It is not surprising that retired Army BGen. Anthony Tata was nominated by Donald Trump as undersecretary of defense for policy at the Pentagon, the third-highest political posting in the military. Tata has a habit of incendiary and bigoted tweeting in a Trumpian fashion. He claimed that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim and a “Manchurian candidate” and that Representative Maxine Waters is a “vicious race baiting racist.”
Tata’s nomination is currently in trouble after a CNN report on these comments. Three senior retired officers are rescinding the support they previously gave to Tata. As The New York Times reports, “Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the former head of the Central Command; Gen. Tony Thomas, the former head of the Special Operations Command; and Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, a former top Air Force general, have asked that their names be removed from a letter sent by 35 former senior officials to the Senate Armed Services Committee in support of General Tata.”
The controversy over Tata is one of series of cases where Trump’s relationship with the Pentagon has come under strain. The topic of racism is proving to be particularly contentious.
The American military prizes its reputation for being apolitical, although in reality it has always had methods for pushing its agenda. Trump’s presidency has been particularly challenging because of his unorthodox management style. This has arguably helped strengthen the power of the Pentagon. With Trump lacking either the policy knowledge or the staff loyalists needed to implement his vision of the world, the Pentagon has effectively thwarted, for good or ill, his attempts to set a new course on NATO, Russia, Syria, and North Korea. The powers of bureaucratic inertia have, in general, defeated any Trumpian revolution in policy.
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But Trump hasn’t given up trying to tame the military, which he views as his special toy box. As an aspiring authoritarian, Trump loves to surround himself with soldiers and tout how the troops and generals love him. In actuality, Trump has a net unfavorable rating among the active-duty military. A poll from last December gave him 42 percent support as against 50 percent disapproval—low figures for a Republican president.
One flashpoint of controversy is Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, who testified in the impeachment hearings. Vindman’s promotion in the military has stalled because of political pressure from the White House.
This interference is causing a crisis in relations between the Pentagon and the White House. “The Pentagon is facing a hemorrhage of talent as senior officials resign amid continued efforts by the White House to purge those perceived as political foes, including the Army lieutenant colonel who testified in the House impeachment hearings,” reports the Times. “The challenge of managing White House pressures and concerns about morale inside the Pentagon confronts Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, who is already in a precarious position with President Trump.”
The Vindman imbroglio grows out of Trump’s anger over impeachment, but there are other sources of friction, especially since concerns over institutional racism have come to the fore in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
Esper initially got into trouble with Trump by opposing sending active-duty military troops to quell protesters. In early June, Esper also announced, with Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, that the military was open to renaming military bases that currently honor Confederate leaders. Again, this created a conflict with Trump. As Politico reported on June 10, “President Donald Trump shocked senior Pentagon leaders on Wednesday with a series of tweets opposing the renaming of Army installations named after Confederate generals, just two days after top military leaders opened the door to doing so.”
Butting heads with Trump hasn’t stopped Esper from trying to tackle racism. Last Thursday, Esper announced plans to create two groups in the Pentagon to tackle diversity challenges and systematic racism. Although 43 percent of the active-duty military is nonwhite, that figure drops to 23 percent in the officer corps. “We are not immune to the forces of bias and prejudice—whether visible or invisible, conscious or unconscious,” Esper said.
The military has also made a noticeable attempt in recent weeks to crack down on white supremacy in the ranks. On Monday, federal authorities announced the arrest of Pvt. Ethan Melzer on grounds of allegedly leaking information to the Order of Nine Angels, a neo-Nazi group, and also allegedly plotting to kill his fellow soldiers.
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On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that Shandon Simpson, a private in the Ohio National Guard, is being processed for removal from the military because of pro-Nazi messages he had posted on social media. According to the newspaper, “On Twitter, Simpson tried to recruit fascists to join him in a new group, used an image of Nazi Party leader Richard Walther Darré as his profile picture and marked the 75th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s death on April 30.” Simpson wrote, “I pay respects to [Hitler] as a martyr who died in Berlin completely unwilling to capitulate.” Simpson was part of the military contingent that Trump deployed on the streets of Washington. Last year, the military investigated and administratively removed another soldier, Pvt. Corwyn Storm Carver, over his membership in a neo-Nazi group.
While these efforts are admirable, it’s not clear how convincingly the military can clean house as long as Trump is president. Trump’s racism may seem milder than that of the neo-Nazis, but he, too, is trying to gin up a race war. As commander in chief, Trump has the ability to elevate bigots like Tata (who has gained prominence, even if he loses his nomination), to thwart efforts at reform, and to normalize the language of military strife as a way of arguing against challenges to racism.
On Thursday Trump tweeted, “Black Lives Matter leader states, ‘If U.S. doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it’. This is Treason, Sedition, Insurrection!” Esper and career military will resist Trump’s efforts to use troops to crush Black Lives Matter, but they can’t stop Trump from expressing the idea and making it common currency among Republicans.
Progressives are often heartened by examples of military resistance to Trump, but we have to be clear-eyed as to their limits. The only true solution to Trump remains the political one of removal by the ballot box.
Jeet HeerJeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent at The Nation and the author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014).