“This is really about the last bastion of constitutional defense” – Retired Brigadier General and Representative Scott Perry (R-PA), speaking about “the left’s unbridled assault on the military” – Steve Bannon’s War Room Pandemic, Memorial Day, 2021
“This just shows everyone what many of us have been saying for a very long time. We’re at war.” – Former Green Beret Joe Kent speaking on Bannon’s War Room podcast, August 2022, after defeating Republican incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler in the primary election in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.
The contest for control of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and key gubernatorial seats in the November midterm elections may rest to a large degree on the dozens of far-right military veterans contesting seats in swing states. Drawn largely from the elite combat units of the armed forces, they are backed by Donald Trump, a new cluster of military-oriented political action committees (PACs), and leading members of the secretive Council for National Policy. If elected, they would pose an alarming threat to American democracy and the constitutional order in 2024 and beyond. Yet other than some limited attention to particularly egregious individuals—such as the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, Army intelligence veteran Doug Mastriano, who is closely associated with White Nationalism and the QAnon conspiracy theory—the Democratic Party and the legacy media appear largely oblivious to this new movement of MAGA veterans and the scope of their ambitions. No one has more clearly articulated their vision for America, or provided a more reliable platform for their candidacies, than former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
As a former Navy officer himself, Bannon has long had an interest in the potential role of military veterans in the political arena. With a keen sense of timing, he has chosen patriotic occasions like Memorial Day, July 4th, and Veterans Day to showcase on his War Room podcast those whose brand of politics he favors and to encourage other vets to run for office.
Looking at Bannon’s carefully cultivated public image—perpetually unkempt, in need of a shave, dressed in rumpled, vaguely military-style jackets—as well as the extravagance of some of his rhetoric, it’s easy to assume that the style of his War Room show would be akin to the yelling and arm-waving of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Bannon is a surprisingly engaging presence at the microphone: intimate, often low-key, wryly humorous, drawing on a wide range of literary and historical references, always coherent, always advancing big ideas and sharing his strategic vision. The show follows a fixed routine. First Bannon expounds on the particular issue that’s on his mind that day—be it the pandemic, election fraud, the Deep State, or the existential threat of China. Then his invited guest elaborates on the questions Bannon has teed up. Finally he closes by asking, Do you have a website where people can find out more about you? What’s your social media handle? It’s a highly effective formula.
On November 11, 2020, Veterans Day, five days after Bannon was permanently banned from Twitter, his guest was Cory Mills. The subject of the show that day was election fraud. A veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Joint Special Operations Command, Mills is also a Gold Circle member of the Council for National Policy, the secretive hub of right-wing activism that brings together conservative evangelicals, culture warriors and their most important media outlets, fossil-fuel interests, and right-wing Republican Party operatives. Leading members of the CNP, as we will see, are deeply involved in the effort to discredit the current institutional leadership of the military and to promote a new generation of hard-right veterans who share Bannon’s worldview. Bannon himself was listed on CNP’s membership roster for 2014, one of the few internal CNP documents that has come to light.
Mills appears to have come to Bannon’s attention because of a short essay he had just published entitled “Building a New, Less Cowardly Republican Party,” in which he quotes approvingly a passage from Teddy Roosevelt’s celebrated 1910 speech on Citizenship in a Republic: “It is not the critic that counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
Pointing to what he saw as the threat to the survival of America’s constitutional republic by radical Democrats, Mills denounced the “cold and timid souls” in the Republican Party who ignored the admonitions of Dylan Thomas in his poem “Go Not Quietly Into That Good Night.”
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
A question then hung in the air: if this was how Mills felt about the state of the Republican Party, what might he do to change it? Would he step up to be “the man in the arena”? That question would be answered in the summer of 2022.
As the campaign against the “woke military” by Tucker Carlson and others at Fox News gathered momentum in the spring of 2021, Bannon upped the ante with an extended series of seven shows over the two weeks leading up to Memorial Day. The immediate trigger was the publication of a letter by a group of more than 100 retired generals and admirals calling themselves Flag Officers 4 America. They had already published one such letter just before the 2020 election, calling it “the most important election since our country was founded.” Now they issued a second, a stern warning that the first 100 days of the Biden Administration showed that “We’re speeding, running down the road to socialism and Marxism.” (Later, after the chaotic evacuation of Kabul, they would write a third letter, calling for the resignation of generals Lloyd Austin, secretary of defense, and Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bannon denounced the evacuation as a rerun of the fall of Saigon in 1975, another “stab in the back” for the military, and in particular the 82nd Airborne, which had been first in and last out of Afghanistan.)
