In the most heated moment so far of the anti-racism protests unfolding in the United States, something remarkable happened. After President Donald Trump made some of the most incendiary and alarming statements of a presidency filled with them, military figures that had kept quiet started speaking out. But it resulted in the type of political reassurance that is normally only needed in countries whose commitment to democracy is questionable.
Many observers who worry about the state of American democracy under Trump felt relief when top military leaders, one after the other, started rebuking the president’s assaults on basic democratic norms. They all came after the violent assault on peaceful protesters near the White House on June 1 and Trump’s threat to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops on the streets of American cities to quell demonstrations and unrest.
The many statements by military figures decrying Trump’s response to the protests, while soothing on the surface, are a troubling sign of the extraordinary extent to which the Trump presidency has undermined America’s democracy. Seeing military officers, both retired and active duty, place themselves on the side of democracy in defiance of the president is, indeed, reassuring. The brass in effect reasserted that the military’s loyalty is to the Constitution instead of to the president. But that there was ever the slightest doubt about that is evidence of what has happened to the country under Trump.