One morning in July 2009, I was escorting the new Joint Chiefs of Staff Director for Intelligence (J-2), then–Brigadier General Mike Flynn, into the basement of the Pentagon to meet some of the analysts who worked eight-hour shifts, day and night seven days a week, preparing the Chairman’s daily intelligence brief. As we walked down a long corridor and before we arrived at the door to the secure room where the analysts worked, Flynn stopped me and asked, “so what are these folks saying about me? What rumors are you hearing?” Stunned, I responded that I had no idea because I would never ask them, and they would never offer their unsolicited opinion. He was the new boss, and as far as I could tell, they all respected him. They were committed to doing their jobs. Flynn persisted, telling me to keep my ears open. It was a bizarre conversation with more than a hint of paranoia.
Eleven years later, after a precipitous fall from grace, retired Lieutenant General Flynn wrongly suggested to a television interviewer at the far-right outlet Newsmax that the President of the United States could deploy the military to states he did not win in a recent election, seize voting machines, and rerun the election in those states. He also accused the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Judge John Roberts, of “lacking courage and moral fiber” for not doing enough to interject the Court into the election certification process. In the ensuing weeks, he continued to perpetuate the lie that electoral victory had been stolen from Donald Trump, his former boss. On 5 January, Flynn riled up many of the Trump supporters who, a day later, would storm the Capitol building. While Flynn never explicitly called for violence, he repeated the lie about a stolen election and used highly suggestive language about “taking our country back.” On 7 January, Twitter banned Flynn for promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory and in line with its policy on “coordinated harmful activity.”
Less than a week later, on 12 January, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a memorandum reminding military servicemembers of their oath to the Constitution (as opposed to, presumably, a person, group, or ideological movement). This was an extraordinary event in the modern era of U.S. civil-military relations. Many Americans probably wondered why the Chairman and Service Chiefs felt it necessary at all. U.S. military personnel loyalty to the Constitution, after all, is one of those bedrock principles Americans haven’t had to worry about since, well, maybe 1861 and the years prior leading up to the Civil War. But the 6 January storming of the Capitol was not only violent and seditious, it included an unsettling number of military veterans (11 of the first 72 arrested, as of 16 January).
The more we learn about military veterans in far-right extremist movements and the growing reach of those movements into the military (see Marine Corps Captain Julia Quinn’s recent Proceedings article, “Confronting the Military’s White Nationalist Problem”), the more the Joint Chiefs’ memo starts to seem sensible, if not overdue. Indeed, a 2019 Military Times survey of 1,630 active-duty members found that 36 percent had “seen evidence of white supremacist and racist ideologies and in the military." In recent years, this data and other events have finally prompted Pentagon leaders to formally investigate extremism in the military. But what it finds, I suspect, will have no resemblance to what the U.S. military was experiencing in 1861 as the nation cleaved apart.
At its core, the Confederacy was a seditious white nationalist movement that precipitated the greatest calamity in American history. But in type and under the context in which it culminated in a failed violent secession, it was far different than what is occurring within an element of society today. Confederate secession was grounded in geography and states’ rights to preserve slavery. It did not rely on a single charismatic leader, or small cabal of leaders, or on a massive lie or set of lies (Confederates weren’t in the thrall of conspiracy theories—there was a powerful abolitionist movement in the North that envisioned a day in the near future when slavery would be illegal in all states), and largely wanted to secede from the Union and preserve its way of life (as opposed to overthrowing the entire U.S. government and conquering the northern states).
And so, while the Confederate flag was prominent at the 6 January “Save America” rally (the epitome of absurd symbolism considering the Confederacy was most definitely not interested in “saving America” as it was originally constituted), the history of the Confederacy or even that of the more recent era of Jim Crow segregation will not help military leaders diagnose the cause of extremism in the ranks today. A portion of the hard-core Trump base are unabashed white supremacists, for sure, but other groups include religious extremists, conspiracy theorists, and remnants of the Tea Party movement—all fanatics who believe elected leaders who do not share their views are illegitimate and represent tyrannical government. They have turned their backs on democracy in the name of their vision of an American democratic republic.
What they really have in common—and Mike Flynn is the most high-profile veteran in this category—is their fanaticism. What the military should probably be focused on, then, is not as much what makes a servicemember drift toward white supremacy, although that must be stamped out, but what makes a servicemember a politically motivated fanatic. And perhaps the best writer to look to in that regard is Eric Hoffer, the “longshoreman philosopher,” who published his classic book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements in 1951. In looking back at the horrifying episodes in Europe and elsewhere, Hoffer was trying to determine how illiberal mass movements originated, cohered, and ultimately triumphed over whatever existing order they were opposing. The book became a bestseller when President Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to it in one of his early televised press conferences.
Given the events of recent months, it would be reassuring if the book became a bestseller again. Its insights and wisdom provide relevant, if frightening, parallels to what we are witnessing from the radical portion of the Trump base today—not a politics situated in coherent conservative principles or ideas (those are jettisoned in an instance in favor of personal loyalty), but one that exalts one thing above all else: fanatical devotion. Fanatics, Hoffer notes, are what mass movements need more than anything to take flight and challenge the existing order.
