Americans viewing the recent failed coup attempt in Turkey as some exotic foreign news story -- the latest, violent yet hardly unusual political development to occur in a region constantly beset by turmoil -- should pause to consider that the prospect of similar instability would not be unfathomable in this country if Donald Trump were to win the presidency.
Trump is the most brazenly authoritarian figure to secure the nomination of a major American political party. He expresses his support for all manner of strongmen, and his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, has actually worked for one: former Ukrainian president and Vladimir Putin ally Viktor Yanukovich. At the Republican National Convention here Monday, Manafort put some of the tricks he learned overseas as a dictator whisperer to good use, employing underhanded tactics to avoid a roll call vote on the convention's rules package and quietly removing language from the party platform expressing support for Ukraine's democratic aspirations.
Throughout the campaign, Trump has repeatedly bragged about ordering soldiers to commit war crimes, and has dismissed the possibility that he would face any resistance. "They won't refuse," he told Fox News' Bret Baierearlier this year. "They're not gonna refuse me. Believe me." When Baier insisted that such orders are "illegal," Trump replied, "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."
Oh really? Blimpish swagger might fly within the patriarchal confines of a family business, a criminal operation (the distinction is sometimes blurred) or a dictatorship. It does not, however, work in a liberal democracy, legally grounded by a written constitution, each branch restrained by separation of powers.
Try to imagine, then, a situation in which Trump commanded our military to do something stupid, illegal or irrational. Something so dangerous that it put the lives of Americans and the security of the country at stake. (Trump's former rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Marco Rubio, said the United States could not trust "the nuclear codes" to an "erratic individual.") Faced with opposition from his military brass, Trump would perhaps reconsider and back down. But what if he didn't?
In that case, our military men and women, who swear to uphold the Constitution and a civilian chain of command, would be forced to choose between obeying the law and serving the wishes of someone who has explicitly expressed his utter lack of respect for it.
They might well choose the former.
"I would be incredibly concerned if a President Trump governed in a way that was consistent with the language that candidate Trump expressed during the campaign," retired Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, who served as head of the CIA and the National Security Agency under President George W. Bush, said in response to Trump's autocratic ruminations. Asked by TV host Bill Maher what would happen if Trump told American soldiers to kill the families of terrorists, as he has promised to do, Hayden replied, "If he were to order that once in government, the American armed forces would refuse to act."
"You are required not to follow an unlawful order," Hayden added. "That would be in violation of all the international laws of armed conflict."
Previously, in those rare situations when irreconcilable disagreements have arisen between America's civilian and military leadership, it is the latter who were ultimately deemed out of line. This was the case when President Truman acrimoniously fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur after he publicly criticized Truman for denying him permission to bomb China in the midst of the Korean War. Though MacArthur returned to the United States with a hero's welcome, Truman's decision endures as one of the most important in the history of American civil-military relations.
Trump could pull a reverse-Truman, firing a general who refused to bomb.
If this scenario sounds implausible, consider that Trump has normalized so many once-outrageous things -- from open racism to blatant lying. Needless to say, such dystopian situations are unimaginable under a President Hillary Clinton, who, whatever her faults, would never contemplate ordering a bombing run or -- heaven forbid -- a nuclear strike on a country just because its leader slighted her small hands at a summit. Rubio might detest her, but he cannot honestly say that Clinton, a former secretary of State, should not be trusted with the nation's nuclear codes.
Trump is not only patently unfit to be president, but a danger to America and the world. Voters must stop him before the military has to.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative. His book, "The End of Europe", is forthcoming from Yale University Press.
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