If Donald Trump wins the next election, he will attempt to turn the men and women of the United States armed forces into praetorians loyal not to the Constitution, but only to him. This project will likely be among his administration’s highest priorities. It will not be easy: The overwhelming majority of America’s service people are professionals and patriots. I know this from teaching senior officers for 25 years at the Naval War College. As president, Trump came to understand it too, when he found that “his generals” were not, in fact, mere employees of a Trump property.
But the former president and the people around him have learned from that experience. The last time around, Trump’s efforts to pack the Defense Department with cranks and flunkies came too late to bring the military under his full political control. The president and his advisers were slow-footed and disorganized, and lacked familiarity with Washington politics. They were hindered as well by the courage and professionalism of the military officers and civilian appointees who, side by side, serve in the Defense Department.
Trump now nurses deep grudges against these officers and civilians, who slow-rolled and smothered his various illegal and autocratic impulses, including his enraged demand to kill the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad in 2017, and his desire to deploy America’s military against its own citizens during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020.
The 2020 election, of course, is the source of Trump’s chief grudge against senior military leaders. General Mark Milley, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was especially determined to keep the armed forces out of the various schemes to stay in office devised by the Trump team and its allies, including a delusional plan, proposed by retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, to have the military go into swing states and seize voting machines. Trump has since implied (in response to a profile of Milley by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg) that Milley should get the death penalty. Milley reportedly believes that Trump, if reelected, will try to jail him and other senior national-security figures, a concern shared by former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
In a second term, Trump would combine his instincts for revenge and self-protection. He would seek not only to get even with an officer corps that he thinks betrayed him, but also to break the military as one of the few institutions able to constrain his attempts to act against the Constitution and the rule of law.
Publicly, Trump presents himself as an unflinching advocate for the military, but this is a charade. He has no respect for military people or their devotion to duty. He loves the pomp and the parades and the salutes and the continual use of “sir,” but as retired Marine General John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, said in 2023, Trump “couldn’t fathom people who served their nation honorably” when he was in office. Privately, as Goldberg has reported, Trump has called American war dead “losers” and “suckers,” and has said that wounded warriors are disgusting and should be kept out of sight.
Trump instead prizes military people who serve his ego and support his antidemocratic instincts. He thinks highly of Flynn, for example, who had to resign after 22 days as national security adviser and is now the marquee attraction at various gatherings of Christian nationalists and conspiracy theorists around the country. In late 2020, angered by his election loss and what he saw as the disloyalty within the national-security community, Trump fired or forced out top Defense Department leaders and tried to replace them with people more like Flynn. The brazen actions that the 45th president took in his final, desperate weeks in office—however haphazard—illustrate the magnitude of the threat he may pose to the military if he is reelected.
On November 9, 2020, Trump dumped Esper and named Christopher Miller, a retired colonel and Pentagon bureaucrat, as acting secretary of defense. Miller took along Kash Patel, a Trump sycophant, as his chief of staff. Trump sent Douglas Macgregor, another retired colonel and a pro-Russia Fox News regular, to Miller as a senior adviser. (Earlier, Trump had attempted and failed to make Macgregor the ambassador to Germany.) Trump installed Anthony Tata—a retired one-star Army general who has claimed that Barack Obama is a Muslim and that a former CIA director was trying to have Trump assassinated—in the third-most-senior job at the Pentagon. A few months earlier, the Senate had wisely declined to confirm Tata’s appointment to that position, but in November, Trump gave him the job in an acting capacity anyway.
These moves, among others, led all 10 living former secretaries of defense to issue a startling and unprecedented joint statement. On January 3, 2021, they directly enjoined Miller and his subordinates to uphold their constitutional duty and “refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election or hinder the success of the new team.” The letter pointedly reminded Miller and his team that they were “bound by oath, law and precedent,” and called upon them, “in the strongest terms,” to honor “the history of democratic transition in our great country.”
If reelected, Trump would attempt to gain authoritarian control of the Defense Department’s uppermost levels from the very beginning. There are more Anthony Tatas and Douglas Macgregors out there, and Trump’s allies are likely already seeking to identify them. If the Senate refused to confirm Trump’s appointees, it wouldn’t matter much: Trump has learned that he can keep rotating people through acting positions, daring the Senate to stop him.
The career civil servants underneath these appointees—who work on everything from recruiting to nuclear planning—would disobey Trump if he attacked the constitutional order. These civilians, by law, cannot be fired at will, a problem Trump tried to remedy in the last months of his administration by proposing a new category of government appointments (Schedule F) that would have converted some of the most important civil-service positions into political appointments directly controlled by the White House. President Joe Biden immediately repealed this move after taking office, but Trump has vowed to reinstate it.
