As most strongmen throughout history know, war is an extraordinary tool for winning absolute compliance and loyalty from their followers. The reason is not because forced compliance and loyalty are sound management or psychological concepts, but because the theater of war creates an information gap that grows wider as one goes down the chain of command. This information gap can close given enough time and adequate communication. But because warring armies are often short on both, well-trained military leadership ensures that information is centralized and distributed to execute orders.
But it is not enough to construct a chain of command. The premise is that a well-constructed chain of command will create a replacement mechanism for sounder, more deliberate methods of planning, decision-making, and execution. An arbitrarily constructed chain of command lacking appropriate training, sound information, and poor communication does more harm than good.
By way of demonstration, consider the 1995 big-budget submarine movie Crimson Tide, a good movie though it may be the most egregious violator of the Bechdel Test in modern cinema.1The Bechdel Test, named for its creator, posits that a movie passes the test when two women are depicted on screen discussing something other than a man. While it is often surprising how many movies will fail this test, Crimson Tide fails for the elemental reason that it lacks two female speaking parts. Gene Hackman portrays a grizzled nuclear submarine commander with decades of experience and, even more rare, actual combat duty. Denzel Washington is his brand new Commanding Officer (or “CO,” as the movie reminds approximately 400 times),2A reader points out that Hackman is the CO, Washington was the XO, or Executive Officer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this movie. Oh well. handpicked by Hackman for this mission but without combat experience. The submarine is sent to Chechnya, where separatist extremists have captured Russian nuclear assets that threaten the American homeland.
The submarine receives confirmed orders to fire its nuclear missiles in a preemptive strike while the Russian missiles are being fueled on their launchpads. Before Hackman can order the missiles fired, however, a follow-up transmission is interrupted by a Chechan submarine attack, cutting off communications.
Lacking any other orders, Hackman—the combat veteran—insists that he must follow his last complete order and fire the sub’s missiles. Washington refuses to carry out the previous order, insists that they do not fire before receiving the new communication, and removes Hackman from duty after Hackman attempts to bypass Washington in the chain of command. The rest of the movie details the breakdown of the chain of command as the crew splits into factions behind Hackman and Washington.
The movie’s intensity draws from the submarine’s close quarters and the tension of the situation, but the chain of command breaks down in the first instance precisely because the information chain breaks. If the information had continued to flow freely to Hackman, Washington, and the crew, there would have been no movie because the chain of command would have worked.3No particular surprise that once the radio is fixed, the incoming message confirms that Washington was right to insist on holding off: the Chechens had surrendered. Hackman does not portray his character as a psychopath. To the contrary, he is portrayed as a veteran commander to whom America has entrusted one of its most significant strategic assets. Hackman may have been “wrong,” but the movie goes out of its way to illustrate that he just as easily could have been “right.” Either way, the movie concludes by explaining that shortly after it was made, the United States changed its nuclear protocols to ensure that only the President of the United States could make that potentially fatal decision.
That the person America entrusted to make that decision has been Donald Trump for the past four years—and the next sixteen days—is always sobering. Trump is a psychopath. He is untrained, of below-average intelligence, and has the emotional intelligence of a toddler. He has no idea what he is doing, and has never had the slightest care of finding out. He isn’t Gene Hackman. He’s just a hack, man.
And yet this is the man America elected, without qualification, training, intelligence, or judgment sufficient for the position. How does a hack aspire to be a Hackman?
Let’s return to the movie. Washington followed naval regulations when he removed Hackman as captain.4Note: I am no expert in naval regulations. It’s just a movie. But the movie’s internal logic posited several times that Washington’s actions were lawful, and that is all that is relevant to the metaphor. There would have been no question that Washington had acted lawfully, except for the exigent crisis facing the submarine’s crew. It is within the context of that crisis that Hackman won his faction. The so-called “fog of war” justified actions that these highly trained soldiers never would have otherwise considered. And they did so because those soldiers rallied behind Hackman’s proven leadership—a trust built over decades of military service.
Trump has none of these qualifications. He has no history of leadership. He has no experience in public service.5Even now. He has no idea what the rules are, much less whether he follows them. Under such circumstances, Trump’s only chance to “lead” is by creating a permanent “fog of war”—a never-ending faux-battle scenario in which “soldiers” are “trained” to follow a certain chain of command because exigencies demand it.
