When the Right Turns the Military into an Authoritarian Tool
To protect democracy, curb extremism in the armed forces
“[The] parameter of action is exceedingly narrow and available options are quite limited,” the CIA Santiago station chief complained to his Washington D.C. bosses in 1970. The Chilean army’s dedication to the rule of law and the Constitution made it difficult to create support for the idea of overthrowing Socialist President Salvador Allende, who had been elected earlier that year.
It took three years of extensive recruiting among extremist elements in the Chilean military (assisted by the CIA and other American agencies, and by the Brazilian military), and the engineering of an economic crisis, food scarcity, and more to create a hospitable environment for "the other September 11" -- the 1973 coup that ushered in 17 years of General Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship.
Chile has come to mind often since November 2020, when President Donald Trump refused to concede Joe Biden's victory, opening up a period of proto-autocratic activity. It included intensive efforts to chip away at the apolitical nature of the American military so that Trump could use the armed forces to help him stay in power.
The Black Lives Matter protests of the summer had given Trump a chance to test the Pentagon’s appetite for an authoritarian use of the military, as in the deployment of Black Hawk and Lakota helicopters to hover over protesters in Washington D.C.
General Michael Flynn, a likely architect of the Jan. 6 coup attempt, worked to create an atmosphere conducive to the use of the armed forces for authoritarian ends. In December, Flynn told Newsmax that suspending the Constitution and imposing martial law was necessary so the military could "rerun" the election.
The public declarations by key figures in the military world during these months testify to a threat that was far greater than the public realized. 10 former Defense secretaries issued an unprecedented warning on Jan. 3 that military involvement in elections "would take us into dangerous, unlawful, and unconstitutional territory."
Most important was the November declaration of the sitting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, that the military took an oath of loyalty not to any individual, "a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator," but only to the Constitution. This is exactly what Milley's Chilean equivalent, General Carlos Prats (Chief of the General Staff), used to say -- before he left office, less than three weeks before the coup. Allende replaced Prats with Pinochet, never doubting Pinochet’s commitment to an apolitical military.
As the man who refused to collaborate with Trump's coup, forcing Trump to put together his own thug army (which included active duty and retired military, but also lots of amateurs) Milley is now on Trump's enemies list. Trump has repeatedly attacked him as "unwilling to defend our Military from the Leftist Radicals who hate our Country and our Flag" and called on him to resign. Watch for right-wing pressure and smear campaigns against Milley to intensify.
Retired military have recently lent their names to the cause of politicizing the armed forces. One hundred twenty-four retired high military and national security officials associated with the Flag Officers 4 America group published an open letter in May 2021. It argues the necessity of an intervention to "save the nation" from the danger represented by "a hard left turn toward Socialism and a Marxist form of tyranny" --that being their characterization of Biden's administration. This is classic right-wing coup recruitment talk.
Determining the scope of extremism within the active-duty armed forces is essential, given that recruitment for anti-democratic actions often happens "on the job." Since 2012, Department of Defense policy has explicitly prohibited service members from advocating extremist views, but in general, a don't-ask-don't-tell" policy has prevailed.
Of course, in America the military is hardly the only armed player. The weapon-wielding participants in the Jan. 6 coup attempt formed a cross-section of today's extremists: sovereign sheriffs and other rogue law enforcement professionals, militia members, Proud Boys and other far-right groups, GOP officials, lone actors, and extremists from the armed forces.
In fact, the longer Trump remains out of office, the more destabilized those armed followers in and out of the military will become. In December, the former extremist Frank Meeink, who knows the power of cult dynamics, predicted the kind of violence we saw on Jan. 6. "If Trump is no longer president, it's no longer their America and they won't care if citizens are killed. We'll have difficult moments over the next two years," Meeink said.
Those difficult moments are unlikely to include a classic takeover of government led by the armed forces, à la Chile. Yet Jan. 6 has shown the potential for political violence that brings all the currents of extremism together for a cause. All of them are highly receptive to Trump’s continuing incitements to violence on his behalf, and all of them, including extremists in the military, shape what a recent Department of Homeland Security bulletin termed "a heightened terrorism-related threat environment."
The Department of Defense must act promptly and energetically to neutralize anti-democratic elements in the armed forces. Its passive approach to dealing with extremists is no longer suitable for a volatile climate in which support for a politicized military is likely to grow.