In his two-pronged offensive to capture the military establishment while eviscerating the civil service, Trump would likely rely on former officers such as Miller and fringe-dwelling civilians such as Patel, but he would also almost certainly find at least a few serving senior officers—he would not need many—who would accept his offer to abandon their oath. Together, they would make a run at changing the nature of the armed forces.
This is not abstract theorizing. The Heritage Foundation recently released “Project 2025,” a right-wing blueprint for the next Republican president’s administration. The Defense Department chapter was written by none other than former Acting Secretary Christopher Miller. It is mostly a rationalization for more spending, but it includes a clear call for a purge of the military’s senior ranks to clean out “Marxist indoctrination”—an accusation he does not define—along with demands for expelling trans service members and reinstating those service members who were dismissed for refusing COVID vaccinations.
The problems of ideological polarization and extremism in the armed forces are not as extensive as some critics of the military imagine, but they are more worrisome than the military leadership would like to admit. Military officers tend to be more conservative than the public, and as far back as the Clinton and Obama administrations, I occasionally heard senior officers speak of these liberal presidents in deeply contemptuous terms (potentially a crime under military regulations). Today, military bases are subjected to a constant barrage of Fox News in almost every area with a television, and toward the end of my teaching career (I retired in 2022), I often heard senior officers repeating almost verbatim some of the most overheated and paranoid talking points about politics and national affairs from the network’s prime-time hosts. Some of these officers would be tempted to answer Trump’s call.
The rest of the members of the professional military, despite their concerns, would likely follow their instincts and default to the orders of their chain of command. The American political system was never intended to cope with someone like Trump; the military is trained and organized to obey, not resist, the orders of the civilian commander in chief.
Trump’s plans would likely use this obedience to the chain of command to exploit an unfortunate vulnerability in the modern American armed forces: The military, in my experience, has a political-literacy problem. Too many people in uniform no longer have a basic grounding in the constitutional foundation of American government and the civil-military relationship. (Some of my colleagues who teach in senior-military educational institutions share this concern, and over the years, some of us have tried, often in vain, to push more study of the Constitution into the curricula.) These men and women are neither unintelligent nor disloyal. Rather, like many Americans, they are no longer taught basic civics, and they may struggle with the line between executing the orders of the president as the commander in chief and obeying the Constitution.
Trump’s appointees also would be able to influence the future of the armed forces through assignments and promotions (and non-promotions) within each branch—and through their behavior as examples to the rest of the military. With top cover from the White House, Trump’s functionaries in the Pentagon, working with his supporters in the ranks, could poison the military for years to come by ignoring laws, regulations, and traditions as they see fit. (Recall, for example, that Trump is an admirer of the disgraced Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher, and intervened to make sure Gallagher kept his SEAL Trident after he was charged with war crimes and found guilty of posing for photos with a captive’s dead body.) America’s military is built on virtues such as honor and duty, but abusing and discarding the norms that support those virtues would change the military’s culture—and faster than we may realize.
Even if only some of the actions I’ve described here succeed, any number of disasters might follow. Trump could jeopardize national security by surrounding himself with military and defense officials who would help him dissolve our alliances (especially NATO), weaken our military readiness, undermine our intelligence services, and abandon our friends around the world, all while he seeks closer relations with authoritarian regimes—especially Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He could issue illegal orders to engage in torture or to commit other war crimes overseas. And he could bring the entire planet to disaster should senior military leaders obey his unhinged orders to kill foreign leaders, start a war, or even use nuclear weapons.
At home, Trump could order unconstitutional shows of military support for his administration to intimidate his opponents. He could order American soldiers into the streets against protesters. (Trump’s allies are reportedly drawing up plans to invoke the Insurrection Act on Inauguration Day to quell any demonstrations against his return to office.) Officers refusing such orders could be dismissed or reassigned, which in turn could provoke a political confrontation between the Trump loyalists in the high command and the rest of the armed forces, itself a frightening and previously unthinkable prospect.
And if Trump succeeds in simultaneously capturing the U.S. military while gutting the other key institutions that protect democracy—especially the courts and the Justice Department—nothing will stop him from using force to put down opposition and stay in power.
Some Americans fear that the United States is already in a struggle with fascism. The firm constitutional loyalty of the armed forces during Trump’s presidency was a reminder that such fears are overblown, at least for the moment. But Trump and his allies understand that by leaving the military outside their political control the last time around, they also left intact a crucial bulwark against their plans. They will not make the same mistake twice.
This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “A Military Loyal to Trump.”