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New Praetorianism

A fetish for generals has seized the nation—and America is careening toward disaster

Since Ancient Greece, the name “Croesus” has been synonymous with decadence and extravagant wealth. Croesus was the ruler of Lydia, a kingdom in what is now Western Turkey, in the first half of the sixth century BCE. The Greek chronicler Herodotus, whose accounts linger somewhere between legend and history, relates Croesus’s staggering opulence and extreme ambition. Croesus was not just renowned for his abundant riches, Herodotus tells us, but he also wished to be a conqueror, to expand his kingdom into the territory of his neighbors, the Persians. Hoping to anticipate the outcome of this military adventure, Croesus consulted the Oracle at Delphi, whose temple he lavished with gifts. The Oracle’s reply was, “If King Croesus crosses the Halys River, a great empire will be destroyed.” So Croesus and his army, encouraged, set out across the river that marked Lydia’s border with the Persians. But his force achieved little, and the Persians counter-attacked. Croesus lived to see his capital sacked and his kingdom destroyed; then, according to some accounts, Croesus himself was burned alive by Cyrus, the victorious Persian king. The Oracle’s prophecy was proven right: by crossing the river, Croesus had indeed destroyed a great empire—his own.

This moral of wealth and pride leading to ruin could be retrospectively repurposed for numerous contemporary set pieces. For all the predictions of our era’s oracles that 2016 would see the destruction of one party—which so many, cocksure and drunk on data, assumed to be the GOP—the party left in wreckage after November 9 was the Democrats. But the story could also illustrate a more general truth about human folly, a kind of warning to us all: if we choose to put our faith in the knowledge of oracles, we had better know ourselves, too—otherwise we risk hearing only what we want to hear, courting disaster.

With a spirit of warning in mind, let’s be frank: America is heading to war.

To be clear: I am not just saying we will have war “if Trump gets his way,” if he is allowed to realize some secret, as yet uncertain agenda. Nor am I saying that we will have war if the Democrats resist him, and Trump turns to warmongering, as desperate authoritarians often do, to draw attention away from domestic failures and rally a nation behind the flag. Both of these outcomes are entirely possible. But I am also saying that we will have war if the Democrats “win”: if they sideline Trump, push him out, sweep the midterms, or even ultimately take back the White House. I am saying that, in all these circumstances, no matter which of these scenarios plays out, and unless something radical intervenes, America is building inexorably toward war. Our obsession with amateur Kremlinology and breaking news of international skullduggery has us all terrified about what might be hidden from us when in fact we should be terrified about what’s right in front of our faces.

There’s something in the air, coming from both parties, from commentators on all sides. Let’s call it the New Praetorianism: a pervasive militant nationalism, a combination of exceptionalist chauvinism and get-tough pretense that sees all American politics as fundamentally oriented toward security, conflict, and, ultimately, war. In part, the New Praetorianism draws on our evergreen militarism, the ways in which, regardless of who’s in the White House, America is literally invested in fueling global arms races and stoking international conflicts. But now, in the chaos following the electoral upset, and in the even greater chaos that every day of this chaotic new administration seems to bring, the drumbeats are audible like never before.

War, unleashed, is part of the Trump brand.

In Trump, the New Praetorianism is easy enough to recognize. Our president is fond of “killers,” and professes a macho vision of realpolitik where America’s “got a lot of killers” and is prepared to partner with nations governed by “killers,” too. Trump has promised to appoint a cabinet full “of the greatest killers you’ve ever seen” and, apparently to this end, has tapped numerous former generals for key posts. I don’t care to litigate how many generals is enough or too many to preserve a supposed ethos of civilian control over the military—abundant arguments for and against such appointments have already been made. And certainly other presidents, Obama included, have put military figures in important administration roles. But Trump’s attitude toward specific generals and the very idea of generals is something new. Trump is fond of citing George Patton on Twitter, praised Douglas MacArthur in all three presidential debates, and, on the campaign trail, would regale audiences with the apocryphal tale of John Pershing executing early-twentieth-century Muslim POWs with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. Trump has argued that the only thing keeping America from victory over ISIS are unnecessary restraints on the might and brutality of our military and its leaders, stating, “we have generals who think we can win this thing so fast and so strong but we have to be furious for a short period of time and we’re not doing it,” and accordingly has given a pair of generals free hand to “utterly destroy” ISIS its holdout in Raqqa. War, unleashed, is part of the Trump brand.

