Authoritarianism 101: Do not question the military

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks past White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to begin speaking to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks past White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to begin speaking to the media during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

The lowest moment of Trump’s latest Gold Star misfire surely came on Friday when his mouthpiece decreed from a White House podium that military brass should be exempt from journalistic scrutiny. That mentality is de rigueur in banana republics ruled by juntas, and it’s no surprise to hear our current regime talk that way, given its authoritarian instincts.

As you’ve probably heard, Chief of Staff and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly sought to extricate Trump from the week-long spat with a war widow and the widow’s congresswoman. But Kelly only made things worse; he waded into the muck by sliming the congresswoman, Frederica Wilson, with charges that were quickly proven false. And at a Friday press briefing, when a reporter asked Trump flack Sarah Huckabee Sanders to explain Kelly’s falsehood, she replied:

“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that is something highly inappropriate.”

Wait, it’s “highly inappropriate” to question someone with military credentials? This I did not know! Give me a sec, I’m going to look that up in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights … it must be in there somewhere … no, apparently not. But I guess this regime felt that its pencil-thin Electoral College win entitled it to add that particular codicil to the First Amendment. Where it obviously doesn’t belong.

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Sanders probably spoke on impulse because there was no way to defend Kelly’s lies; her only alternative was to stonewall. But her remark was consistent with the Trump team’s ongoing quest to delegitimize the press — and it exposed her blithe ignorance of contemporary American history.

It was half a century ago, in Vietnam, when the press learned not to reflexively trust military leaders who, it turned out, were perfectly capable of spewing fake news. The worst offender was the top man, Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who kept talking about “the light at the end of the tunnel,” placing his faith in the enemy death toll — the “body counts” that got more and more inflated as they were passed up the chain of command.

The daily briefing in Saigon was nicknamed “The Five O’Clock Follies” because the military brass kept insisting, day after week after month after year, that the war was going great even though reporters knew, from forays into the field, that the truth was the opposite. David Halberstam, one of the best in the press, wrote as early as 1965: “To the generals, it was crucial that the news be good … We would have liked nothing better than to believe the war was going well and that it would eventually be won. But it was impossible for us to believe those things without denying the evidence of our own senses.”

Actually, we need not invoke Vietnam to know that military leaders are routinely questioned in a civilian-led democracy — as evidenced, to cite one random example, by a 2013 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on sexual harassment in the military. After the top brass on the Joint Chiefs of Staff uttered a string of lame remarks, a Republican senator, Roy Blunt of Missouri, lashed out: “Your answers to the question was stunningly bad! It’s a good thing we had this hearing.” And the highly decorated people being questioned were still active members of the military — not retirees like Kelly, who’s currently serving (and covering for Trump) in a strictly civilian capacity.

Nobody in the service of this country — civilian or otherwise — is immune from questioning or criticism, despite Sanders’ attempt to teach us Authoritarianism 101. Fortunately she can be shrugged off, much the way we can flick a fly off a sleeve. Robust responses to Kelly’s lies about the congresswoman have proceeded apace. One priceless contribution comes from Matthew Dowd, the former pollster for George W. Bush. In an open letter, he writes: “Dear General Kelly, I am grateful for your immense public service over your career and what you have sacrificed for our country along the way … [but] I have a very simple question: Do you know who you work for?”

Well. It’s certainly not clear that Sanders knows who she works for.

Because, over the past few years, Trump has repeatedly tweet-attacked military leaders — “I was never a fan of Colin Powell” and “General John Allen … failed badly in his fight against ISIS” and “General Martin Dempsey … is no Patton or MacArthur” and “We don’t have the leadership, including the Generals, to attack anyone!” — but if anyone were to ask Sanders whether she informed Trump that questioning the military was “highly inappropriate,” she’d surely say what she always says, that she hadn’t had the chance to speak with him.

David Halberstam, the aforementioned journalist who cut his teeth by questioning the military, once warned, “Those who know history best tend to be tempered by it.” Alas, we’re currently led — to use the word “led” loosely — by instinctive authoritarians who don’t know or respect our history at all.

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