Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The ‘Khakistocracy’ Tries to Save America

This could be the beginning of the change of American democracy not to illiberalism, but to enlightenment.
June 5, 2020
The ‘Khakistocracy’ Tries to Save America
Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis listens during his confirmation hearing July 27, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In the past few days, 16 stars-worth of retired flag and general officers have taken to the pages of prominent websites to voice their opposition to President Donald J. Trump’s conduct in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and subsequent protests in cities across America. Together they constitute an unprecedented chorus of criticism of a sitting president by a group who used to be the highest-ranking members of the U.S. military. But will their collective opining shift the political calculus in any way or simply become another data point around the common assertion that the nation is intractably divided along party lines?

The sequence of events that compelled all four—a de facto intellectual “khakistocracy”—to put pen to paper in rapid succession started on June 1 with a peaceful protest a block away from the White House. That protest was violently dispersed by D.C. police on horseback, Arlington County Police in full riot garb wielding batons and shields, Secret Service and Park Police officers, and a phalanx of National Guardsmen along H Street chucking smoke grenades and “flash-bangs” into marchers caught totally off-guard by the rapid shift in law enforcement tactics. Several protesters and members of the media, including an Australian crew, were assaulted during the chaos.

About 20 minutes later, the reason for the heavy-handed police action was revealed as POTUS strolled off the White House grounds and across Lafayette Square for a photo op that featured him holding a Bible aloft in front of the boarded-up windows of historic St. John’s Church. Trump passed through a gauntlet of cops during the short trips to and from the White House, leading an entourage that included Jared, Ivanka (who carried the prop Bible in a $1,500 handbag), the press secretary, and the attorney general. And also in the official party were the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, corpulence wrapped in his battledress cammies.

The spectacle was too much for the four retired officers—not just Trump jeopardizing the safety of law-abiding Americans in service of a stunt, but also the apparent willingness of the Pentagon’s two ranking officials, civilian and uniformed, to take part in the charade.

On June 2, Mike Mullen struck first in a piece titled “I Cannot Remain Silent” in The Atlantic. The retired four-star Navy admiral and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (under both Bush 43 and Obama) writes, “I remain confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform. They will serve with skill and with compassion. They will obey lawful orders. But I am less confident in the soundness of the orders they will be given by this commander in chief. . . . Furthermore, I am deeply worried that as they execute their orders, the members of our military will be co-opted for political purposes.”

In a statement cross-posted by The Atlantic a day after the Mullen op-ed went live there, Jim Mattis, a retired four-star Marine Corps general and former secretary of defense under Trump, writes, “When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”

That same day, Jim Stavridis published an editorial at Time titled “The U.S. Military Must Stand Up for Its Soul in This Moment.” There, the retired four-star Navy admiral and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander writes, “Our senior active duty military leaders must make that case forcefully and directly to national leadership, speaking truth to power in uncomfortable ways. They must do this at the risk of their career. I hope they will do so, and not allow the military to be dragged into the maelstrom that is ahead of us, and which will likely only accelerate between now and November. If they do not stand and deliver on this vital core value, I fear for the soul of our military and all of the attendant consequences. We cannot afford to have a future Lafayette Square end up looking like Tiananmen Square.”

And still later that same day, retired four-star Marine Corps General John Allen, who commanded the International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, published a piece at Foreign Policy—the longest and arguably the most compelling essay of the four—titled “A Moment of National Shame and Peril—and Hope.” Allen starts by framing his concerns in dire terms: “The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020. Remember the date. It may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”

Allen’s argument continues with a savage critique of Trump’s judgment and his phenomenon as he writes, “[The President] sees the crisis as a black problem—not as something to be addressed by creating the basis and impetus for a move toward social justice, but as an opportunity to use force to portray himself as a ‘law and order’ president. The reasons were irrelevant to the opportunity. Remember the supposed invasion of the southern border and his deployment of federal troops ahead of the 2018 midterm elections? The president’s failure to understand the reality of the problem was on full display when, on Saturday, he attempted to explain that his supporters, the so-called Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, ‘love African American people. They love black people. MAGA loves the black people.’ Evidently his movement, MAGA, is a coherent thing, and it’s white . . .”

Mullen, Mattis, Stavridis, and Allen aren’t the first retired generals or admirals to openly criticize the current commander-in-chief, but they are the highest ranking to do it in writing. And their coincident timing has created a unified front unlike anything the nation’s volatile dialectic has had to react to, pro or con, in the era of Trump. But who might they influence?

Certainly not Republican lawmakers. Their only response this week was to scurry past Capitol Hill reporters in fear that if they attempted to answer questions in even the most cryptic terms, they’d face Trump’s wrath. (See “Murkowski, Lisa” for more on this.) The GOP’s unwillingness to counter the President in any way is why the khakistocracy has emerged in the first place.

And certainly not Donald Trump. The commander-in-tweet immediately took to Twitter like the counterpuncher his supporters unconditionally idolize, first dusting off his “overrated general” label for Mattis, and then dragging his former chief of staff John Kelly—another retired Marine Corps four-star—into the fray, asserting in a subsequent tweet that “he was totally exhausted by the job and in the end just slinked away into obscurity.” (Not exactly “thank you for your service, general.”)

But, of course, none of the four is naïve enough to believe he could actually influence Trump. In spite of their direct charges against POTUS, their petitions weren’t for him. No, their editorials were directed at those who hold the positions they once did—the current secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and America’s voters. At this writing, while the first two have equivocated, one verbally (“I didn’t know where I was going,” Secretary Esper offered to NBC News when asked about Trump’s Bible stunt) and the other in the form of a letter to the troops reminding them of their duty to the Constitution, neither has had the honor or dignity to resign his post. It doesn’t look like there were any hearts and minds won on that front.

As far as the voters go, we already know, based on previous presidential lunacy, that 35 percent of them will support Trump regardless of what he says or does and the high-minded words of four officer-types isn’t going to change that one bit. However, the rest of the electorate is in play. That’s where the hope for a return to the ideals they spent their lives defending lives for these four retired officers.

General Allen ends his essay with a question and a call to action rendered in the clearest of terms: “So, what is to be done? At nearly the same moment that Americans were being beaten near the White House on behalf of their president, George Floyd’s brother Terrence Floyd visited the site of George’s murder. Overcome with grief and anger, he loudly upbraided the crowd for tarnishing his brother’s memory with violence and looting. And then he told Americans what to do: vote. ‘Educate yourselves,’ he said, ‘there’s a lot of us.’ So, while June 1 could easily be confused with a day of shame and peril if we listen to Donald Trump, if instead we listen to Terrence Floyd, it is a day of hope. So mark your calendars—this could be the beginning of the change of American democracy not to illiberalism, but to enlightenment. But it will have to come from the bottom up. For at the White House, there is no one home.”

Ward Carroll

Ward Carroll flew F-14 Tomcats for fifteen years after graduating from the Naval Academy. He was named Naval Institute Press Author of the Year in 2001 for his debut novel Punk's War. He is also the author of Punk's Fight and Punk's Wing. He was also the editor of the military websites and We Are the Mighty.