It received little attention, but back in March 2023, Donald Trump had a promise to make about what he would do with the military in a potential second term.
That might sound like typical GOP rhetoric, decrying diversity initiatives as a beachhead for Marxism. But for Trump, experts and a review of plans released by allies suggest, the rhetoric has an objective. It’s not about whatever chimerical meaning pro-Trump partisans might assign to “equity” or “wokeness.” Rather, calls to excise “wokeness” and DEI initiatives from the military work as a way to accuse the armed forces of becoming politicized — and to pave the way for a future Trump administration to politicize the armed forces.
It’s a means of applying pressure on the military, creating an environment on the right where there’s a demand for some kind of policy response, and putting the armed forces on the back foot in the right-wing culture wars. And, it leads towards what Trump and the think tankers plotting his return to power have themselves suggested as the appropriate policy response: coopting the military for domestic use.
‘Disloyalty in the Military’
Trump and those around him have offered hints about how they might use the military in 2025, suggesting most frequently that he might follow through in a second term on what remained an unfulfilled desire in the first: invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy the military within the U.S. To invoke the law, the president must make a formal finding of an “insurrection.”
And though the president has nearly no constraints on whether he can invoke the act, Joseph Nunn, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, told TPM, there has historically been one limit: politics.
“Most presidents don’t want to be the guy who sent troops in to patrol American citizens and American cities,” he added, “We have been quite lucky.”
Trump’s advisers have reportedly been discussing invoking the act on the first day of the administration to put down protestors. Jeffrey Clark, who attempted to take over the DOJ on Trump’s behalf during his 2020 coup attempt, is leading research into how the Act might be used, the Washington Post reported last month.
At the same time, Trump and those around him have increasingly leaned on rhetoric aimed at the military which describes officers who aren’t Trump loyalists as “treasonous” or “woke.”
Some of that commentary is aimed at military officials who dissuaded him from taking extreme courses of action like deploying 250,000 troops along the U.S.-Mexico border or invoking the Insurrection Act to order troops to shoot protestors while he was in office.
In both of those instances, as in others, senior Pentagon officials managed to dissuade Trump from coopting the military. But that goes to a key purpose of the Trumpian rhetoric, be it suggesting that the officer corps are “woke” or that former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley deserves execution: pressuring senior military leadership.
Or, as Trump adviser Steve Bannon phrased it on recent episodes of his War Room podcast, including on one titled “Disloyalty in the Military,” a second Trump administration would face the same “massive issue” that, in Bannon’s telling, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contending with in Israel: “a massive left-wing coup.”
“That’s exactly what you’ve got in the Pentagon today,” Bannon said.
The Trump adviser said separately that Trump would ensure loyalty in the armed forces in 2025 after dealing with what he described as a “Pentagon with its own agenda” during the first term.
“We’re not gonna do this again,” Bannon said. “You’ve got to get people that are truthful.”
It all drives at the same idea: the military has been stocked with disloyal, dishonest people who need to be removed, a pressure tactic aimed at making it more malleable in the future.
“That’s what they’re doing, but I don’t think it will work,” Bill Banks, founding director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, told TPM.
Banks added that the key question would be personnel: whether senior military leaders hang on through a Trump administration or whether, as Bannon suggested, they’re removed and replaced by more pliant ears.
“A lot of it is going to turn on who the principal people are in his administration,” Banks said. Mark Milley might have worked to keep the military from becoming politicized but, Banks said, a “If he’s got a Mike Flynn kind of Secretary of Defense or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs” things may turn out differently.
Invoking the Insurrection Act Without an Insurrection
Many plans for what a Trump 2025 military would look like deal explicitly with the question of personnel.
Project 2025, a Heritage Foundation initiative, had the acting Secretary of Defense who served from the firing of Pentagon Chief Mark Esper to the end of the Trump term write an outline of what a second Trump administration might do. The official, Chris Miller, caused consternation upon his appointment in the final weeks of the Trump administration for potentially being a Trump loyalist, but largely dispelled those concerns during his brief but extremely eventful tenure.
Miller indulged in calls in the article for Trump 2025 to “eliminate Marxist indoctrination” and “abolish newly established diversity, equity, and inclusion offices and staff.”
The Center for Renewing America, a pro-Trump think tank helmed by his former OMB Director Russ Vought, has similarly said that efforts to “cripple the purpose of the military through radical Marxist ideologies like CRT must be stopped at all costs.” That same piece described those “radical Marxist ideologists” as “an existential threat to our national security.”
All of this remains shrouded under a debate about how serious Trump is in his purported plans to invoke the Insurrection Act or to bring the military to heel.
Nunn, the Brennan Center expert, told TPM that Trump and those around him appeared to be discussing using the act absent anything that would actually constitute an insurrection.
“Any time that someone who might become president is preemptively planning on invoking the Insurrection Act, long before the circumstances under which invoking it might have arisen, is extremely concerning,” Nunn remarked.
Mark Milley, the former joint chiefs chairman, both knows Trump well and has been on the receiving end of the GOP frontrunner’s attacks. Trump said that Milley deserves to be “executed” in part because Milley arranged phone calls with Chinese military leaders during the country’s turbulent 2020 presidential transition.
Milley said in September that Trump’s remarks weren’t only directed at him; they’re “also directed at the institution of the military.”
“And the American people can take it to the bank, that all of us, every single one of us, from private to general, are loyal to that Constitution and will never turn our back on it no matter what,” Milley told CBS. “No matter what the threats, no matter what the humiliation, no matter what.”