Dwight Eisenhower was right to warn Americans in 1961 of the ‘military industrial complex’, but perhaps it is now the only thing that stands between the US and chaos. The new White House chief of staff, General John F. Kelly, is the third general Donald Trump has appointed to his cabinet. Kelly is already getting a good press for introducing military discipline and order to the Trump White House. His first move was to fire the attention-grabbing billionaire Anthony Scaramucci as head of communications, and he’s said to have told even members of Trump’s family that they must book ‘face time’ with the President through him. Is this another sign that the military men and the grown-ups are taking over, since the rest of Trump’s team appear so spectacularly ill-suited to high office?
Eisenhower was a general, not a scholar. Yet his ideas about America’s drift towards anti-democratic rule were very much in line with those of the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose 1956 book The Power Elite described the architecture of American power as it had evolved during and just after the second world war. His exploration of how things worked in the Age of Eisenhower helps us understand why just about nothing seems to work in the Age of Trump.
Its acid tone (‘Blessed are the cynical, for only they have what it takes to succeed’) is at least as suited to 2017 as it was to the 1950s. Mills loved to skewer any depictions of postwar America as an exemplar of democracy — he knew that plain folk recognised bunk when they saw it. The people ‘feel that they live in a time of big decisions’, he wrote. ‘They know that they are not making any.’ As a result, they were ‘without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power’. He might have been describing the convictions that prompted voters to back Trump.
In the 1950s, big decisions were made exclusively by members of what Mills called ‘the three domains of power’, that is ‘the warlords, the corporate chieftains, [and] the political directorate’. This interlocking, self-perpetuating group were ‘the power elite of America’. They called the shots, reaped most of the rewards and let others foot the bill. Vowing to ‘drain the swamp’, Candidate Trump gave the distinct impression that he intended to dismantle this tripartite elite. With him as their champion, the people rather than the establishment would rule. This implicit promise won votes.
Yet President Trump seems to be following a different course. Rather than dismantling the power elite, he seems intent on preserving it, albeit in modified form. He still has a low regard for the political apparat: the two main parties; Congress; members of the bureaucracy. But senior military officers and successful corporate executives are the kind of people he admires, trusts and leaves to run things while he tends to his Twitter account and flings insults at adversaries, real or imagined.
So contrary to liberal fears, Trump turns out not to be a proto-fascist. He is not going to establish a police state. He evinces virtually no interest in ideology. Nor does he have any worldview beyond a concern for protecting, or better still embellishing, the Trump brand. Devoid of anything approximating an actual political conviction, Trump is, in an odd sense, almost apolitical.
So a mere half-year into his presidency, we can say with confidence that the swamp Trump ran against will persist and may even flourish. Yet if he has his way, what Mills called the political directorate will be squeezed out and the swamp will be run by generals — Kelly, Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — and mega-rich one–percenters like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, education secretary Betsy DeVos, and commerce secretary Wilbur Ross. The military-industrial complex will look more like a military-billionaire complex, with the generals imposing a sense of order if the rich men squabble too publicly, and blocking any Banana Republicanism if they seek to make themselves and their friends ever richer.
We can count on Tillerson et al to subscribe to Calvin Coolidge’s dictum that ‘the chief business of the American people is business’, no doubt ensuring that business interests are served as long as Trump remains President. What we can expect from the generals is less clear, although Trump’s latest bellicose outburst towards North Korea might give us a clue. The generals can also be expected to look after each other: Kelly has already backed McMaster’s removal of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, an ally of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, from the National Security Council, on the reported grounds that ‘chains of command’ must be respected. It was a move that Kushner and Stephen Bannon, the President’s chief strategist, had resisted. For now, however, it seems Trump has let the generals take control.
His affinity for the top brass is curious. As a troublesome teenager he was sent to the New York Military Academy — perhaps army men exert over Trump an authority that nobody else can achieve. But if the generals are from Mars, Trump is from Neptune, having kept himself about as far from war and military service as it is possible to get.
Granted, like most senior military officers regardless of nationality, Kelly, Mattis and McMaster exude a certain orderliness and decorum. In comparison with the President himself and associates such as Bannon and Kushner, the generals do indeed appear to be the ‘adults in the room’. They also understand what it means to obey.
Yet unlike Trump’s billionaires, who did actually make (or inherit) tons of money, none of these generals has done what military leaders are expected to do; namely, to bring a war to a successful conclusion and justify the need for a professional military class in the first place. This is not for want of trying, given the number of wars that the United States has been engaged in over the past couple of decades.
Of course, in the rarified atmosphere where Trump’s generals now operate, it’s not winning wars that demands their attention. That thankless endeavour they can now leave to lesser colleagues. Instead, the challenge facing Kelly, Mattis and McMaster is to forge a basic approach to domestic and foreign policy that will preclude the advent of yet further wars, while also providing basic national security and, in Kelly’s case, a functional government. Given the boss they report to and given the prodding of those in Washington keen to pick a fight with Russia or Iran or North Korea or China, they will have their work cut out.
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