When I first heard on the radio that retired United States Marine Corps General had issued a statement critical of Donald Trump’s threat to deploy the U.S. military to suppress the nation-wide mass protests against racism and racial violence, I wasn’t only underwhelmed, I was frustrated.
Especially upon hearing this excerpt: “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
I turned to my spouse and said, with venomous irony, ”News flash! Donald Trump is dividing America! This is brand new information none of us knew! He’s threatening the Constitution! How could we possibly have foreseen this?”
My first thought was, why is the media celebrating what sounds more like a long overdue confession of his complicity with the Trump administration as opposed to an exposure of Trump’s prima facie corruption?
Mattis has said he feels a “duty of silence” after resigning from his position as Trump’s Secretary of Defense, believing he needs to give Trump the opportunity to govern without his criticisms.
Surely, I thought, he must know some things about what really went on, some pretty damning things—maybe about Trump’s coordination with Russia during the 2016 election, maybe about Michael Flynn, maybe about some of Trump’s disturbing and seemingly self-serving foreign policy decisions. Who knows? But you can’t be that close, embedded in the inner sanctum, without knowing something.
Why was he waiting so long to speak up about anything if he truly cared about America?
So, when he stated what seemed like the obvious, in the excerpts I heard, I was less than prepared to recognize Mattis as a profile in courage.
My spouse, a more accomplished writer/journalist and a wiser political thinker, met me with a firm gaze and a matter-of-fact determination in her voice, letting me know his public denunciation of Trump is a big deal and matters quite a lot.
I agreed to disagree with her and shut my mouth.
I thought about what she said in the context of the dynamics of our current political discourse and then read his full statement.
Terrie, my spouse, was right. The statement was a big deal, and the content of the statement was remarkable, going well beyond the passages most highlighted by the media to spell out in greater detail both the current dangers the Trump administration poses and, more movingly and important in his statement, the path, not back, but forward to a united people and healthy society to be achieved only through actual democratic practices and the actual realization of equality.
First, Terrie helped me realize that simply stating emphatically the obvious facts in today’s political environment is a big deal.
The dynamic today between the Trump administration and the American people is an abusive one. One of the chief tactics of abusive people in relationships is to deny reality and manipulate the truth. This confuses people, fills them with self-doubt, makes them unsure about reality, and also makes them feel hopeless and powerless.
Trump, of course, always tells us a story of what a great and beautiful job he is doing and denies piles of evidence that clearly identify troubling behavior, telling us he hasn’t colluded with Russia, despite mountains of testimony and weeks of hearings revealing the contrary right before America’s eyes.
So, Mattis simply stating the obvious performs a meaningful act of validation from a trusted source, affirming what we all have thought we’ve been seeing and counteracting the crazy-making behaviors and gas-lighting of Trump’s abusive presidency. Americans need to hear again and again how Trump is dividing.
But perhaps even more important in his statement were the ways he defined the relationship between the military and civilian society and the way he re-affirmed the power of democracy as not existing in the presidency but in the people, in the grass roots. This rather surprised me, I confess, as I harbor prejudices that the military mentality is rigidly hierarchical in its thinking.
He stressed unity, but in no simple way, locating its possibility and power outside the presidency and in the people. After he talked about Trump’s divisiveness, he wrote,
“We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.”
Unity, he asserts earlier in the statement, finds its force and potential in the protests’ demands for “Equal Justice Under Law.” He calls this “a wholesome and unifying demand — one that all of us should be able to get behind.”
And he imagines this unity as even obviating the need for the military itself, so powerful is the principle, writing:
James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that “America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat.” We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.
The ability to unite comes from the grassroots for Mattis, as he recognizes the ways those Americans often dismissed as the least consequential have in fact been the backbone of efforts to survive the pandemic through cooperative endeavors:
The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square.
We are used to hearing a lot of anti-government talk in America, especially from Republicans who occupy government offices and use their authority against, rather in the service of, the people they represent.
Mattis here affirms the need for and potential good of government by affirming a rather basic principle we forget: the people are supposed to be the government, and the government is supposed to work for them, not just by them.
Mattis reminded us of the obvious, which we had forgotten, in this statement. It might have come late, but better late than never.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.