The people, not the military, must protect democracy in America
Soldiers march toward the White House during a protest on June 6, 2020. Some retired military offices are calling on Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley to remove Trump from power by force if necessary. | AP

I am a U.S. military veteran and served in the army in the early 1990s, partly out of a belief in patriotic duty and partly out of need for G.I. Bill resources to attend college.

Having said this, I do not believe in the idea that a military veteran is a more “virtuous citizen” with a stronger claim to a civic voice than others. Virtuous citizens refuse to exploit or oppress others and join struggles against exploitation and oppression. Conscious working-class people, strugglers against racial, national, imperialist, and settler-colonial oppression, of all countries are virtuous citizens.

Still, a recent open letter by retired military officers to the top U.S. military official, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Milley, calling urgently for protection of the U.S. Constitutional system of government, demands comment.

The open letter is titled “…All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic,” and is authored by former army officers John Nagl and Paul Yingling. The title is drawn from the oath of office required Constitutionally of the President, most elected officials, and all military personnel upon entry into the service. The oath is a binding legal and moral act.

Gen. Mark Milley looks on as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus at the White House, April 1, 2020. Some retired officers are calling on Milley to use the military to remove Trump from office if he refuses to leave after an election loss. | Alex Brandon / AP

The open letter responds to Republican Party leader Donald Trump’s statement that he may refuse to leave office if the November election is unfavorable to him. When asked by a reporter if he would “commit to leaving office peacefully,” Trump replied, “we’re going to have to see what happens.”

Not only is Trump working to undermine the U.S. election, he is fighting to normalize the idea that he doesn’t have to recognize its outcome.

The title of the open letter implies that if Trump chooses to defy the election, he would become a “domestic” enemy of the people, requiring military action.

The body of the letter more explicitly addresses the top U.S. military officer, reminding him of his duty. “If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order.”

While the sentiment elicits sympathy, we should not let the capitalist class militarize the people’s fight for democracy. If members of the military want to join a people’s protest to demand that Trump turn himself in to authorities, we should welcome them.

The letter openly criticizes the decline of the legitimacy of state and ideological institutions under Trump since 2017. For example, it calls out Trump’s denunciation of the media as “fake news,” the terrible role of the Senate in protecting Trump during his impeachment trial, and his transformation of federal law enforcement into a “private army” to suppress the Black Lives Matter protests. They write, “America’s political and legal institutions have so atrophied that they are ill-prepared for this moment.”

I agree that a crisis of legitimacy has taken root in dominant U.S. social systems, which is why we need systemic community control of policing, democratic control through unions and workers’ associations of most workplaces, Constitutional guarantees of economic relief, healthcare, and educational access through college. We need to end the Trumpian tax system that sees real or fake billionaires pay less in income tax than what most people earn in a week in favor of progressive taxation that eliminates billionaires, and shifts power over wealth and income to the majority of the working people. We need to end a system that allows the military itself to siphon off from what should be a people’s budget the hundreds of billions of dollars that would be better spent on creating economic democracy across the nation.

The general’s call to defend the Constitutional system of government should not leave the Constitution as it is. Many of its provisions were put in place to defend the power of the capitalist (at its origins, the slave-owning) class from the majority of the people. The electoral college, the Senate, the 10th amendment, and the Supreme Court were all created as “checks and balances” to block the will of the mass of people. Those institutions have worked to slow or block anti-racist reforms, universal healthcare, empowering labor laws, and full citizenship rights for all.

The clearest evidence for this fact: these institutions gave two presidents, who rely on white supremacy to rule, the White House despite receiving fewer votes in the elections: Bush II and Trump.

The letter continues: in addition to the weakened legislative branch of government, Trump has worked to undermine the legitimacy of U.S. elections. He ordered the dismantling of many U.S. Postal Service functions, upon which the election system will depend during the pandemic. His nomination of an ultra-right loyalist to the Supreme Court, he has admitted, is an attempt to ensure that court battles contesting the election will result in his victory.

Trump has ignored the fate of those who have suffered and died due to the COVID-19 pandemic, downplaying its seriousness and shifting responsibility for it to anyone and everyone else. He has refused leadership of the economic crisis and has worried more about his private business interests and his slumping image.

Trump’s actions amount to the preparation for a “coup d’etat,” the letters’ authors say. They fear that if the top U.S. military commander refuses to uphold his oath to defend the Constitution after the election, he would be complicit in that coup.

Trump ally and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who allowed the U.S. Senate to become the administration’s tool during Trump’s impeachment trial, has promised Trump would peacefully transition. McConnell claimed that each presidential transition since the first presidency in 1792 has been peaceful.

In this June 6, 2020 photo, demonstrators walk on Pennsylvania Avenue as they protest the murder of George Floyd. A change of leadership can be forced at the ballot box, and should not rely on the military. | Andrew Harnik / AP

McConnell’s social media post on this matter, however, ignored the truth. During the 1861 presidential transition, the rebellious Confederate states refused to recognize Abraham Lincoln as president. Within weeks of the inauguration, they launched the U.S. Civil War that would ultimately see 650,000 people killed with millions more injured, sick, wounded, and displaced. In that action, the treasonous Confederacy, which Trump, not ironically, has expressed more enthusiasm and support for than the current system of government, sought to destroy this nation to defend their racist slave system.

These conditions caused scholar and activist Noam Chomsky, in a recent lecture for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, to characterize the crisis as “the most remarkable moment in history.” Chomsky described the present conditions as “ominous” and placing at risk “far more than the American experiment,” a reference to the U.S. constitutional system. Chomsky said the world’s safety and health depend on the outcome of these events.

Chomsky sees Trump as more than a danger to American workers and people. Trump is leading the formation of a right-wing authoritarian international that includes the racist-chauvinist regimes in Hungary, India, the authoritarian kingdoms of the Middle East, the right-wing colonialist regime in Israel, the authoritarian-chauvinist regime in Brazil, and others. This danger has brought the entire world to the edge of violent disaster.

This is no exaggeration. Trump has dragged the U.S. to this dangerous precipice. Those who wish to defend democracy must vote on November 3rd, but must also be prepared to make a stand and to struggle on November 4th.

ELECTION 2020: Everything you need to know to vote in your state

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Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).