Just how fragile is our American democracy? Consider Gen. Mark Milley's fears about a military coup and Jan. 6.

David A. Nichols
Special to The Capital-Journal

Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, feared last autumn that President Donald Trump might try to use the military to stage a coup, attempting to reverse the results of the 2020 election. That revelation is found in a new book by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker, “I Alone Can Fix It.”

The Constitution makes the president the commander-in-chief over the military. Refusing a direct order from the president could be a violation of the Constitution and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The insurrection act of 1807 granted the president authority to deploy the military against American citizens to suppress civil disorder, insurrection or rebellion.

President Eisenhower invoked such authority in 1957, sending the 101st Airborne into Little Rock, Ark., to enforce court ordered school desegregation.

Did Milley derail such a scenario or simply fear something that wasn't about to happen? There was the Trump-inspired assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, apparently designed to prevent Congress from formally completing the electoral count.

The heroes of that day should include the senators and representatives, led by Vice President Mike Pence, who returned that night and formalized acceptance of the electoral count. Had they not, Trump — who was still president — would have had an excuse to declare the election nullified and deploy the military to enforce his claim to the presidency.

We are tempted to treat Milley’s fears and Jan. 6 as isolated episodes. That would be a mistake, ignoring a fundamental fragility in the American system. Why?

First, the instability was there at the outset. The founders feared a demagogue could exploit direct democracy and establish a dictatorship. They designed a republic that limited voting and office holding to white men; women didn't get the vote until 1920. They established an electoral college representing the states to finalize the selection of a president, regardless of the overall popular vote.

Second, there was the Civil War. Had Lincoln not won that war, American democracy might have been destroyed. The constitution he served, rooted in indirect democracy, had been ratified in 1787 only after a bargain permitted slaveholding states to count three-fifths of their slaves in congressional representation, effectively diminishing the power of voters in free states.

That compromise laid the foundation for the electoral college, in effect another compromise with slave states. The electoral college allowed Donald Trump to win the presidency in 2016 without winning the popular vote.

Finally, there was Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his 1950s anti-communist crusade, eventually linked to Donald Trump. Dwight Eisenhower privately compared McCarthy to Hitler and proclaimed: “He wants to be president. He’s the last guy in the world who’ll ever get there, if I have anything to say.”

The Trump link was Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s young prosecutor during his witch-hunt hearings. After McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate, Cohn returned to New York and served 13 years as legal adviser and mentor to Donald J. Trump. Trump remained an apostle of Cohn’s (and McCarthy’s) ruthless approach to political leadership.

That brings us back to General Milley’s fear of dictatorship. We dodged the bullet this time, but there are other demagogues around, wanting to run for president. Our tradition, upheld by Eisenhower and Milley, respects the constitution but reflects an inherent instability in our system’s grant of presidential authority over the military.

A revered maxim, often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, addresses the fragility of American democracy: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” In 2021, it still is.