One coup attempt or two?
There was general Mark Milley too. Daniel Lazare re-examines January 6 in light of the latest revelations
No doubt about it, but what the Wall Street Journal described in April as “the calm after the four-year Trump storm” is now definitely behind us.1
In recent months, official Washington has been in an uproar over various matters: the calamitous Afghan pullout; the new AUKUS alliance; the rupture with France; and the news that federal authorities have begun seizing thousands of desperate immigrants in the Texas border town of Del Rio and deporting them to Haiti - a country the United States has spent decades trying to destroy.
Then there is the controversy over a spate of new books detailing the extraordinary measures that general Mark Milley, the country’s top military commander, supposedly took during Donald Trump’s last months in office. According to the recently published book by Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig,2 Milley was beside himself with fear that Trump and his supporters would launch a coup d’état. “They may try, but they’re not going to fucking succeed,” he vowed to associates. “You can’t do this without the military. You can’t do this without the CIA and the FBI. We’re the guys with the guns.”
Milley described Trump’s attempts to overturn the election as “a Reichstag moment”, according to Rucker and Leonnig, and at one point ordered a roomful of police and military officials to be on guard for Joe Biden’s upcoming inauguration. He said:
Everyone in this room, whether you’re a cop, whether you’re a soldier, we’re going to stop these guys to make sure we have a peaceful transfer of power. We’re going to put a ring of steel around this city, and the Nazis aren’t getting in.
Then there’s Peril, a new book by famed Watergate reporter Bob Woodward and Washington Post staffer Robert Costa, which is also filled with sensational reports about Milley’s last-minute activities.3 These include telephoning Chinese general Li Zuocheng just four days prior to the November election and telling him:
I want to assure you that the American government is stable and everything is going to be OK ... We are not going to attack or conduct any kinetic operations against you ... If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.
Once the election was over, Peril says that CIA director Gina Haspel approached Milley and told him: “We are on the way to a rightwing coup”, because Trump was refusing to concede. Two days after the January 6 uprising, Woodward and Costa say that Milley phoned general Li again to assure him that everything was in order: “Things may look unsteady ... But that’s the nature of democracy ... We are 100% steady. Everything’s fine. But democracy can be sloppy sometimes.”
Milley also called House speaker Nancy Pelosi to assure her that “the nuclear triggers are secure and we’re ... not going to allow anything crazy, illegal, immoral or unethical to happen”. Finally, Woodward and Costa report that he summoned senior military officials to a secret meeting in the Pentagon war room the same day to inform them not to take orders about a nuclear strike unless he was involved.
“No matter what you are told, you do the procedure. You do the process. And I’m part of that procedure,” Milley reportedly said. Then he went around the room and looked each officer in the eye. “Got it?” he asked. “Yes, sir,” they replied.
Since Milley has not denied the reports, congressmen and journalists are operating under the assumption that they are true. If so, they raise a number of questions. Was Trump really out to attack China and perhaps Iran as well, as yet another book - this one by husband-and-wife reporting team Susan Glasser and Peter Baker - contends?4 Was he really intent on launching a coup? Or was it Milley who was guilty of transgressing constitutional bounds?
Such questions are relevant in view of the ongoing leftwing debate as to whether the January 6 uprising was a genuine coup attempt or merely a temper tantrum by rightwing cry-babies. Opinion so far seems to favour the latter. The International Marxist Tendency, followers of the late Ted Grant, maintains that January 6 cannot have been “an organized insurrectionary coup on the verge of overthrowing the US government and imposing a fascist regime to crush the workers and the left”, because it lacked “the support of significant sections of the military”. Canada’s Socialist Project, founded by Sam Gindin and the late Leo Panitch, agrees that the takeover “was no insurrection”, because the mob was armed with nothing more serious than flag poles and bear spray.5 The Marxist historian, August H Nimtz, argues that the 400 or so people who actually made it inside the Capitol “could not have been a threat to political power in a country of 330,000,000 whose citizens enjoy basic democratic rights. Take, therefore, the proverbial deep breath and relax!”6
Considering that only about 800 people took part in the storming of the Bastille, does that mean that they posed no threat to the ancien régime either?7
Then there is the question of Milley’s efforts, which seem more than a bit coup-ish themselves. After all, military attacks are supposedly the exclusive prerogative of the commander in chief, which is to say the president. So how can Milley assure a potential target that he will be provided with advance warning of an impending surprise attack, so he won’t be, er, surprised?
