What good will come of Retired Admiral William McRaven’s assertion in the New York Times that Donald Trump is destroying America from within? Not much. McRaven has earned himself fame for his popular books and talks. He initially gained fame for being the architect of the Osama bin Laden raid, but his wading into public issues has been more flatfooted.
The wisdom of McRaven’s intervention is questionable. Why speak up? Well, McRaven is a private citizen, and his military experience would surely add to the quality of our public discourse. This is true. And in that sense, McRaven has the right to speak if he so chooses. But having the right to do something and the prudence to exercise that right well are two different things. We have freedom of speech, so Nazis could march in Skokie, Illinois, a predominantly Jewish city at the time. Few would say this was a noble or virtuous use of speech, but our democracy has decided, wisely I believe, to allow the freedom, even to say things we revile, because free discourse is the vital blood of democratic life for free and virtuous people.
So what is my beef with McRaven? Not that he has no right, but that he exercises it imprudently. My objection is not what he said, even though hyperbole in our discourse today has diminishing returns, but how he did it.
First, McRaven framed the whole issue as a military one. But military officers serve the commander in chief and are not political figures, so their political opinions do not matter. They serve their civilian masters regardless of their political leanings. In the most poignant line of the op-ed, he relays a story of a general criticizing Trump. He writes, “As I stood on the parade field at Fort Bragg, one retired four-star general, grabbed my arm, shook me and shouted, ‘I don’t like the Democrats, but Trump is destroying the Republic!’” So what? We have a political system that works through a set of constitutionally designed processes. If McRaven or this general do not like Trump, then run for office or find a candidate you think embodies the American values you support. Complaining to a friend or colleague is fine. But complaining with the expectation that something should be done is something else.
McRaven does not represent the military, so he should not present himself as though he does. I have no doubt he loves the military and desires to protect its credibility. So why, then, does McRaven place himself as the spokesman for the values and institution itself? Many in the military would disagree with his criticisms. The op-ed presents himself as a spokesman when in fact he is a private citizen. Let him speak as a citizen then.
Second, he made clear statements about the need to remove Trump. If this is via elections or through the powers given to Congress, fine. Yet McRaven leaves the point unspoken. What are we to infer? It is not clear. One could easily read McRaven’s statement as an argument to remove the president by any means necessary since he does not specify. This sort of veiled speech is dangerous, all the more so when it is spoken by a respected senior officer.
Third, by laying the blame solely at Trump’s feet, McRaven shows he does not grasp the deep partisan divide that is pulling our country apart. Trump is the effect, not the cause, of our deep divisions, and these divisions preceded Trump and will far outlast him. Our leaders, and the president in particular, bear outsized responsibility for their words and deeds, but we are fooling ourselves if we see them as the cause. Trump is part of a larger global response to issues of immigration, economic stagnation, and deep disillusionment with our politicians. Laying blame solely on Trump without realizing the deeper forces at play merely adds fuel to the fire.
Lastly, and more broadly, there is little to gain and much to lose from the constant stream of senior officials, especially in intelligence and law enforcement, who have made a name for themselves and published tell-all books (here’s looking at you, Jim Comey) opposing Trump.
The cult of commentary and the vanity behind it should be a warning of the damage that can be done to our vital institutions of government by leaders who decide to cash in on their careers in government. We cannot know the full damage done by these individuals because it’s hard to measure confidence, but if polling is correct, they have played a major role in the decline of trust in institutions that function heavily upon the trust of the American people. Every time they appear on TV as partisan commentators, they further erode the belief that the vital institutions of American national security are non-partisan. Whatever happened to keeping your mouth shut after your years of service? Restraint is in short supply these days, but it’s sorely needed.
The military is one of the last institutions we have in this country that retains bipartisan support and trust. That is no small thing. That trust should be protected, which is why so many in the military are extremely cautious to appear as bipartisan and as non-political as possible. In an age in which our faith in public institutions is plummeting, we should all seek to bolster and support those institutions that possess that trust.
If McRaven is truly concerned about the trust the military has earned across our society, he would be more reluctant to drag it into the political muck.