On March 2, the blog War on the Rocks quietly published an open letter to the nation about the hazards posed by Donald Trump. It was a brief, scathing litany of the ways in which the celebrity candidate has pledged to create, not address, American national security threats. The piece itemized the manner in which Trump has promised to be little more than a caudillo that would stress and test all of America’s constitutional checks on the executive. The letter averred that his capriciousness and recklessness would almost certainly force the world into chaos and war, and Trump has pledged that the nation he led would conduct those wars in the manner of a pariah state. The letter soon gathered the signatures of nearly 100 Republican experts on geopolitics and foreign affairs, and it drew predictable criticisms from the dogmatic cult of aspiring Peronists drawn into the real estate heir’s orbit. Trump defenders laughed at it as only so much bleating from a segment of the American foreign policy establishment at the twilight of its influence. Last night, Donald Trump proved every word of that letter correct. What’s more, he has exposed those who continue to seek shelter in the aspiring despot’s shadow for who they are.
Donald Trump talks a lot. It is an adaptation that allows him to compensate for a paucity of unqualified successes in business. Trump’s conspicuous habit of never letting the silence linger for too long leads him to make a lot of unbecoming and dubious comments that, by virtue of their volume, are rarely given the individual attention they deserve from the press. But if media has any respect left for its audience at all, at least one series of recent Trump proposals will receive much more scrutiny than they have thus far. Donald Trump has repeatedly said that the United States should get into the business of torture. Not extraordinary rendition, mind you; old fashioned brutality. His goal has never been the timely extraction of information from priority targets. No, the value Trump sees in torture is in catharsis for the tormenter, not to mention the deterrent effect he has said the practice would have on aspiring terrorist actors. Trump has contended that another deterrent would also reduce terroristic violence overseas: the resolve to murder the families of the perpetrators of a terrorist attack.
No less a figure than former Air Force General and CIA Director Michael Hayden has warned that Trump is playing with fire. These were not merely rhetorical flourishes, as though such grotesque and vile thoughts should be dismissed as merely the fevered imaginings of an armchair strategist suddenly on the cusp of achieving real and appallingly corrupting power. No, Trump was flirting with ordering American soldiers – the men and women who serve their country in uniform – to commit war crimes for which they are personally liable and on which there is no statute of limitations. “If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act,” Hayden warned. “You are not committed, you are not required – in fact, you’re required to not follow an unlawful order. That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict.”
On Thursday night, Donald Trump was asked what he would do if the military commanders he tasks with conducting illegal acts of war were to disobey his orders as commander-in-chief. “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse me. Believe me,” Trump insisted. “I’m a leader. I’ve always been a leader. I’ve never had any problem leading people. If I say do it, they’re going to do it. That’s what leadership is all about.” Scattered in between these ramblings were a defense of waterboarding, not for its efficacy but its ability to instill fear in the enemy, and a bizarre conspiratorial notion that the September 11 hijackers’ families immediately sought safe haven in Saudi Arabia after the attacks.
These are not the musings of an eccentric celebrity. This is the delegate leader in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. This is a man who could very well become the President of the United States. He is promising to use the most powerful military on earth as a force for terror, and to compel average servicemen and women to become criminals or face his wrath. This is the would-be tyrant the Founders warned future generations would one day be upon them. Today is that day.
Those in political media who attempt to dismiss Trump’s promise to use and abuse American soldiers because it is against the law are kidding themselves – a practice with which many in the media should be expert at by now. Outgoing President Barack Obama has stretched and tested the parameters of executive authority to nearly the breaking point over the course of his presidency, and Americans have learned that it is not Congress but the courts that act as the final bulwark against executive lawlessness. Those parameters are only viable so long as the executive feels duty-bound to obey the will of the courts, and Donald Trump is not such a man.
Second, and much more importantly, those who would comfort themselves with the notion that American troops and their commanders have some legal recourse against the President of the United States are mistaken. As Naval War College Professor Tom Nichols observed, it is Congress that would be compelled to adjudicate a dispute between the president and his generals. Such a precedent-setting condition would lead those in the legislature with a lingering sense of responsibility to posterity and the Constitution to decline to interfere in a civilian-military dispute. Given that, the presumption that military commanders would even take their case to Capitol Hill is just that, a presumption. “In other words, Trump would give illegal orders, and his chiefs would have to provoke a massive civil-military crisis,” Nichols wrote.
On the debate stage, Trump insisted that his commanders will obey his illegal orders and essentially dared them to somehow stop him. God save the Republic if the American military were to take up his challenge.
As if his fraudulent telethon for veterans was not proof enough, Donald Trump cares nothing for the lives of American service personnel. They are just more pawns to be used to his ends. He has always ever used people to that effect, and all that would change as president is he would finally be able to do so with virtual impunity.
Thursday night’s debate was by far the most disheartening of any of the contests thus far. The brutish figure at the center of the stage of Republican presidential candidates repeatedly displayed his intellectual and temperamental unfitness for the office he seeks. Worse, he betrayed his loathing for the Constitution he would swear to uphold and boasted about his willingness to abuse his highest responsibility: the preservation of your family’s safety. This is not a game, and the self-styled last line of defense against despotism – the Fourth Estate – has thus far abdicated that role. Donald Trump no longer deserves the luxuries he has been afforded in the popular media; telephone interviews, saturation coverage, interlocutors who finish his sentences for him, and the dismissal of his more unhinged comments as merely oddball antics. No other candidate receives these indulgences.
Republicans face a test of character greater than any they have encountered in living memory. They may not meet that test, and it could fall upon the shoulders of average Americans to save the Constitution from someone who has pledged to shred it. Pray they do not fail.