But the New Praetorianism is pervasive among the media as well. On the issue of generals, praise for Trump’s appointment of John “Mad Dog” Mattis as Secretary of Defense has been almost gushing, with both the New York Times and Washington Post editorial boards endorsing him as a “folk-hero” and “studious but tough,” respectively. I have no particular opinion of Mattis’s character or qualifications, and many of my ex-military friends speak of him glowingly, but such politics of personality are beside the point: what’s remarkable is that our national papers of record should so unreservedly deem it reasonable that any general would represent a source of restraint on U.S. military adventurism. Mattis may well be as sanguine as the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, as Dominic Tierney suggests in the The Atlantic, but such abundant praise of him as a “warrior monk” raises the question of what cult, precisely, the supposedly critical media is worshipping.

It makes sense that idolizing super-generals allows Democrats to burnish their patriotic credentials while also indulging their faith in technocracy and the totems of “moderation” and “restraint.” But the New Praetorianism takes this to a whole new level. When Harry Truman ultimately dismissed the erratic and power-hungry MacArthur, who nearly led America into a Third World War with China, his assessment was blunt: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president . . . I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.” Today, imagining such words in the mouth of a contemporary Democrat is like imagining blasphemy. After sixteen years of nonstop war, which many Democrats helped inaugurate, the better to prove their hawkish credentials, the party seems hopelessly given over to the most vapid jingoism. Mainstream Democratic opposition to Trump is steeped in the rhetoric of treason, fifth columns, and national betrayal. Whatever the status of Russian interference in the elections, the engineers of the DNC’s top-down #Resistance seem intent on rebooting the Cold War—or worse. And thus we have the absurd spectacle of Democrats defending the “sacred” honor of the CIA, or pulling a reverse Benghazi over the disrespect Trump supposedly showed SEAL Team Six by sending them on a disastrous mission into Yemen while casually eating dinner. Roiling patriotic indignation and feverish conspiratorial thinking may by now be default features of the ressentiment of being the party out of power, but Democrats are taking such hysteria to whole new levels.

Idolizing super-generals allows Democrats to burnish their patriotic credentials while also indulging their faith in technocracy and the totems of “moderation” and “restraint.”

But the New Praetorianism runs even deeper, and is baked into bipartisan dogma of American exceptionalism. It manifests in David Brooks’s arguing for America as the fulfillment of human destiny and freedom like a half-pint Hegel praising Hohenzollern Prussia as God’s gift to man. But it is also revealed in ugly statements that, formally speaking, leave ostensibly #woke liberals looking indistinguishable from unreconstructed reactionary racists. Gasbag-at-large Keith Olbermann rails that “the military apparatus of this country is about to be handed over to scum who are beholden to scum, Russian scum,” “anti-racist educator” Tim Wise pronounces that “when your contribution to the world is Faberge eggs, autocracy and pogroms, no one should much care what you think,” and MSNBC’s Joy Reid invokes the threat of “Comrade Vladimir” and marvels that “for most Americans it’s shocking to see an American presidential candidate openly touting authoritarian, communist Russia” a word-salad, history-free composite of scary ideologies as coherent as any Tea Partier’s jeremiad against “Islamo-Fascism.” If such idiocy is meant to steer us away from Trump’s supposed threat to international peace, we might as well just throw a switch and go to DEFCON 1 already. After all, CNN breathlessly reports, there is a Russian ship “lurking” off the coast of Connecticut right now.

Here’s the hard truth: There is a fundamental synergy between Democratic chauvinist exceptionalism, GOP clash-of-civilizations dogma, and Trump’s grotesque strongman antics. The Democrats may prefer a reboot of Cold War apocalypticism; Trump, for his part, looks eager to tear up global treaties, toss international law aside, and throw American weight around in building a new twenty-first century order of Great Powers. Maybe he will get his way, maybe he won’t. Maybe one of the parties will produce a more telegenic, more reasonable, and more “moderate” leader down the line. Any of these scenarios, though, skirts ever closer to disaster, and all take as unspoken that the essential business of the American state is a fundamental orientation toward war.

This is something other than some enigmatic ancient prophecy. It is an all-too-modern self-fulfilling one. We have already crossed the river with Croesus, and though we may refuse to admit it, our empire is already lost. The question is only whether or how we will burn.