If President Trump is convicted of a crime or is impeached, will he go gracefully like the experienced politician Richard Nixon -- or will he go out like Jimmy Cagney atop a giant gasoline tank in White Heat? "Top O' the World, Ma!" Think of the institution of the presidency as that gasoline tank that goes up in a huge fireball at the end. Translated into the context of Reality TV, think of the narcissistic star-in-chief playing out the final episode under the delusion he's still in control with his i-phone -- to the bitter end stirring up a pumped and well-armed base. Sensationalistic, for sure. But implausible?
The part of this improbable administration that's not a reality TV show centered on a narcissistic billionaire and his plutocrat cabinet is the anchor represented by Chief of Staff John Kelly -- along with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Security Adviser H.R. McMaster. If this were a Herb Block cartoon from the 1970s, they'd be a very stolid rhinoceros standing in the midst of Oval Office wreckage with words on its flank that read NATIONAL SECURITY STATE.
The National Security Act of 1947 codified the reality of the imperial American military for the baby-boom generation and beyond. The War Department became the Defense Department; the CIA we know today was formed from the Office of Strategic Services. The 1947 NSA document amounted to a formal re-arrangement of the country's priorities coming out of WWII -- when the victorious United States of America became the "leader of the free world." We forget that before World War Two changed everything, the US military was a shadow of what it was to become.
Over these 70 years, the executive in the White House has ping-ponged back-and-forth between the moderate left and the moderate right, between the Democratic and Republican Parties. (Trump may be the exception in being far right.) Every four years there's a national "conversation" of sorts about who's going to live in the White House and make executive decisions and who's going to legislate in Congress. You couldn't come up with a better example to illustrate the idea of a civilian political see-saw than January 20, 2016, the day Barack Obama handed the civilian reins over to Donald Trump. Meanwhile, over those same 70 years, the National Security State (as an institution led by the Pentagon) has existed as a steadily ascending through-line leading to today's post-9/11 world. Our imperial military has been, and remains, virtually untouchable through the electoral process that chooses civilian leadership. Just like assault weapons on a small scale, the National Security State thrives beyond the reach of American politics. In my mind, White House Chief of Staff and former four-star Marine General John Kelly resides in this protected zone as a power behind the civilian throne -- there looking out for Pentagon interests and there in case the gasoline tank goes up in a fireball. It's also good to remember that Donald Trump was groomed in military school, where he thrived. He clearly didn't wish to go to Vietnam, but military discipline has been good for his self-aggrandizement. Thus, real combat leaders may hold a unique sway over The Donald.
When Kelly was pulled from Homeland Security into the chaotic Trump White House to replace the ineffectual Reince Priebus, it was like Randolph Scott had ridden in to tame a wild-and-wooly town. Since his arrival, he's made two things clear: one, he feels the US military is sacrosanct and beyond questioning, and two, he's in full synch with Trump's nostalgic sentiments that incorporate white supremacist instincts.
The October 19, 2017 press conference Kelly gave focused on the death of Sergeant La David Johnson in Niger was a revelatory moment. Kelly -- who lost his oldest son Robert to a landmine in Afghanistan and has a second son now deployed with the Marines -- opened his heart before the press corps. What he revealed was dark.
The issue was President Trump's phone call to Johnson's widow, who was on a cell phone in a car with family and friends, including old friend Congresswoman Frederica Wilson who was later critical of the president for what the widow felt was insensitivity. The call was on speakerphone in the car. During the press conference, Kelly detailed the steps a fallen soldier's body goes through from battlefield to burial. He then spun off into elegy over the decline of a sense of sacredness for our military in American life. In this mood, he trashed Rep. Wilson and spread falsehoods about her speech dedicating an FBI building in her district. He called her "an empty barrel" -- ie. when you beat on a barrel it's loudest when empty. He ended the meeting by only accepting questions from reporters who (claimed) they knew a fallen hero or a gold star relative.
There are other indications of his power within the White House, such as when a Fox News reporter asked him something about policy and he replied this way: "I made the decision to do such-and-such . . ." He pauses and continues: ". . . the president made the decision to do such-and such . . . " The ex-Nixon dirty trickster Roger Stone, who Kelly blocked from Trump access, is cited in Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House as telling people, "Mattis, McMaster and Kelly had agreed that no military action would ever be taken unless the three were in accord -- and that at least one of them would always remain in Washington if the others were away." The New York Times reports that Kelly vetoed a military style "red team, blue team" debate over climate change that was supported by Trump. The purpose of such a public debate was to raise doubt and uncertainty about climate change, thus further muddying the waters around a scientific fact. While it's a political football among civilians like EPA Director Scott Pruitt, at the Pentagon climate change is not denied. If humans are wreaking havoc on Mother Earth, it will contribute to destabilization, making it a National Security State problem. Denying climate change to liberate industry for reasons of profit is to ignore a national security issue.
Masha Gessen wrote about this press conference in The New Yorker in a piece titled "John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup." It put the word coup into the discussion over the Trump White House. Gessen's point is, "The [October 19th] press briefing could serve as a preview of what a military coup in this country would look like." She lists four "arguments" in support of her charge concerning the press conference:
1) "Those who criticize the President don't know what they're talking about because they haven't served in the military."
2) "The President did the right thing because he did exactly what his general told him to do."
3) "Communication between the President and a military widow is no one's business but theirs."
4) "Citizens are ranked based on their proximity to dying for their country."
Gessen was raised in Russia and fled to the US for political reasons. As editor of a Russian magazine, she called attention to herself by refusing to send a photographer and reporter to cover Vladimir Putin flying in a light aircraft with cranes. Gessen is provocative. She's a masculine-looking lesbian with children who is opposed to marriage of any kind. She writes about being indoctrinated to worship the Russian military. "All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom," she says. Given the much-talked-about rise of authoritarianism around the world and the narcissist Trump's inclinations in this area, the failure of democracy has become part of our reality. Military elitism and martyrdom go hand-in-hand with such inclinations. In a recent video from Russia's RT shows Turkey's authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pulling a little girl in uniform from the audience and making a big snow of her as a future martyr. Gessen is like Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the sense she was a critic of Russian political culture who emigrated to the US, where she became critical of US politics and culture. She was awarded the 2017 National Book Award for The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia.
Gessen obviously generates criticism. The editors of a pro-military website called This Ain't Hell (but you can see it from here), which features a large "Stolen Valor" section devoted to "outing" phony veterans, ridiculed Gessen's use of the term coup by citing the fact civilian rule is clearly set out in the US Constitution. "[A] military coup would violate the tenets of the Constitution," they wrote. "[B]ut media goofballs like Gessen haven't read the Constitution, so they wouldn't know that. If ever there is going to be coup, it would have happened while President Obama was dismantling the Defense Department." Beyond the dumb Obama crack, it's hard to disagree with this statement. A military coup would be a violation of the US Constitution. That was Gessen's implied point.