A Sick and Beleaguered Institution: The American Presidency
The Trump Presidency only highlighted long-simmering and tragic problems within our most respected institutions
Nearly eight months after the end of the Trump Presidency, details are still emerging regarding just how much danger we were all in. According to excerpts from a new book by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley was so shook by President Donald Trump’s erratic behavior and actions on January 6th, 2021, that he worried he might “go rogue” and order a nuclear strike. Gen. Milley took matters into his own hands, communicated his concerns with political leadership, and personally reached out to military brass in order to prevent the President of the United States from setting off nuclear Armageddon.
Let us look past, for a brief moment, the terrible irony of our journalists, politicians, and pundits continually telling us our fears regarding Trump, possible coups, and rising authoritarianism were unfounded and hysterical, even as evidence mounts that they were willfully delusional, and focus instead on this revelation. The Joint Chiefs Chairman, enabled by political leadership, moved beyond the purview of the President, who, under our laws, enjoys the sole responsibility for launching nuclear weapons, all in order to stave off a potential cataclysm.
This isn’t an anecdote. It’s not a simple story of “look how close we came.” This should be a moment of reckoning, of self-reflection in which we gaze upon the institution of the presidency, the American empire, the military-industrial complex, and nuclear weapons, tremble in dread, and work to secure some type of rational, improved system moving forward.
As has often been discussed here, Donald Trump was not the disease but merely a symptom. America’s institutions are rotted to their foundations, and this incident is only a warning that we must get our house in order while we still can.
Again and again, with the Trump Presidency, we have been treated to stories regarding the drastic measures individuals have gone to in order to protect the world from Donald Trump’s madness. The story of his presidency is one of America succumbing to its absolute worst tendencies, including swaggering ignorance, white supremacy, and consumerist vapidity, and an example of just how easily a position of power such as the presidency can fall into woefully inept and dangerous hands.
It took organized, soft coups to keep Trump within bounds, agreements between generals and staff and public servants to both color outside of the lines, overstep the Constitution and prescribed roles, all to ensure that Donald Trump, a stunningly inept and unmoored individual, would not guide the world into mass tragedy or unravel liberal democracy itself. The stories of these actions usually result in quips of “we dodged that bullet,” but should instead remind us how fragile this system truly is. And, unfortunately, what we have allowed the presidency to become.
The office of the President of the United States of America has long operated behind the veneer of competence. As the mythology of American Exceptionalism dictates, we are to believe that only the most competent and talented individuals can win election. This has gifted each occupant with a certain level of respect and deference by our media and political establishment, all while hiding the destructive machinations of megalomaniacs like Richard Nixon and the woeful ignorance of Ronald Reagan, a deference that Trump, with his buffoonery, was only afforded from time to time.
With the help of George W. Bush and, primarily, the neoconservatives surrounding him, the presidency grew in size and scope until it soon dwarfed the other branches of government and gained the unparalleled power, more or less, to declare war on the rest of the world. These abominable powers are horrors, but have persisted behind that mythology of exceptionalism and competence.
We are told, through means both subtle and overt, that we should not worry about the power of the presidency or American Empire. That we are in good hands.
Donald Trump and the actions taken by the powerful to contain him should serve as a wake-up call. Things are far from fine.
The Cold War is often framed as a defining chapter in human history, ending, of course, with the United States besting its adversary the Soviet Union and capitalism triumphing over communism. The truth is much more complicated. Standing now, feet firmly in the 21st century, it’s increasingly clear there was no winning the Cold War.
Of course, the clash of civilizations that was World War II ended with atomic fireballs, ushering in a new age of Mutually Assured Destruction and a nuclear standoff between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. To streamline defense capabilities, and permanently place the power within the “hands of the public,” the power to launch nuclear strikes was given to the President, who, from then on, held sole responsibility for the fate of the known world.
The Milley/Trump debacle is far from the first time such protocol has been breached. In a gin-soaked rage, Nixon once ordered the obliteration of North Korea, only for his subordinates to ignore his drunken orders and, ostensibly, save human civilization. Later, as he faced the walls closing in during the Watergate scandal, they, like Milley, made secret agreements to disobey his orders should his mental and emotional breakdown lead to the unthinkable.
These are the concealed consequences of American Empire, of hegemony in this modern age. We cannot afford to simply continue on under the auspices of this lie that has been so overtly exposed. Not with the technology and power to destroy the world several times over having no restraint whatsoever beyond military and political leaders taking matters into their own hands.
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One of Trump and his cronies’ favorite go-to’s is to lament the “Deep State,” a conspiracy theory that has taken the New World Order narrative that America is being undermined by foreign (Marxist-Jewish puppet masters) influences in league with liberal traitors within our borders, and given it a new coat of paint.
The Deep State story is absurd, but like most conspiracy theories there is a grain of truth around which the fantasy has been spun. In this case, it nods toward the military-industrial complex that enjoys unparalleled power and, more or less, the consensus support of both of our major parties. This is why military procedure has enjoyed relative stability through recent years, why there is little in the way of difference in how a Republican or Democratic president might operate in the realm of “defense”.
Running constantly in the background, the military-industrial complex has devoured trillions of our dollars, inspired a cult of militarism, and functioned as a redistribution of public wealth and energy from the grassroots to contractors, mercenaries, and manufacturers. It has stalled any and all progress, kept us from securing healthcare, infrastructure, education, or any of the projects necessary for a healthy, stable future, and damned Americans to lessened and shorter lives.
During the course of the War On Terror, this behemoth found ways to operate within over a hundred sovereign nations around the world, gobbled up incredible amounts of money and resources, and failed on every possible level to even achieve its stated goals. And yet, the operations continue. Their budget grows by leaps and bounds. And now, under the auspice of protecting America from presidents gone “rogue,” it has even begun to illegally grasp for itself control over nuclear armaments.
Like the growing, inextricable crises of climate catastrophe and white supremacy, it isn’t hard to gaze into the future and see the possibility for this technocratic war machinery to seize power for “the good” of the nation. This is, after all, the crux of QAnon, a conspiracy fever dream that fantasizes that “white-hat” military leaders will pull the country from the depths of crisis and restore its good name. Even Milley himself has contemplated the possibility of a coup, saying in his refutation that Trump might pull off a takeover that “You can’t do this without the military.”
What we are witnessing, now, as empire begins to seize and collapse, is a developing crisis that feels fated for tragedy with all the elements of massive conflict.
A military that has grown bloated and unbelievably powerful on generations’ of treasure and mythology.
An empire in vast decline and retreat belonging to a nation lost in its own lies.
Arms designed conquer the world or else reduce it to ashes.
We cannot simply watch these pieces merge as if watching a slow-motion disaster. We can recognize the disease, see it growing, mutating, and exposing its true rot as the illusions that enabled it flicker and die. We have to take precautions for the future. We cannot just simply wipe our brows and rejoice that we might have dodged a bullet.
Not when another bullet and another bullet and another and another are ready to fire.