Mattis: Not Ike, but the Right Shape

About retired Marine General James Mattis I know little beyond the rough biographical outlines as provided in a recent Daily Beast column by John Noonan – “This Man Can Save Us From Trump – and Clinton” – promoting his potential presidential candidacy and comparing him to Eisenhower.

The first part, the part about knowing relatively little about him, is how I do know at least that the Eisenhower comparison is way off, since, at the time that “Ike” was nominated by the Republican Party, he was one of the most famous men in America. In the latter regard he somewhat resembled a certain Donald Trump, except that he earned his fame by commanding the combined armies of a victorious globe-spanning alliance, not by hosting a television show or placing his name on gaudy buildings. Perhaps Mattis should be better known than he is, but he is known presently only to a relative few. If he has a catchy one-syllable nickname, I do not know it. Unlike Eisenhower, a candidate or nominee Mattis, or his backers, would have to seek recognition.

I do not doubt that that task could be achieved, virtually overnight if need be, but until we know what he would stand for politically, and with whom, we cannot hope to understand the shape or potential of his candidacy. 

Perhaps he would fill the “celebrity general” spot in our political-cultural firmament once filled by Colin Powell and  in a different way by Norman Schwartzkopf, recently vacated by David Petraeus in the wake of scandal. The position is always available – the same one filled not just by Ike, but by countless other figures in American and world history.

It is normal, and beyond that it is natural and altogether archetypical, for human communities to look for and seek to rally behind a commanding figure, all the more so in times of crisis. Indeed, with a few adjustments, Noonan’s summary could have been put down on parchment a few thousand years ago, recited from street corners by appointed criers, and echoed in the councils of whatever state or proto-state or facsimile:

Americans are craving a strong leader, one who is upright, honest, and unstained by political blood sport. General Eisenhower was one of America’s finest presidents. General Mattis would undoubtedly continue in that great tradition. Even in this screwed up political era, service and integrity still count for something. They’ve always been the backbone of this republic, and we could use a little of both right now.

As has often been observed, the American electoral process is in many ways the institutionalization of crisis even in the normal course of events, and this year, with one of the two major parties struggling to fight off a hostile takeover by a crypto-fascist and his movement, is a tad crisiser than usual.

For the same reason, the response by our Twitter friend Adam Elkus to the Mattis rumblings seems off to me:

Over four additional Tweets describing Mattis as “Bloomberg with a high-and-tight,” Elkus asks where the “untapped constituency” for a “centrist” is supposed to be found, then asks whether, in fact, “the rise of Trumpism [doesn’t] suggest that the real untapped constituency [is] the people that don’t like experience, establishment.”

I think Elkus misreads the nature of the “dream” – which in this instance at most only overlaps the wish for a “centrist” – while his further observations on “experience” and “establishment” adopt the conventional wisdom on “outsider” candidacies too superficially. To a Trump supporter, or to many Trump supporters anyway, Trump does not represent a lack of “experience,” but rather the possession of a different kind of experience. He lacks a conventional politician’s résumé, not any résumé at all. He is a famous member of a different kind of social-cultural establishment or a different, distinct but sometimes overlapping segment of the same political-cultural establishment that national politicians also occupy. 

More to the point, Trump’s direct appeal to the so-called Jacksonian temperament, like the temperament itself, may be expressed in seemingly irrational and even violent ways, but those offering up seemingly anarchistic, often foul echoes are not only susceptible to discipline: They typically yearn for it. The militant may want many things, but most of all he wants and needs a commander to turn his gang into a militia. No one is better suited to such a task than a military commander of renown. Without someone of this type or on this level available, the gang or mob will look to substitutes. 

Throughout the campaign, nowhere more poignantly than in the Republican debates, Trump has provided the desired image of dominance, to real effect. He has sounded and looked like a man among boys and girls – the “Alpha Male,” as we say. Yet if Mattis or someone like him possessed minimal political skills and sufficient political interest, received the backing of centrists and conservatives currently without a home, and believed that his time had come or duty had called or both, he might explode the Trump balloon in a political instant – replacing the ignorant and foolish bully who looks the part with “the real thing.”

Photo by Secretary of Defense

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