Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The president who wanted Nazi generals

By Tom Nichols, The Atlantic

Americans should not let the revelations about Donald Trump’s demands for a loyal military get lost in all the hysteria over the raid at Mar-a-Lago.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

A Dangerous Gambit

Donald Trump wearing a red tie and American flag pin
Donald Trump at CPAC on August 6. (Brandon Bell / Getty)

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The FBI raided Donald Trump’s home in Florida, but we don’t know why. Early reports suggest a link to Trump’s alleged removal of classified material from the White House, but until we know more, there is no point in speculating on why the Justice Department has taken the remarkable step of searching the home of a former president. Republicans, of course, are now screaming that the FBI must be destroyed. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has gone so far as to suggest that federal agents planted evidence in Trump’s Florida manse; so much for the GOP as the party of “law and order.”

Investigating a former president and tossing his residence is a massive step, and normally, most Americans would, I assume, be reluctant to even consider it. But Trump, both in and out of office, effectively lives as a mafia don, thumbing his nose at the laws he was supposed to execute and the Constitution he was supposed to protect. He destroyed the norms that might have given him the benefit of the doubt now, leaving the rest of us to make a simple argument: No one is above the law.

And that includes the commander in chief. The raid on Citizen Trump is high drama, but I fear that the news from Florida is overwhelming an even more shocking story about President Trump and the American military. Law enforcement in the United States has always been an imperfect patchwork of fine departments and corrupt backwaters, of dedicated public servants and dangerous cowboys. But through it all, we have always been able to count on the armed forces of the United States as the apolitical and steady defenders of the American nation.

Trump wanted to change that and turn the military into his own praetorian guard. In an except from a forthcoming book, the journalists Susan Glasser and Peter Baker reveal an exchange between Trump and his then-chief of staff, John Kelly:

“You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?”

“Which generals?” Kelly asked.

“The German generals in World War II,” Trump responded.

“You do know that they tried to kill Hitler three times and almost pulled it off?” Kelly said.

Trump refused to believe Kelly: “No, no, no, they were totally loyal to him,” he replied. “In his version of history,” Glasser and Baker write, “the generals of the Third Reich had been completely subservient to Hitler; this was the model he wanted for his military.”

Let us leave aside the problem that Donald Trump might be the most intellectually limited and willfully ignorant man ever to sit in the Oval Office. Still, we must ask: Nazis?

Donald Trump’s role models for the men and women of the finest military of the most successful democracy on Earth were … who? Wilhelm Keitel or Alfred Jodl, both of whom were hanged at Nuremberg? Wilhelm Canaris or Friedrich Olbricht, who were also executed—but by the Nazis for plotting to kill Hitler? Trump has a simplistic belief that the Nazis were effective, efficient, and loyal. (This is an old trope about the Nazis that even pops up in the original Star Trek series: Spock, in a 1968 episode, affirms that the Nazis ran the most efficient state in Earth’s history, which is historical nonsense.)

We should not console ourselves that Trump failed in this effort. It’s too easy, now, to say that “the system worked” or the “guardrails held.” Glasser and Baker point out that Trump, almost from his first days in office, started searching for “his generals,” the men—always men—whose loyalty would transcend trifling documents such as the Constitution of the United States. This is how Trump’s administration ended up infested with people such as Michael Flynn, Anthony Tata, and Douglas Macgregor—all retired military officers, political extremists, and crackpots. Fortunately, Trump failed to find senior officers still in uniform who would bend to his wishes—but mostly, it seems, because he ran out of time.

Trump will continue his war on the FBI as part of his ongoing struggle against democracy and the rule of law. But his attempt to corrupt the U.S. military—which, in the event of a national crisis, foreign or domestic, is the final line of defense for our system of government—was a vastly more dangerous gambit, and one we should not forget in the midst of the current scrum.

Related:

Today’s News

  1. The House committee investigating January 6 met with Douglas V. Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania who was heavily involved in plans to manipulate the presidential election in that state. It also plans to meet with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
  2. Serena Williams announced her retirement from tennis in an essay in Vogue.
  3. Polls have closed in Kenya’s presidential election, a race that’s expected to be very close. The stakes of the election are high, with the country suffering an economic crisis and a drought.

Dispatches

Evening Read

Illustration showing a picture of a wildfire in the woods overlaid with a polaroid of schoolgirls wearing yellow uniforms. The polaroid is burnt, so the faces of most of the girls are not visible. (Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty)

The Camp Fire Teens Are Adults Now

Katie Elder got just a few normal months of high school before the fire came.

It was early November of 2018, her freshman year. Her mom woke her up around 7 a.m., and Katie began to get ready for what she thought would be a normal school day. Then they stepped outside and saw an orange sky. She felt the wind gust.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

A woman in a kerchief and red bikini reads a book on a beach.
(Martin Parr / Magnum)

Read. The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, leans into drama and fun while also asking meaty questions.

Or try something else from our list of 12 books to help you love reading again.

Watch. Hit the Road (available to stream on multiple platforms) initially presents as a gentle comedy about an Iranian family on a road trip—and then goes much deeper.

Play our daily crossword.

P.S.

While writing about American civil-military relations today, I was struck, as I always am, by how few really good pieces of fiction there are about that subject. I do not mean works about the military itself, but about the political role of the armed forces. (The classic Seven Days in May, both the 1962 novel and the 1964 movie, is the honorable exception, but the 1992 remake was a dud.) Pop culture reflects our anxieties, so perhaps this lack shows how much we take for granted the political stability of the American military. But one small gem about the military—and loyalty and service specifically—is worth another look: Taps, a 1981 film about an uprising at a small U.S. military academy, with a cast of young stars including Tim Hutton, Tom Cruise, and Sean Penn. (But don’t overlook Ronny Cox in a nicely restrained performance as the National Guard colonel sent in to take back the school.) It’s a small movie about a big subject, and it still packs a punch more than 40 years later.

— Tom

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