The same goes for the Pentagon meeting, in which he ordered subordinates to “do the procedure … do the process … I’m part of that procedure”. The trouble is that Milley is not part of the procedure, for the simple reason that the White House decided in the early 1960s to keep such decisions entirely in civilian hands for fear of ultra-rightists like Curtis LeMay, US airforce chief at the time, going rogue.8 Considering that LeMay was the model for Jack D Ripper, the spooky brigadier general who goes bonkers in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie, Dr Strangelove, presidents Kennedy, Johnson, etc had reason to keep people like him far away from the controls.
Of course, history will not be hard on a general who bucks authority by stopping a nutcase like Trump from launching a nuclear war. But that does not make the question of civilian control any less vital.
Instead of one coup attempt on January 6, we may actually have had two - one by Trump and the other by anti-Trumpistas like Milley. If nothing else, it suggests that the situation was a good deal more complex than certain observers realise. To be sure, the uprising was not an “organized insurrectionary coup” out to impose fascism. But that is because (a) Trump is not a fascist in any meaningful sense; and (b) he is a master improviser, who thinks that organisation and planning are for wimps. Otherwise, his intentions were clear: to disrupt congressional certification of the presidential vote and throw the election into the House of Representatives, where Republicans enjoy a built-in advantage, thanks to rules set forth in the 12th amendment, ratified in 1803.
As for the military, its role is also complex. Rather than backing Trump, Milley was obviously contemplating a move against him instead. If military backing is essential for a coup to succeed, then ‘the guys with the guns’ are perfectly capable of halting one in its tracks.
But the problem is that independent mobilisation of this sort amounts to a coup as well. After all, Augusto Pinochet claimed to be acting in defence of the Chilean constitution in 1973, and his supporters went so far as to blame Salvador Allende for starting it all by plotting a coup of his own.9 Hermann Göring justified the Reichstag Fire Decree in the same way: because communists were planning to poison public kitchens, kidnap the wives and children of government ministers, and engage in other acts of terrorism, emergency measures had to be instituted forthwith.10 Indeed, it is hard to think of a military coup leader who does not claim to act in the name of law and order. So even the best-intentioned intervention is undemocratic, because it means that the brass has decided that civilian politicians are too weak and incompetent to settle matters themselves.
The bottom line is that instability was growing on both sides in January, as Trump manoeuvred to hold onto power and Milley began looking for ways to prevent him. Politics were breaking down across the board, the ancient constitutional machinery was paralysed and power was up for grabs. Hence, people like Trump and Milley prepared to step into the breach.
But that is the point: it was institutional failure that created openings for such people to act. The systemic breakdown is the primary cause, while the individual is only secondary.
With Republicans gearing up for even more intense efforts and Democrats in no position to stop them, the pattern may well continue in 2022 and 2024. January 6 was indeed an attempted coup, because Trump was out to use the 12th amendment in a way that was obviously undemocratic. And it will not be the last.
P Rucker and C Leonnig I alone can fix it New York 2021.↩︎
B Woodward and R Costa Peril New York 2021.↩︎
‘01/06/21: the insurrection that wasn’t’ The Bullet (Canada), February 5: socialistproject.ca/2021/02/01-06-21-the-insurrection-that-wasnt.↩︎
AH Nimtz, ‘The Trump moment: why it happened, why we dodged the bullet and What is to be done?’ Legal Form February 24: legalform.blog/2021/02/24/the-trump-moment-why-it-happened-why-we-dodged-the-bullet-and-what-is-to-be-done-august-h-nimtz.↩︎
Historian Jean-François Marmontel, quoted in EL Higgins (ed) The French Revolution as told by contemporaries New York 1975, p100.↩︎
See ‘Did Gen Mark Milley overstep on nuclear launch meeting, call to China?’ Politifact September 16: www.politifact.com/article/2021/sep/16/did-gen-mark-milley-overstep-nuclear-launch-meetin.↩︎
RJ Evans The coming of the Third Reich New York 2003, p333.↩︎