The seven-part War Room series offered a clear and concise summary of Bannon’s overall political philosophy as it applies to the “woke military” and the 2022 and 2024 elections, offering a platform to those retired officers he sees as critical to rescuing the nation from the threat of Critical Race Theory and highlighting the unique importance of veterans from elite combat units. Three regular guests in particular stand out from the pack: Lieut. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, who served with the 101st Airborne in Vietnam and went on to command the Special Forces’ elite Delta Force; Brig. Gen. Scott Perry, a former Air Force combat pilot in Iraq and currently the Republican representative for Pennsylvania’s 10th district, who worked closely with Trump to overturn the 2020 election; and Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, one of the signatories of the Flag Officers’ letters, formerly of the 82nd Airborne and Special Forces (Airborne) and commander of the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan. After retiring at 60 with five Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts, one for a brain injury, as well as a severe case of PTSD, Bolduc is now running in New Hampshire against Democrat Maggie Hassas for one of the handful of closely contested seats that are likely to determine control of the Senate.
Boykin is perhaps the most notorious of the far-right retired generals and admirals. Rarely making an effort to conceal his bigotry, he is best known for his views on Christianity (“God led me into the Delta Force”) and Islam (“the enemy is a guy named Satan”). He is also a fierce opponent of LGBTQ rights, which he describes as an “evil” that must be eradicated by “God’s army.” In April 2021, as the “woke military” campaign intensified, he was a keynote speaker at the relaunch of the Promise Keepers, a long-dormant group dedicated to “Biblical masculinity” that brought hundreds of thousands of supporters onto the streets of Washington, D.C., in the 1990s. Bannon described the group as part of the “warrior men idea.” The purpose of its resuscitation, the president of the Promise Keepers said, was to “call Christian men to fight against the LGBTQ agenda.”
For years it might have been possible to shrug off Boykin’s unvarnished extremism as being disconnected from the Republican Party mainstream, but that dividing line has now blurred to the point of being undetectable. His star only continues to rise. Already the executive vice-president of the Family Research Council, a major force within the CNP and the most influential presence on the Christian Right in Washington, Boykin was elevated this year to CNP’s executive committee. He is the most important point of intersection, in fact, between the CNP, radical evangelicals, and the far-right military, as well as being a long-time associate of Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was listed at least until the 2020 election as a board member of CNP Action, the advocacy arm of the organization. Both Boykin and Ginni Thomas were members of an organization named Groundswell, which set out to wage “a 30-front war seeking to fundamentally transform the nation,” and included other such right-wing luminaries as Bannon,and Tom Fitton, president of the CNP-affiliated legal advocacy group Judicial Watch. An internal Groundswell document on “message synchronization” from March 2013 discussed how to design a response to the assertion that “the left” (in that instance meaning then-Senate majority leader Harry Reid and National Public Radio) was engaged in “attacks… on the military as an institution [emphasis added.]” While the likes of Boykin and Ginni Thomas continued to rail against changing gender roles in the military, this language was a distinct shift from the more limited traditional message that these changes had undermined combat readiness and troop morale.
Fitton’s Judicial Watch has now become a prominent voice in the campaign to discredit the “woke military.” In June 2022 the group published a report based on more than 650 pages of documents it obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests to the Department of Defense, purportedly showing the indoctrination of West Point with Critical Race Theory. “Our military is under attack—from within,” said Fitton. This was also the theme of a CNP panel in February at which Boykin was joined by Mike Berry, a Marine veteran who is general counsel of First Liberty, whose president is another CNP member, Kelly Shackleford. The third member of the panel was retired Lieut. Gen. Keith Kellogg, formerly Mike Pence’s national security adviser.
Critical Race Theory is now at the heart of the campaign against the “woke military.” It has proved to be an effective tool in fanning the anxieties of suburban families and independent voters about parental choice in education, notably contributing to the election of Virginia Republican governor Glenn Youngkin,. But at stake here is is something much more fundamental, aimed not so much at voters as at the military itself, and becoming a galvanizing issue for the many right-wing veterans now being groomed for elected office.
A review of many hours of exchanges between Bannon and his War Room guests makes it clear that CRT is now presented on the far right as an existential threat to the constitutional foundations of the republic, and therefore something to be fought—above all by veterans from the military’s elite units—by any means necessary.
The essence of Bannon’s worldview, and that of the veteran candidates he has promoted, is that we now face a convergence between the “enemies, foreign and domestic,” who the nation’s warriors swear an oath to defend the Constitution against. The imminent threat is from an unholy combination of China and Critical Race Theory. There is no room for compromise here, Bannon insists: “We don’t seek competition. We don’t want confrontation, we want total and complete destruction root and branch of the Chinese Communist Party.”