To divert from Trump’s manifest incapacity to govern, Trump in particular and Republicans in general have been inventing fake exigencies to provide their acolytes with the necessary justification for supporting Trump. Trump’s ever-lengthening list of purported barbarians at the gate—blacks, immigrants, protesters, socialists, the “radical left,” Antifa—provides a ready-made list of societal enemies always ready to pounce on white Americans at a moment’s notice. The more brilliant, and devious, part of the scheme is to recognize that if white Americans are preoccupied with hating their neighbors, they are unlikely to save any concern for Trump’s relationships with more distant (though actual) monsters such as Putin, Kim, and Erdogan.
Meanwhile, Trump and company have cut off information flow both to the government and to the American people. By naming unqualified, in-over-their-heads, zero-IQ male models to oversee America’s national security apparatus, Trump hoped to starve what he calls the “deep state”—but what America has for nearly 150 years called the “civil service”—of the information necessary to do their jobs. Doing so in turn created a series of exigent circumstances—such as near constant Russian disinformation campaigns and pandemic disaster—that drive Trump’s followers back to him in panic.6Michael Lewis’s book The Fifth Risk discusses various examples of this in some detail. This feedback loop of the politically damned exists for no reason but to support the otherwise nonexistent narrative for Trump’s presidency.
Meanwhile, Trump’s torrent of public lies has been buttressed for several years by a series of increasingly bizarre and inane conspiracy theories—Q, Kraken—the details of which are unimportant except that they create additional imaginary enemies. With Trump acolytes whipped into a permanent state of aggressive frenzy, every day is an armed stand-off with the future of the world at stake. Only, like the movie, it’s not real.
The latest such fantasy conflict is the electoral college vote, which Donald Trump famously lost. In two days, Congress meets for the ministerial purpose of receiving and counting the electoral votes certified by the states. Because there is only one certified slate of electors in each state, Congress has no legitimate role in the proceedings.7Several lawmakers have claimed that Congress has a certification role in the election. This is false. The states certify their electors, not Congress. Congress does not pick presidents.
The Vice President has even less of a role—as President of the Senate, it is his duty to read the votes into the record. Nevertheless, the supposed threat of Trump’s loss has led Republicans to the very brink of constitutional destruction, creating ever more fantastical justifications for straightforward sedition. The chain of command exists, but it is purposeless. Dangerous. Corrupt. It serves no higher moral or ethical purpose than stroking Trump’s insatiable narcissism and Republican lusts for power. It is obscene. Republican objections are no different than the shamblings of your local Q message board, and should be treated with similar contempt. That they will not be successful is hardly the point.
It is true that for a few Republicans, Trump’s efforts to destroy whatever is left of the country he abused for four years has been a bridge too far. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger endorsed Trump, a disqualification from public office, but his release of the tape conclusively demonstrating Trump’s weakness and venality was a mercy to a beaten republic. A bipartisan set of ten former Defense Secretaries—Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Trump appointee Mark Esper among them—publicly joined to decry Trump’s interest in turning the military on American citizens for voting him out of office.8This author spends no time worrying that military officers will follow orders to seize American assets and “re-run” a sham election. Donald Trump doesn’t pay their bills—literally. We do. And a set of Trump-enabling stragglers—Kevin Cramer, Lindsey Graham, Tom Cotton, maybe even Mike Lee (R-Trump’s Small Intestine)—appear set to draw the line somewhere short of a coup d’etat. Heroes all.
Nevertheless, at least a dozen Republican Senators and approximately 150 House members—the vast majority of the intellectually diluted GOP caucus—appear likely to go on record Wednesday and, while invoking fake exigencies and laughable “facts,” will violate their constitutional oaths and refuse to participate in the completion of the electoral process. Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Trump’s Large Intestine) even went so far to admit as much, conceding that “I can not, in good conscience, uphold the oath I took to protect and defend our constitution by voting to certify the election.” Tell us something we don’t know.
In any event, even if Congress could do what Republicans propose—and it cannot—there is no mathematical path for them to succeed. Democrats hold a majority of the House of Representatives, and objections must be upheld by a majority vote of both chambers.
But while that may be true in 2020, there is no particular reason to believe it will be true in 2024 or 2028. The fake Republican war drums have not stopped. Their imagined enemies increase as Trump adds to their daily list of hallucinations, and those enemies are now about to hold the singular powers of the Executive Branch—powers that enamored Republicans precisely because Trump misused them in unprecedented ways. So conditioned, the feedback loop begins anew. Look what Democrats can do with such powers to abuse, they say.
In other words, all the conditions remain for full-out mutiny, as Republicans weed out those inadequately committed to their unhinged, amoral chain of command. Without a higher purpose, without a disciplined and responsible leadership, and without restoring their information flow to something approaching reality, Republicans will continue to threaten public tranquility for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in a manner probably more comparable to the Chechens than Denzel Washington, or even Gene Hackman.