Virgil: Too Many Generals? Donald Trump, the Military, and the Rhetoric of Mobilization


The president, born to a wealthy Protestant family in New York, was seemingly surrounded by military men, and he frequently used martial rhetoric to make his points.  This military influence disturbed his many critics, who accused him of concentrating executive power in un-democratic hands. 

For his part, the president didn’t much care what his critics thought of him and his choices.  His top aide in the White House was a West Point graduate who had topped off his Army career as a general.  And his top military adviser was an Annapolis graduate who, at the president’s behest, routinely gave orders to civilian cabinet secretaries.  

In the meantime, the president’s rhetoric was oftentimes martial.  In one speech on the economy, he declared that “these unhappy times” called for the mobilization of the latent economic power of the country, akin to the successful mobilization of a past war.   

And in another speech, the president said that Americans must treat the task of economic recovery “as we would treat the emergency of a war.”  He added, Americans “must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline.”  Indeed, he said that if Congress was slow to act on the crisis, he would need 

 . . . broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

Are these the deeds and words of Donald J. Trump, the soon-to-be 45th president?   They sound as if they could be, but, in fact, they are all from Franklin D. Roosevelt, the 32nd president. 

Yes, all the preceding points concerned FDR, not DJT.   Roosevelt’s top aide for most of his time in the White House was Edwin “Pa” Watson, West Point class of 1908.  Watson had earned a Silver Star in combat during World War One, and at first he served as a military aide to the 32nd president.  Then, from 1938 to 1945, he held the title of White House appointments secretary—in modern-day terminology, chief of staff.   

Meanwhile, FDR’s top military adviser during World War Two was William D. Leahy, Annapolis class of 1897.  Leahy rose to admiral  and chief of naval operations, before retiring in 1939.  Then, in 1942, FDR called him out of retirement to serve as chief of staff to the commander-in-chief.  From that newly created post, Leahy gave orders not only to the military brass but also to the civilian secretaries of the Department of the Navy and the Department of War.  Indeed, Leahy was so highly regarded that after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, President Harry Truman kept him on in his post until 1949, when Leahy, by now in his mid-seventies, finally retired for good.

And as for rhetoric, it was in 1932 that FDR compared the challenge of economic recovery from the Depression to the challenge of winning World War One.  And the  following year, 1933, in his first inaugural address, he declared that Americans must form themselves into “a trained and loyal army” to confront the “emergency of a war.”

So now we might ask: How did Roosevelt’s use of military personnel and martial rhetoric work out?  Well, it worked out well enough for FDR personally; he was elected and re-elected to the White House a total of four times. 

And much more importantly, it worked out well for the country.  During the 12 years of FDR’s presidency, from 1933 to 1945, the unemployment rate fell from the 25 percent rate that he had inherited from his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, all the way down to one percent.  And oh yes, during World War Two, the US won the greatest military victory in the history of the world. 

Not bad. 

So today, Trump is in good presidential company when he hires generals as top advisers, such as Michael Flynn, John Kelly, and James Mattis.  And of course, another close aide, Stephen K. Bannon, was once a naval officer—and perhaps there are yet more veterans to come.  

Yet interestingly, unlike his recent predecessors in the Oval Office, Trump seems profoundly uninterested in launching any more overseas “wars of choice.”  

Meanwhile, back on the homefront, Trump is in the Rooseveltian tradition when he speaks in martial terms about putting an end to an “era of economic surrender,” describes international trade as “almost as a war,” and calls upon the nation to peacefully mobilize for an economic renaissance—or, as he puts it, Make America Great Again.  

Yet as we know, the Main Stream Media loathes Trump, and is eager to attack him for anything he does.  And so for now, until it finds another cudgel, the MSM is going after the President-elect for hiring too many military officers and talking too tough. 

Here, for example, is The New York Times headline on December 6: “Greater Deference to Generals Has Undermined Civilian Control of the Military.”  And here’s The Washington Post headline on December 8:  “Trump hires a third general, raising concerns about heavy military influence.”  And of course, just to cite these two articles would seem unfair to the other thousand articles making the same point.  One can only say: Given the MSM’s dislike for Trump, if it weren’t this issue, it would be some other issue.  

And as for presidential rhetoric, this headline from November 21, “A Donald Trump Trade War With China Would Hurt America,” will have to stand in for the other ten thousand pieces with a similar theme. 

Okay, so that’s the MSM proving, yet again, that if you hate someone hard enough, anything he does is fair game for attack.   

Yes, the MSM, joined by the entire liberal elite, obviously prefers that politicians and their top aides begin their careers as politicos.  Or perhaps it prefers that they lateral their way in from the professions of lawyering, think-tanking, and, of course, best of all, community organizing.   

To which the American people have replied, Let’s try and do better.  Let’s try a different path.  

And that’s exactly what Trump is doing.