Here’s how lynch mobs form, in the age of the alt-right and “alternative facts.”
First, you inadvertently wave a red flag at an arena full of bulls. Then you sit back and wait for the internet to do its dark magic.
In my case, the red flag was a few paragraphs at the end of a recent column, speculating on what would happen if Donald Trump truly and dangerously lost his marbles. I wondered about one “possibility … that until recently I would have said was unthinkable in the United States of America: a military coup, or at least a refusal by military leaders to obey certain orders”:
The principle of civilian control of the military has been deeply internalized by the US military, which prides itself on its nonpartisan professionalism.… But Trump … [is] thin-skinned, erratic, and unconstrained — and his unexpected, self-indulgent pronouncements are reportedly sending shivers through even his closest aides.
What would top US military leaders do if given an order that struck them as not merely ill-advised, but dangerously unhinged? An order that wasn’t along the lines of “Prepare a plan to invade Iraq if Congress authorizes it based on questionable intelligence,” but “Prepare to invade Mexico tomorrow!” or “Start rounding up Muslim Americans and sending them to Guantanamo!” or “I’m going to teach China a lesson — with nukes!”
It’s impossible to say, of course. The prospect of American military leaders responding to a presidential order with open defiance is frightening — but so, too, is the prospect of military obedience to an insane order. After all, military officers swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, not the president. For the first time in my life, I can imagine plausible scenarios in which senior military officials might simply tell the president: “No, sir. We’re not doing that,” to thunderous applause from the New York Times editorial board.
Needless to say, when I wrote this, it didn’t occur to me that anyone could construe it as a call for a military coup. Perhaps this should have occurred to me, given the current state of American political discourse, but it didn’t. I received a couple of polite email messages from readers who argued that I shouldn’t have even raised this as a hypothetical possibility, but most initial comments came from readers who took what I wrote in the spirit in which it was intended: What might happen if the US president gave an order that was truly, frighteningly unhinged, and all normal checks and balances had failed? Could we imagine a military refusal to obey the commander in chief? Should we imagine it?