“The basis of Critical Race Theory,” he argues, “is that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the founding documents, locked in an illegal status, the systemic racism that in their minds is why America is evil, corrupt, and must be repurposed, fundamentally transformed. We need to lance this boil now…. We’re not going to sit here and allow our military to be radicalized by a bunch of people that hate this country.”
Removing sexual-harassment complaints from the formal chain of command, Bannon goes on, “is just a nose under the tent. It’s like the Chinese and Soviet military… they want a political commissar… [so] you have two separate chains of command.” The military is “the heart and soul of this country,” and it “has been infiltrated essentially by a Cultural Revolution, just like Mao had it in China in the 1960s.”
Scott Perry chimes into the conversation: “These commissars, as you call them, are … there for only one reason…. [CRT] is a euphemism for what they’re really trying to do, which is a Marxist takeover of the nation.” In another Bannon episode, he adds, “This is really about the last bastion of constitutional defense. The left is working very, very diligently to change what America is, and they can’t have law enforcement, the military, stand in the way… So this is why you see this unbridled assault on the military.”
Don Bolduc takes the China analogy a step further, speaking of “this Critical Race Theory, or Communist Race Theory, that’s embodied in this Little Red Book that is not very far away from me at any given time, and this book is quotations [from Mao Zedong] that every Chinese Communist had to carry around with them, and it talks about such topics as the relationship between the army and the people, and it describes exactly what’s being done today in our military, to coopt our military into thinking differently about our Constitution, about their oath.”
The key to “lancing the boil,” Bannon says, is to mobilize the elite forces within the military. “We need an army of Don Bolducs,” he goes on. “You ask anybody in the Special Forces, the broad Special Forces community, I’m talking about the Navy, the Marine Force Recon, the Green Berets, all our special operators, and the CIA paramilitary.” These people, he explains, “have fought on battlefields all over the world, special operators. And they teach their troops back here this kind of counterinsurgency tactics. They said, look, we fought it overseas in these foreign battlefields, in these foreign countries, but we would come back here and teach it to our troops and be ready for these cultural revolutions of Marxism.”
All this may sound as if we’ve stumbled into the alternate reality of Jack D. Ripper and Buck Turgidson, the mad generals in Dr. Strangelove, but the strategy Bannon outlines is absolutely rooted in the real world of practical politics. One prong of this strategy is to prepare those famously agile elite units, known for their ability to operate in small, highly organized groups and to improvise under tough battlefield conditions, to combat “the enemy within.” Another is to have retired military officers, especially drawn from these same units, elected to public office at every level. “Serve on your school boards, serve on your township supervisors’ boards, borough council,” Scott Perry urges veterans.
Military veterans have always been well represented in Congress, of course, though the number has steadily declined. Today it’s about one in six, the lowest figure since World War II. The ratio of Republicans to Democrats is roughly two to one. They tend generally to be modest about their past military service; often it’s just one of the many attributes on their résumés, a token of honor and electability. About half have combat experience, but they rarely boast about their exploits. Few are from the units that have historically regarded themselves as the elite, such as the Marines, Special Forces, Navy SEALs (Sea, Air, and Land teams), combat pilots, and airborne divisions. But that is precisely the profile of most of those now running for office, especially in the House of Representatives, veterans of the War on Terror for whom combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is a primary credential.
Other than Scott Perry, the only real precursors to this new crop of Republican veterans are a group of three House Republicans: Mike Waltz (FL-06) and Dan Crenshaw (TX-02), both members of the Armed Services Committee, and Mike Gallagher (WI-08). Waltz was the first Green Beret elected to Congress. The son of a single mother who worked multiple jobs to pay her way through night school, he led Special Forces teams in Afghanistan and was subsequently appointed counterterrorism adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. Crenshaw is a former Navy SEAL, the only one currently serving in Congress, who lost an eye to an IED explosion during his third deployment in Afghanistan. Gallagher is a former Marine who served two tours in Iraq. In response to the influx of newly elected Democratic veterans in the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterm elections, Waltz, Crenshaw, and Gallagher set up the War Veterans Fund PAC, whose mission statement announced: “It is time for a new generation of leaders who have been tested in war to lead the Republican Party.” That new generation is now waiting in the wings, in the form of candidates like Cory Mills.
