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Putsch It to the Limit

Win or lose, Doug Mastriano is a threat to democracy

Pennsylvania has once again laid claim to the role of America’s political epicenter: the battleground of political battlegrounds, locked in a midterm slugfest grabbing national headlines and generating Fox News outrage. Democrats hope to prove that Trump’s disconcertingly strong performances there in 2016 and 2020 were aberrations rather than signs of a new political normal. But although Senate hopeful John Fetterman has captured national attention for his savvy social media campaign against noted medical huckster and carpetbagger Dr. Mehmet Oz, the far less entertaining gubernatorial race between attorney general Josh Shapiro and state senator Doug Mastriano has rapidly taken on deep importance, with potentially grim implications for the 2024 presidential election. Whatever the outcome, the gubernatorial election raises concerns now, given the real threat that Mastriano may further destabilize democratic institutions already on life support.

Mastriano—Trump loyalist, batshit conspiracist, Christian nationalist—is arguably one of the most extreme Republicans currently running for statewide office. He has used a strong base of support among Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters to buck the traditional establishment power brokers of the Pennsylvania GOP; even though Mastriano drew donor opposition and polled catastrophically among party officials during the primary, he trounced his more mainstream opponents.

The full extent of Mastriano’s views should create alarm, regardless of whether he wins or loses.

As a nominee, he has pledged to turn Pennsylvania into the “Florida of the northeast,” promising to ban pole dancing from schools (there’s no evidence it’s in schools) and “pornographic” books from school libraries (there’s no evidence there are any). In Mastriano’s view, women who undergo abortions after six weeks should be charged with murder, and parents should be allowed to send their gay children to conversion therapy so as to relieve them of their “confusion.” From the outset, his campaign has treated the press with an even greater degree of hostility than Donald Trump, with a volunteer crew of “private security” protecting Mastriano from pesky reporters. At the end of last month, he announced his messianic intention to “fast and pray” for the forty days and nights leading up to an election his running mate, Carrie DelRosso, has demurred about whether she’ll accept the results of.

His bizarre candidacy has rankled the Republican establishment. The Republican Governors’ Association has notably refused to spend in Mastriano’s support. And in a rare sign of frustration, major Republican donors like noted big business shill Matt Brouillette have taken the unusual route of publicly criticizing Mastriano’s campaign even after the primary, despairing that they don’t see a road to victory. Many have pulled their money. By most traditional metrics, Mastriano’s campaign—which has been massively outraised and outspent—is struggling.

Although Mastriano’s floundering campaign seemingly vindicates Democrats’ controversial decision to elevate Mastriano’s profile in hopes he’d be easier to beat—a strategy so risky Lehman Brothers might balk—there are plenty of reasons to be deeply worried about the election’s outcome. The full extent of his views—and the frightening possibilities they raise—should create alarm, regardless of whether he wins or loses.

Mastriano, a retired colonel and one-term state senator, has been portrayed as Trumpian: a ready-made apostle to lead the ex-president’s faithful. This isn’t incorrect; he attended the January 6 insurrection, spearheaded Republican election denialism in Pennsylvania, and was endorsed by and has campaigned with Trump. But collapsing Mastriano into an artifact of Trumpism misreads Mastriano’s extremist views.

Few things demonstrate his frightening potential more than a sixty-four-page research report, “The Civilian Putsch of 2018: Debunking the Myth of a Civil-Military Leadership Rift,” that Mastriano penned during the first few months of the Bush presidency, when he was a major at the Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. First reported on by Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post and recently the subject of political ads, the report is based on a startling premise: a theorized “Hitlerian putsch,” taking place in 2018, that successfully overwhelms a tamed military yoked to civilian control. In the report (Jaffe incorrectly identifies it as a thesis; Mastriano’s thesis was completed in June 2002 and focused on Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait), Mastriano assumes the perspective of a colonel who survived the putsch and is living in the George Washington National Forest, from where he laments that lawmakers’ attempts to rein in the military, the “political correctness” movement, moral relativism, rampant drug use, and “‘alternative’ religions” laid the groundwork for a putsch that killed millions and destroyed democracy. “We were a people without vision or direction,” he writes.

The report reveals much about the man vying to become Pennsylvania’s first Republican governor since Tom Corbett lost reelection in 2015. Writing for The New Yorker, Eliza Griswold detailed Mastriano’s connections to Christian nationalist movements, such as New Apostolic Reformation, built upon pseudo-historian and Christian nationalist David Barton’s “research” making the argument that the United States is a Christian nation. This is no new turn: “The Civilian Putsch of 2018” reveals that he was familiar with and influenced by Barton’s work almost two decades prior to his entry into the New Apostolic Reformation. In its pages, there are no shortage of hysterical proclamations: of moral decline, societal hedonism run amok, and an emasculated military sliding further into decrepitude, threatened by a  “Pearl-Harbor of space” and the tried-and-true conservative boogeyman: a standing United Nations army.

