Magazine article The Spectator

General Rule: Why Trump Loves a Military Man

Magazine article The Spectator

General Rule: Why Trump Loves a Military Man

Article excerpt

Trump hasn't 'drained the swamp' - he's put the military in charge of it

Dwight Eisenhower was right to warn Americans in 1961 of the 'military industrial complex', but perhaps it is now the only thing that stands between the US and chaos. The new White House chief of staff, General John F. Kelly, is the third general Donald Trump has appointed to his cabinet. Kelly is already getting a good press for introducing military discipline and order to the Trump White House. His first move was to fire the attention-grabbing billionaire Anthony Scaramucci as head of communications, and he's said to have told even members of Trump's family that they must book 'face time' with the President through him. Is this another sign that the military men and the grown-ups are taking over, since the rest of Trump's team appear so spectacularly ill-suited to high office?

Eisenhower was a general, not a scholar. Yet his ideas about America's drift towards anti-democratic rule were very much in line with those of the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose 1956 book The Power Elite described the architecture of American power as it had evolved during and just after the second world war. His exploration of how things worked in the Age of Eisenhower helps us understand why just about nothing seems to work in the Age of Trump.

Its acid tone ('Blessed are the cynical, for only they have what it takes to succeed') is at least as suited to 2017 as it was to the 1950s. Mills loved to skewer any depictions of postwar America as an exemplar of democracy -- he knew that plain folk recognised bunk when they saw it. The people 'feel that they live in a time of big decisions', he wrote. 'They know that they are not making any.' As a result, they were 'without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power'. He might have been describing the convictions that prompted voters to back Trump.

In the 1950s, big decisions were made exclusively by members of what Mills called 'the three domains of power', that is 'the warlords, the corporate chieftains, [and] the political directorate'. This interlocking, self-perpetuating group were 'the power elite of America'. They called the shots, reaped most of the rewards and let others foot the bill. Vowing to 'drain the swamp', Candidate Trump gave the distinct impression that he intended to dismantle this tripartite elite. With him as their champion, the people rather than the establishment would rule. This implicit promise won votes.

Yet President Trump seems to be following a different course. Rather than dismantling the power elite, he seems intent on preserving it, albeit in modified form. He still has a low regard for the political apparat: the two main parties; Congress; members of the bureaucracy. But senior military officers and successful corporate executives are the kind of people he admires, trusts and leaves to run things while he tends to his Twitter account and flings insults at adversaries, real or imagined.

So contrary to liberal fears, Trump turns out not to be a proto-fascist. He is not going to establish a police state. He evinces virtually no interest in ideology. Nor does he have any worldview beyond a concern for protecting, or better still embellishing, the Trump brand. Devoid of anything approximating an actual political conviction, Trump is, in an odd sense, almost apolitical. …

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