing statements by Trump and it is possible to make a case that it is no longer paranoid to believe that Trump will unleash the military on American citizens to put dissenters behind bars and trample basic constitutional rights.  Among these statements are Trump’s unalloyed love of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which Trump foolishly or intentionally misreads Putin’s successful defeat of dissent as admiring poll numbers; his assertions, against all fact, that undocumented Mexican immigrants are all thieves and rapists warranting immediate and forceful deportation (as endorsed by the quasi-military Border Patrol union) and Trump’s overall pattern of ignoring or misstating “facts” and then denying he has done so.

Are continued fears that a President Trump would establish a dictatorial regime like Hitler or Mussolini (or even Hugo Chavez in Venezuela) simply paranoid?

We don’t know.  But  the evidence is growing that it is at least wise to consider seriously the possibility they are not.

So what's your view on these issues? Send a comment.

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