The purpose behind Mastriano’s essay was to intervene in a years-long debate triggered by two essays: Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dunlap Jr.’s 1992 essay, “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” and Richard H. Kohn’s 1994 article, “Out of Control: The Crisis in Civil-Military Relations.” Kohn, operating in a similar vein to Dunlap’s speculative essay on the growing dangers of a civil-military rift, identified growing partisanship, ideological drift, and distrust of government as major points of concern. Dunlap, writing again in 1999, cited Thomas E. Ricks in making a key danger clear: the “growing sense within ranks that civilian society is corrupt, indolent and otherwise morally deficient.” Dunlap’s 1992 essay— coming from a respected military officer, rather than a civilian critic or political partisan—was something of a bombshell. It gained mainstream attention in publications such as The Atlantic and the Los Angeles Times.

Coupled with Dunlap’s essay, studies demonstrated a growing partisanship within the American military at the time, giving political expression to a gulf between military and civilian values. With authors like Dunlap and Kohn pointing to friction between the Clinton administration and military leadership, reductions in defense spending, and expanding military involvement in “peacekeeping” initiatives unrelated to formally declared warfare, there seemed to be—at minimum—some cause for alarm.

Other voices within the military weighed in with concerns about the distance between the military and civilian authorities. In a paper written in 1998 at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania—where Mastriano later received a degree and taught—Colonel Mary L. Torgersen documented a decline in military experience among members of Congress between 1971 and 1998, arguing that increasing civilian control of the military had a corrosive effect on competence. The data produced by Torgersen appear in Mastriano’s 2001 paper addressing much of the same subject matter, though it’s attributed to “a presentation given at Air Command & Staff College,” one of several vague footnotes continuing Mastriano’s pattern of dubious attribution.

Mastriano rejected the explanations and concerns of those identifying a gulf in civil-military relations and growing political partisanship, arguing that such concerns were overblown and, if true, part of a necessarily divergent “martial culture.” The true threat, in Mastriano’s view, was the “moral relativism” of society; the danger of “domestic moral decay and slothfulness” was, without a doubt, “a more formidable adversary than foreign armies,” against which the “moral absolutes of the military” were a critical bulwark. What must be stopped, Mastriano avowed, was the “1990’s political correctness movement”—an antecedent to the moral panic over “wokeness” Mastriano has embraced as a central facet of his campaign—and its designs on the “old macho-warrior spirit” and “Judeo-Christian worldview” of the armed forces. In the fanciful tale he weaves, Mastriano claims that this “assault” began “with the insertion of homosexuality into the military,” which resulted in a “neo-pagan worldview” and “moral anarchy.” The decline of the military into a bastion of hedonism left American democracy ripe for overthrow—and no “macho-warrior” soldiers would be left to stop it.

The fictional protagonist of “The Civilian Putsch of 2018,” Nathan H. Greene—perhaps named after the Revolutionary War general and slave owner, Nathanael Greene—writes from “self-imposed exile” in Virginia following the rise to power of “Benedict Aurelius.” Greene’s purpose is to convey “lessons” that could have stopped the putsch: that the military must maintain a “firm moral foundation,” that it is a “vital guarantor of America’s form of government,” that generals must not be “weak” or “over-compliant” with civilian authority. The military must maintain “moral absolutes,” regardless of whether they reflect those held by wider society. Mastriano constructs the military as the protector of an ideal American democracy transcending the democratic mandate of the American people­—a democracy which, in the final equation, may need to be protected from the American people.

The consistent failure of polls to accurately gauge support for far-right candidates should serve as a warning. 

There’s every reason to believe that Mastriano’s worldview—and the profoundly antidemocratic and authoritarian tendencies it contains—hasn’t changed. If anything, Mastriano appears to have further radicalized, becoming an embodiment of the very concerns which scholars like Dunlap and Kohn raised: military figures convinced of their righteousness, hostile to the notion of civilian control. The thinking in his report is a dark warning of the coup attempt of January 6 and the widespread participation of service members, including Mastriano, who was present at the rally and prayed beforehand that insurrectionists would “seize power.” It says nothing good about what will happen should he lose in November.

The debate over civilian control, military partisanship, and its threat to American democracy, has particular resonance today as democratic institutions teeter. In the worst days of the Trump administration, even some liberals openly longed for a military coup, trusting the military to sort things out and serve as a protector of failing democratic institutions—which may have, in some respects, happened. On the whole, the wish for military intervention proved to be something of a monkey’s paw whose finger curled on January 6, with devastating consequences.

The frightening truth is that Mastriano is a nightmare, one that predates any Trumpian fever and was married to Trump’s project through his opportunistic union with the Christian right. He’s the terrifying prognostication of Charles Dunlap come to life—a martial figure, convinced of the truth of his beliefs, ready to impose morality and virtue on a fallen society at the barrel of a gun. The normal rules of electoral politics won’t apply should Mastriano lose: he’ll still have a state senate seat from which to attack election results and foment skepticism of the electoral process.

Now, it’s likely that he’ll do exactly that: lose. Mastriano’s path to victory appears narrow, absent the divine intervention he hopes to invoke through fasting—though the consistent failure of polls to accurately gauge support for far-right candidates should serve as a warning. In either case, he should be expected to continue undermining the tenuous foundations of American democracy; after all, it’s likely that Mastriano believes he is playing the role of the Nathan H. Greene of his imagination, fighting a battle to save America from wokeness and moral decay.