As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump did something without any real precedent in modern U.S. political history: the Republican, who has no background in the military or matters of national security, went after American generals in surprisingly aggressive ways.In fact, to hear Trump tell it, generals are incompetent and pathetic. "I know more about ISIS than the generals do," he insisted
a year ago. "Believe me." Several months later, Trump added
that U.S. military leaders "don't know much because they're not winning," As recently as September, the Republican said
American generals "have been reduced to rubble," adding, "They have been reduced to a point where it's embarrassing to our country."Despite these broadsides, Trump won the election -- and proceeded to stock his team with generals
Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly has been selected to serve as President-elect Donald Trump's secretary for homeland security, NBC News has confirmed. [...]The retired four-star general led the U.S. Southern Command, and commanded Marines during some of the most intense fighting in Iraq.
Note, Kelly was still on active duty as recently as January
.Ordinarily, the first question in response to any announcement about a cabinet nominee is the most obvious: is this the right person for the job? Given the scope of the Department of Homeland Security's responsibilities, it's an especially important question now, and Kelly's positions on a range of issues will warrant careful scrutiny
.But under the current circumstances, there's also the broader question of why Trump has chosen quite so many generals for his team, and the degree to which this is democratically unusual.To be sure, there's ample precedent in the modern era of retired generals having key positions in the civilian government. Dwight Eisenhower was a two-term president; Colin Powell was the Secretary of State; David Petraeus was the director of the CIA.But under Trump, we're looking at a governmental landscape that's far different from anything Americans have ever seen. As the Washington Post noted
, "Trump's choice of Kelly -- and his continued deliberations about tapping as many as two more military figures for other posts -- has intensified worries among some members of Congress and national security experts that the new administration's policies may be shaped disproportionately by military commanders."And that's because the list keeps growing. Retired Gen. Michael Flynn will be Trump's National Security Advisor; retired Gen. James Mattis will be Trump's Defense Secretary; retired Gen. John Kelly will be Trump's DHS Secretary; and there are still other generals being considered for other key posts.The point, obviously, is not to disparage military leaders. Rather, as Rachel explained
on the show last night, one of the common features of democracies is separating the military from domestic, civilian governing. Trump, however, is going in a very different direction.The Washington Post had a good report
on this last week, before the Mattis and Kelly announcements.
The United States, like most advanced democracies, has historically kept a relatively clear line between the civilian command that gives orders and the military that follows them. In fact, having three or four former high-ranking military officers in the top ranks of the administration would put the U.S. in the company of non-democracies like Thailand or Zimbabwe. Most healthy democracies -- whether that's Australia, Canada, Germany, or the United Kingdom -- keep the military and civilian worlds quite separate.At most, advanced democracies may have one or two military officers in top jobs in the executive branch.Most democracies have none. But autocracies are different.
A New York Times report
added that Trump's preference for surrounding himself with retired military leaders "worries national security experts and even other retired generals, who say that if Mr. Trump stacks critical jobs purely with warriors, it could lead to an undue emphasis on military force in American foreign policy."Let the debate begin.