You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Generals Won’t Save Democracy

Reporting revealing that top military officials were prepared to resign to defy Trump shouldn’t make us feel better about the the state of U.S. institutions.

Trump shakes hands with General Mark Milley
Trump shakes hands with General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, in November 2019.

More than six months after the attempted insurrection at the United States Capitol, we’re still learning about how close the country came to a full-blown coup. On Wednesday, early reviews of I Alone Can Fix It, a new book from Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker documenting Donald Trump’s tumultuous final year in office, revealed that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and other top generals were actively preparing to prevent Donald Trump from unlawfully seizing power in the aftermath of his electoral loss.

The book, as reported by CNN, reveals Milley’s growing discomfort as Trump installed loyalists in key Pentagon positions and details how he and other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had “discussed a plan to resign, one-by-one, rather than carry out orders from Trump that they considered to be illegal, dangerous or ill-advised.” 

“They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed,” the book recounts Milley telling his deputies. “You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.” At another moment he reportedly told them, “This is a Reichstag moment.… The gospel of the Führer.” 

Susan Glasser in The New Yorker reported on Friday that Milley reached out not just to his fellow generals but congressional leaders in both parties and the incoming Biden administration to reassure them that the military would not obey any unlawful commands from Trump. “Our loyalty is to the U.S. Constitution,” Milley said, according to Glasser. “We are not going to be involved in politics.”

Milley’s account should be taken with a grain of salt. Becoming a primary source for reporters in exchange for reputation laundering—particularly useful after serving a chaotic and lawless administration—is one of the oldest tricks in Washington. (Milley had previously been criticized for his participation in the clearing of Lafayette Square Park last summer.) Milley will be retiring soon, and I Alone Can Fix It will serve as documentation of his being on the right side of history. 

It is useful to know how concerned high government officials were in the aftermath of the election. (Trump’s denial, in which he said, “If I was going to do a coup, one of the last people I would want to do it with is General Mark Milley,” is not at all convincing.) And reporting about the events leading up to the storming of the Capitol in I Alone Can Fix It and other recent books gives a fuller, more troubling portrait of how narrowly disaster was averted. Milley allegedly thought Trump would create a crisis in order to invoke the Insurrection Act to cling to his office. The storming of the Capitol was very nearly just such a crisis. The unruly mob came within minutes of capturing or harming members of Congress or Mike Pence

But Milley’s macho chest-thumping—We’re the guys with the guns”—is hardly reassuring. Such a plan may have worked, but if generals defied the norm of civilian control of the military it would be literally a coup. And for all the anonymously sourced quotes we heard over the years about how administration officials were concerned about Trump’s behavior, who knows how they would have responded if Trump tried to leverage January 6 into a democracy-ending moment?

In any event, the current threat to democracy is not a rogue president issuing apocalyptic orders but the Republican Party leveraging its control of state legislatures to make it impossible for a Democrat to win the presidency.

GOP lawmakers  are passing draconian voter-restriction bills and, in some cases, attempting to give themselves authority they did not have in 2020 to overturn the election should a candidate make dubious accusations of “fraud.” 

Democrats do not currently seem to have a plan to combat Republican efforts to restrict the right to vote, beyond raising money to fund lawsuits and get-out-the-vote efforts. Because the Senate’s centrists are unwilling to touch the filibuster, voting rights legislation is all but dead. With the Supreme Court having gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act and Democrats consumed by inertia, Republicans are well positioned to steal the next presidential election. If that happens, officials like Milley will be doing what they did for most of the Trump presidency: They’ll be sitting and watching.

* This article has been updated to include the New Yorker report.