Many unnerving tragedies have occurred since George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis policeman on May 25. Police frequently attacked and injured journalists covering the resulting protests – President Trump called for federal troops to police American cities – federal officers cleared the way for a Trump photo op by using tear gas and rubber bullets to push peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Square – and coronavirus deaths exceeded 110,000, partially due to Trump’s incompetent response to the pandemic.
In this time of uncertainty and chaos, Americans are crying out for a hero who will speak truth to power. They yearn for a voice that can’t be stilled by a nasty, threatening Trump tweet. Then, just when it seemed as if stalwarts like that were AWOL in the Trump era, former Defense secretary and retired Gen. James Mattis rose to the occasion. Last week his stinging rebuke of the president entitled, “In Union There Is Strength” was published by The Atlantic magazine.
The U.S. military is supposed to be a nonpartisan national defense force, which should not be used against Americans. It appears that Mattis was angered by the sight of Defense Secretary Mark Esper and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley – in battlefield camouflage – walking across Lafayette Square with Trump for his photo op with a Bible.
After accusing the president of trying to divide the American people instead of trying to unite them, Mattis admonished “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.” He added. “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
This powerful, unprecedented condemnation of the commander in chief by a well-respected retired Marine general required a response from politicians of both parties. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who has effusively praised Mattis in the past, chastised the general for these statements. So did several other GOP senators who were once huge Mattis fans, although most of their colleagues tried desperately to avoid commenting. Democrats, as you might expect, lauded Mattis for his bold, forthright critique.
A few Republicans, however, were not so quick to take the former secretary of Defense to task, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee for president and frequent Trump critic. He called Mattis a “wonderful man.” “Gen. Mattis’ letter was stunning and powerful. Gen. Mattis is a man of extraordinary sacrifice. He’s an American patriot. He’s an individual whose judgment I respect, and I think the world of him,” Romney said.
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Mattis’ statement was “overdue” and that she was “very thankful” he had made it. When asked if she intended to support Trump’s reelection she said, “I’m struggling with it”. She added that she found the statement by former President George W. Bush on Floyd’s death and the resulting protests, “empowering.”
While Bush decried the violence and looting, he said, “It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future.” Also, “Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.”
Mattis isn’t the only Trump critic from the military and defense establishment. In a Washington Post op-ed, four former secretaries of Defense joined 85 other Democratic and Republican Defense officials in criticizing the president for his use of the military in responding to protests over Floyd’s murder. They wrote, “We are alarmed at how the president is betraying this oath [to defend the Constitution] by threatening to order members of the U.S. military to violate the rights of their fellow Americans.”
Retired ADM Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired ADM William H. McRaven, who directed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, retired Marine Gen. John Allen and numerous other retired military officers have spoken out in support of Mattis and frequently against the president. “President Trump has shown he doesn’t have the qualities necessary to be a good commander in chief,” said McRaven, which sums up the opinions of many others. I don’t think Trump tweets will silence or diminish any of these men.
The U.S. military is one of the few government institutions that is still respected by the majority of Americans. Fortunately, it has so far managed to stay mostly nonpartisan under the heavy hand of a president who demands absolute loyalty from all who serve him and claims that the Constitution gives him the power to do anything he wants to.
No doubt, Trump’s power is based on his enablers’ fear of retribution. He’s a bully, quick to ridicule and punish those who challenge him. The bipartisan support for Mattis’ statements, however, indicates Trump has finally gone too far. His grip on the GOP has been weakened and his threats to this nation and its Constitution have been laid bare.
The late political scientist Gene Sharp once wrote: “Obedience is at the heart of political power.” Now, high level, virtually unassailable officials are refusing to obey Trump and that number could grow. Large, diverse groups of Americans are nonviolently protesting police brutality and Trump’s agenda. This two-level pushback demonstrates that Americans aren’t about to yield when faced with this president’s authoritarian tactics. These, I believe, will be the keys to toppling Trump’s regime in November.