What is the difference between a fanatical follower and someone committed with measured and not unconditional adherence to an otherwise practical organization or political philosophy? For Hoffer, it can be found in the psychology of self-loathing. The fanatic does not have a passion for self-advancement but for self-renunciation. He or she is fundamentally unhappy at a subconscious level with who they are, and they project that unhappiness outward onto “the system.” As Hoffer wrote, “people who see their lives as irremediably spoiled cannot find a worthwhile purpose in self-advancement.” A demagogue who denounces “the system” with exhortatory rhetoric brings music to their ears. They become intoxicated with an irrational thirst not to create but to destroy. This passionate frenzy for destruction is what we witnessed on 6 January.
While this certainly does not describe the majority of Trump voters, it is an accurate assessment of more than merely a radical fringe, to include many of the fanatical supporters who attend rallies, including the 6 January rally (initial investigative research indicates many indicated they were “preparing for war” and “willing to die”). Hoffer does not label these people losers, deplorables, or misfits. Instead, he calls them the “poignantly frustrated” whose frustration is born of “the estrangement of the self” that produces “both a readiness to sacrifice the self and a willingness to dissolve it by losing one’s individual distinctness in a compact collective whole.” The movement gives them community and purpose, and they are utterly convinced they are not only right but rightly ordained.
How deeply rooted is this phenomenon in our society today? Again, one should be careful not to take comfort in the notion, repeated by too many in my view, that it remains on the fringe. The United States has experienced many extreme movements in its history, on the left and right. We have had our versions of the Communist party and Nazi party, radical antigovernment movements in the 1960s, and plenty of militant religious movements and cults. But until recently, no mass movement open to using illegal measures, including violent ones, has had the blessing of a major party presidential nominee, let alone a sitting president. Fear most that Donald Trump is not the cause, but the symptom of the phenomenon, as many believe.
The violent fanatics we witnessed storm the Capitol building absolutely believe themselves a part of a mass movement, part of a self-sacrificing whole. They crave the passion of attachment to a cause. It is pointless to attempt to reason with them. “The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause.”
When political identity becomes indistinguishable from personal identity, political discourse in a democratic society begins to break down and venture into dangerous territory. I have served in countries where political parties are nothing more than religious or tribal groups. Their periods of political calm are extremely fragile and combustible, an illusion of democratic stability, and capable of fracturing and descending into murderous violence in a moment given the right spark (witness Kenya in December 2007).
Unfortunately, in a Constitutional Republic like the United States, for good reasons, the military has very little control to affect the trajectory of such a social phenomenon. However, unlike with some left-wing movements in the 1960s, members of this mass movement do not hold those who serve or have served in the military with disdain—people perpetuating the very oppression they are fighting against. Instead, they admire veterans and those still serving and actively seek their membership. Their radical, undemocratic message has penetrated far deeper into the ranks than military leaders have cared to countenance.
This is the terrifying reality to which military and law enforcement leaders are now awakening. Regular U.S. military life doesn’t cause the type of alienation and self-negation that feeds this type of mass movement, aside from the traumas of combat. But those who leave the military often find themselves in civilian jobs that lack the meaning and camaraderie of military life. Many were already politically conservative, and thus a toxic combination exists from which right-wing radical groups find many recruits.
The U.S. military will not be taken over or undermined by such extremism. With rare exception, it is led by true patriotic professionals who understand their oath and will hold firm in maintaining the military’s long apolitical history and fidelity to the Constitution, as the Joint Chiefs’ memo affirms. But this mass movement isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The real danger is that a growing number of its adherents—its fanatical followers—will come from the military and do long-term damage to the public’s perception of it. The U.S. military cannot be seen as a breeding ground for fanatical insurrectionists. For this reason, the military's investigation into extremism in the ranks is not only warranted, but it is also urgent.
When I was a Navy lieutenant in the mid-1990s serving in Hawaii, a fellow lieutenant was prone to believing and promoting some fantastical conspiracy theories. He was even reprimanded for handing out information brochures in the workplace that claimed to show black, unmarked helicopters landing in rural parts of the United States with United Nations troops on them. Everyone thought he was crazy, and, unsurprisingly, his career didn't go very far. The problem was solved with one bad fitness report.
Today, the military could dispense with such an officer in a similar fashion. However, I doubt his chain of command could quickly conclude he was just a lone oddball. Too much of the American electorate supports politicians that promote conspiracy theories and categorically false claims of election fraud. Part of that electorate is in the military today.
Hoffer observed that when antidemocratic mass movements have succeeded in the past, the tipping point was never seen but in hindsight. U.S. military members are taught and trained to uphold the principles that undergird an apolitical military while also encouraged to vote and participate in the democratic traditions they swear to defend. Perhaps that training should now include a greater emphasis on the fact that in healthy democracies, political activity is centered on ideas and principles and not on personalities. Take to heart what, in surveying a young American Republic in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in volume one of Democracy in America, “The political parties I style great are those which cling to principles rather than to their consequences; to general and not to special causes; to ideas and not to men.”
Bill Bray is a retired Navy captain.