Every Veterans Day, my social media feeds fill with military content—photos of men and women I served with, decked out in various uniforms and reflecting on their pride in service and love of country. On Wednesday, those posts were interrupted by another kind of military content: news that Trump had installed loyalists in several top Pentagon positions, in an apparent bid to consolidate control of the armed forces. The irony—selfless service and service to self, juxtaposed—was palpable.
Perspectives in the media on what exactly Trump is up to range from petulant tantrum-throwing to a desire by the president to firm his grip on an instrument of federal power as he continues to reject his election defeat by former vice president Joe Biden. It started Monday, with the abrupt ouster, via Twitter, of Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Esper is reported to have been at odds with the president for months, in part because of his disagreement with Trump over the use of active-duty troops to quell racial justice protests this summer. His firing nevertheless marked a remarkable fall from the president’s graces for a person whose reputation in the White House of being dependably agreeable earned him the nickname “Yesper.” He is replaced in an acting capacity by Christopher Miller, previously the director of the National Counterterrorism Center and now the fifth person to serve under Trump in the Pentagon’s highest office.
Esper’s dismissal further prompted a spate of high-level resignations in the Defense Department, and on Tuesday the president filled the vacancies with political operatives and loyalists. One, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, is 34 years old; he replaces Joseph Kernan, a retired three-star admiral and Navy SEAL, as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
“No one has seen anything like this,” Martha Raddatz said Tuesday on ABC News. “Is the president planning a military operation or the use of federal troops, which Esper opposed?” The journalist David Sirota was more explicit in his concern, suggesting that Trump is posturing for “a coup.”
Fears that Trump might attempt a coup are not unfounded. This is hardly the first time he’s experimented with dictator-like behavior, and one anonymous White House official told The Washington Post on Tuesday that the president has stated repeatedly that “most of the military is Republican and will support him.” But as a former military officer myself, I find it hard to imagine that Trump will be able to bend the armed forces to his will.
For one thing, the military might historically trend conservative, but most of the military does not expressly support Trump. An August Military Times poll—not that we should be particularly enamored of polls right now—found that Trump’s approval among active-duty service members has fallen considerably during his time in office, from 46 to 38 percent, and that more service members polled intended to vote for Biden than for him. As media commentators rediscovered of many groups this election cycle, the military is not a monolith.
But forget partisan sensibilities. The main reason we’re unlikely to see the military take part in a coup is because of who the military is. When headlines warn of a military takeover, it seems like people with little personal experience of the military imagine “the troops” as snapping dogs raring to get off-leash. That describes literally no one I ever met in seven years of service, including on deployments to Afghanistan, East Africa, and elsewhere.
As Wednesday’s cascade of Veterans Day social posts reminded me, the military is composed of all kinds of Americans, from all corners of the country and every background you could imagine. Their reasons for service are diverse—for many, the military is a can’t-miss escalator to the middle class—but the vast majority of service members wear their uniform with dignity and humility. The president might try repeatedly to drag them into the political mud—for his much-desired capital parade; when he deployed troops to the southern border; or this summer in Washington, D.C., when he ordered the National Guard, along with police, to beat back protesters in Lafayette Square—but most service members I know take pride in the military’s tradition of nonpartisanship. Their service is to this country, not to party, nor to this president.
Are there some in the ranks who would follow Trump straight to hell? Of course. Those kinds of people exist everywhere. But for the president to wield the military as an instrument of domestic power, it would take senior leaders and operational commanders all across the armed services to go along. Yes, the president is commander in chief of the armed forces, but service members swear their oaths first and foremost to the Constitution—and officers in particular are obligated by their oaths to refuse unlawful or immoral orders.
In other words, it was never Esper alone, or Jim Mattis before him, who stood in the way of Trump’s autocratic impulses. And if the president believes a shake-up in the Pentagon is all it will take to let him do as pleases with the military, he has another thing coming. His Pentagon allies are unlikely to find a cadre of sycophants among the generals and admirals like the one Trump has assembled in the White House.
None of this is to say that Trump’s maneuvering should be taken lightly. As many in the media have observed, a presidential transition is a sensitive time, and tumult at the top of the armed forces could have serious national security consequences. (An insufficient turnover between the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations was cited in the 9/11 Commission Report as a factor in America’s unpreparedness for the attacks on September 11, 2001.) Moreover, Trump’s moves this week are yet another alarm bell signaling America’s would-be descent into authoritarianism. Already, Trump has a loyalist in place as the director of national intelligence, former Texas congressman John Ratcliff, who has used his position to spin narratives in the president’s favor and contradict his own intelligence community’s assessments regarding foreign interference in US elections. And it seems likely Trump will move soon to unseat Gina Haspel, director of the CIA, and Christopher Wray, director of the FBI.
This subversion of democracy before our eyes is frightening, to be sure. Fears that the military will aid the president’s power grab, though, are misplaced. Trump might stand defiantly against the American people, but the military that I know will not.