What If He Won’t Leave?
Some weeks ago, I happened to catch a favorite old movie. Seven Days in May is about a widely popular general, a powerful senator and the Joint Chiefs of Staff — outraged by a daring new disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union — conspiring to take over the U.S. government.
It’s a thriller, and not remotely unfeasible. John F. Kennedy, who knew the founding book and even cooperated in the moviemaking, told the director John Frankenheimer that he believed a coup like the one in the story could happen in the U.S. It’s been a top choice of somewhat paranoid skeptics like me since it debuted in 1964. Until recently, it has aged very well in its 56 years.
At the last minute the president (it’s Frederic March), a brave Marine/staff director of the Joint Chiefs (Kirk Douglas), a morally upstanding Treasury secretary, the press secretary, and a ramshackle senator (from Georgia, yet) discover the general’s plot. (The general is Burt Lancaster at his steely, imposing best.) They still race to save the republic just like they did 56 years ago.
But this viewing, perhaps my fourth, had a surprise. The climax had turned jarring, unimaginable.
In 2020, the movie’s climax — principled leaders doing the right thing — looks absurd and close to laughable. Leaders don’t act like that anymore. It makes you nostalgic for when we had only treasonable generals, the Soviets and thermonuclear war to fear.
Most of us concluded long ago there is little to trust in Washington. It wasn’t always like that. In 1964, the year Seven Days came out, 77% of Americans’ trusted the government “to do what is right.” Belief has been falling ever since. Pew Research, which tracks such things, reports the percentage of Americans who trust the government sank to another historic low, 17%, in 2019. Perhaps it’s the wages of government leaders themselves raising fear by constantly preaching that “government is the problem” ever since. That seems to be the only thing they’ve said since ’64 that Americans actually have believed. Those same leaders, of course, also have been serving up outlandish rhetoric, wars, mendacities and cruelty at the same time, which is probably the real reason the electorate turned dubious and then cynical.
By now, some of us — me among them — would not be surprised, even if he loses the presidency, Donald Trump will refuse to leave the White House.
Imagine it’s Wednesday, January 13, 2021, seven days until inauguration day. A president ordinarily would be helping with the transition and marking time in office until his successor is sworn in on January 20th.
That morning, President Trump again tweets that the recent election was a complete fraud. A total fraud. MAIL-IN BALLOTS ARE A SCAM, he writes. DEMOCRATS RIGGED THE ELECTION. And so on. On his way to his helicopter, he yells, “people tell me this is the most corrupt election in human history.”
Then, this time, he announces he’s decided that he won’t accept the results. He is going to stay in the White House past January 20th. He will remain there until the voting system is reformed and the scoundrels are punished.
On the 14th, Mitch McConnell contends the refusal to leave is within the president’s power. On the 15th, Susan Collins is concerned. On the 17th, a Sunday, Mitt Romney is angry but still can’t find another Republican senator to agree with him. One by one, the other senators explain they are carefully studying the issue, waiting until the hamstrung Federal Election Commission reports its findings. With two days to go, the FEC, essentially gutted during the last four years, still has only four of its six commissioners, barely a quorum. They meet irregularly and currently have a backlog of 350 complaints to review, some of them involving President Trump. It could take a year get to those.
Even if it does, the recently appointed fourth commissioner, a former Trump attorney, could prevent anything official from happening just by skipping the meeting. To compensate for any irregularities, on the morning of January 20th William Barr promises to review the FEC’s report if and when it is released.
To mute the controversy, the president warns that a phalanx of dangerous Central American refugees is approaching the southern border again. Iran, he adds, apparently had harassed a British ship in the Persian Gulf, and China is on track to eat the United States’ lunch. He plants a story on Fox that Kim Jung Un has launched a spectacular fusillade of test missiles. It’s crisis time.“People are saying the nation shouldn’t change horses in midstream.”
The nation’s pulpits erupt in joy. The president has once again saved the devout.
Plenty of us are as outraged by the attempted coup as we were about his tax returns; his obstructions of justice; his cages on the border (as of last September some 6,000 kids still occupy them, by the way); his fatally narcissistic responses to COVID-19, deadly Puerto Rican hurricanes and California wildfires; his flaunting of conflict-of-interest laws; his vengeful exile of federal experts; his nepotism, etc. But, as happened when he did all that and more, no one knows what to do about or how to do something about the president’s refusal to accept the election results.
In the final moments before he symbolically locks himself in the White House, it may ultimately fall to the United States military to remove him — physically remove him — before it’s too late.
If those Hollywood seven days in May are any guide, the fate of American democracy would thus fall to a cast of principled Marines (James Mattis? John Kelly?) willing to defy their commander in chief; powerful and principled senators (Georgia senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue?); a brave press secretary going beyond the call of duty (former campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany?) and, not least, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. All must do something dangerous and unprecedented and, if unsuccessful, face prison or execution or worse.
A happy ending with the new cast would seem unlikely.
There’d be hope, of course. The military doesn’t like the president much. The Military Times, which regularly polls active duty service members, recently found the president’s support in the armed forces is declining. Half the troops had an unfavorable view of him. His approval rating among them, while steadily falling, remains slightly better than in the population as a whole.
Mark A. Miley is currently chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, according to the same news source, is independent and a straight shooter (apparently both literally and figuratively). Coincidentally, one of his prior positions was, like our hero Kirk Douglas, on the Chiefs’ operations staff.
But defying one’s superior, especially if the superior is the president, is a tough line for anyone in the military to cross.
Retired Air Force General Michael Hayden, former head of the National Security Agency and the CIA, did tell Constitution Daily that service members “are not required to follow an unlawful order.” Hayden, a rhetorical opponent of the president, councils that officers who resist such presidential malevolence have international law on their side.
The norms of international law, however, have been less-than-stout obstacles to recent strongman coups in, say, Hungary, Belarus, Turkey and the Philippines. Despite the norms, 71 countries in 2017 alone suffered “net declines in civil and political liberties.” In all those countries, militaries were either complicit or simply inactive during the changes.
Life often imitates art, even Seven Days in May, but maybe the more reassuring movie we should be watching is The Man Who Came to Dinner. It is, of course, about an unwanted, loud and arrogant guest who, weeks later, just won’t leave. In that one, the harassed hosts do finally get rid of him, happily without military intervention.