It has already been reported widely that Trump has appointed more generals to his Cabinet than any President since the end of WW2. Now, in a sense, nobody can be surprised about this. In just the same way in which they cannot be surprised about the fact that he has the largest numbers of billionaires and millionaires in any administration ever. It fits in perfectly both with Trump the man, and with Trump the candidate.
Yet it still bears analysing why the generals are there and what purpose they serve. And indeed, there are several non-exclusive explanations available. The most generous is that Trump understands that he has relatively little legitimacy. He has won the Electoral College vote, but he is obviously still very insecure about the 3 million deficit he had to Hillary Clinton in the popular vote.
For all his claims to be speaking for “the people” and being “tremendously” popular, “fake news” polls from the reputable media outlets continue to show him to be the least popular President in history. And no President in recent memory has caused as much public protest on the streets of the United States in such a short time. It is difficult to claim to be “the man of the people in Washington” when the people patently loathe you.
In these circumstances, he needs other sources of legitimacy. And the US Military remains hallowed with the vast majority of Americans in a way that no other institution is, with the exception of the Constitution itself.
Not even a scandal such as that surrounding retired Gen. Michael Flynn can dent the broader reputation of the military with the American public, and the Army top brass will continue to be the members of government with the broadest levels of public support. And, while they are at it, they will help buttress the otherwise incredibly shaky edifice of the Trump administration.
Trump can expect people who have been trained for decades to jump on a grenade for their fellow soldiers when the need arises: as indeed was the case with Michael Flynn, who took one for the team so that Trump and his campaign staff can avoid deeper scrutiny of their ties to RussiaDr. Azeem Ibrahim
Other, less benign explanations, might perhaps have to do with the military mind-set, and the role that can play in the power dynamics of the administration. Military men have two psychological tendencies, which makes them very appealing to someone like Trump: they have incredible espirit de corp, and a very deeply ingrained sense of chain of command.
Thus, Trump can expect people who have been trained for decades to jump on a grenade for their fellow soldiers when the need arises: as indeed was the case with Michael Flynn, who took one for the team so that Trump and his campaign staff can avoid deeper scrutiny of their own ties to Russia.
And also, he can expect them to bow down to his “commands” and do as they are told. Which is not to say that many of his generals would have difficulties of conscience following Trump’s orders. After all, they were specifically selected from amongst the most reactionary members of the Military establishment.
Both of those reasons are perfectly logical reasons for why Trump chose so many generals to be part of his executive team. In fact, the only thing you might be surprised about is that he didn’t choose more – though I guess Trump’s billionaire friends also needed rewarding.
And yet, one cannot help but think that there is more to this. Surely, someone of Trump’s temperament just gets off on when a General in the US Army has to stand to attention and salute him. When they just have to do what he wants them to do.
A fragile ego?
Here are some of the best military leaders of our generation, some of the most respected Americans, and they now have to stand when Trump enters the room. Is there anything any other American can do to boost Trump’s fragile ego more than that? Ratings are all well and good, but having your own posse of the best military leaders of our generation salute you? This is the ultimate alpha-male validation.
The only thing that can top that in Trump’s universe is to have Vladimir Putin himself swear fealty to him personally – though, as things stand, that power dynamic seems to flow in the opposite direction.
Still, Trump can take solace in his generals. And for their part, they are already being amply rewarded: Trump announced just this week a 10 percent hike in general military spending. Quite why this was necessary is beyond even most defense analysts, at a time when the US still outspends the next 20 military powers combined and is still terrible at projecting power in a world where bombs and drone strikes are increasingly less effective at promoting American authority around the world.
But the generals will all have business relations with the companies that will benefit from this spending splurge. And I would not put it past Trump for him to have personal business relations with the very same companies as well.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.