Mills eventually found his opportunity to become the “man in the arena” as a result of Governor Ron DeSantis’s gerrymandering of Florida’s electoral map. Among the congressional districts whose boundaries were redrawn to favor Republicans was the 7th, whose incumbent representative, Democrat Stephanie Murphy, a member of the January 6th Committee, is retiring. As in several of the other key battleground seats that are up for grabs in November, one of the most striking features of the Republican primary in this district is that it was contested by more than one right-wing veteran, each apparently determined to out-MAGA the others. In the end, Mills bested Army veteran Anthony Sabatini, who had been endorsed by the likes of Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn and Marjorie Taylor Greene.
After retiring from the military and spending time as a government contractor, Mills founded two companies whose success allowed him to self-fund his campaign. The specialty of these companies, Pacem Solutions International, LLC, and Pacem Defense, LLC, was to supply riot-control equipment such as rubber bullets and tear gas to law-enforcement agencies. Mills acquired some brief notoriety in April 2022 when Politico reported that his companies’ products had been used to put down Black Lives Matter protests and pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Mills’s response was a defiant campaign video in which, dressed in camouflage and toting a rifle, he showed Pacem-supplied tear gas being used against not just Black Lives Matter but against “Hillary Clinton protesters” in Charlotte; “left-wing protesters” in Phoenix; “Antifa rioters” in Washington; and “radical left protesters” in Philadelphia. “If the media wants to shed some real tears,” he said with a grin, “I can help them out with that.” More recently, Mills has become a frequent presence on Fox News and its more extreme competitors now favored by Trump: Newsmax and OANN. He has compared government-ordered mask mandates to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. “In America,” he has written, “our enemy is different, but their objective is the same. Total. Government. Control.”
Cory Mills is emblematic in many ways of the new breed of veterans of the “forever wars” who embody Bannon’s vision of a hostile takeover of the Republican Party. Ideologically, they cover an increasingly narrow spectrum from the now thoroughly Trumpified mainstream of the Republican Party (a handful have been endorsed by the likes of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy and the third-ranking Republican, Elise Stefanik), through what Bannon would call “full MAGA,” to the wiggiest fringes of QAnon conspiracy theorists. (One, J. R. Majewski, an Air Force veteran running in Ohio’s heavily gerrymandered 9th District, is best known for painting a 19,000-square-foot Trump election sign in his backyard, with the words TRUMP 2Q2Q.)
Almost all these candidates would describe themselves as 100 percent pro-life, 100 percent pro-Second Amendment. The majority subscribe to the Big Lie of election fraud, or avoid the subject by ducking questions on Joe Biden’s legitimacy. There are several anti-vaxxers and disseminators of COVID disinformation, such as Rich McCormick, running in Georgia’s gerrymandered 6th District, a former Marine helicopter pilot turned emergency-room physician, who promoted hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID and declared on Newsmax that “wearing masks has pretty much been debunked”; Tom Barrett, running against Democratic incumbent Elissa Slotkin (MI-07) and endorsed by Elise Stefanik and Kevin McCarthy, who resigned from the military to protest the Pentagon’s vaccine mandate; and Tyler Kistner, who is opposing Democratic incumbent Angie Craig (MN-02). A former Marine Raider (the Corps’ equivalent of the Special Forces), Kistner has asserted that COVID can be treated “with zinc and the malaria-type cures” and praised Trump’s leadership in the pandemic two weeks after the notorious press conference in which he mused about injecting bleach and flooding the body with light.
The campaign ads and videos of the male veterans (and as we will see, there are also a good number of women) are replete with guns, beards, tattoos, baseball caps, and battle dress, often in contravention of Defense Department rules that bar such display in campaign materials without an added disclaimer that no endorsement by the military is implied.
To a man, and a woman, these candidates portray themselves as outsiders. Beyond slogans—Build the Wall, Drain the Swamp, Election Integrity, Fight Socialism—few of them offer concrete policy proposals. Their lack of prior political experience and expertise is not a blemish, though, but a badge of honor, reflecting their contempt for what they see as a corrupt, bipartisan political establishment and in line with Bannon’s vow to “deconstruct the administrative state.”
Like Mike Waltz, many of them offer compelling personal stories, none more so than Joe Kent, an “unvaxxed Green Beret.” In many ways Kent has become the poster child of this new movement, boasting endorsements from, among many others, Trump, Mike Flynn, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, and Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers, the leading proponent of a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election, a member of the paramilitary Oath Keepers, and an apostle of the White Nationalist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, not to mention having called for the execution as traitors of government officials who enacted COVID vaccine mandates.
Now a regular on the Tucker Carlson show, as well as on Newsmax and OANN, Kent is earnestly charismatic, a lover of the great outdoors, boyishly handsome, heavily tattooed with images of Kurdish fighters and the World Trade Center in flames, yet at the same time projecting a kind of bruised vulnerability, the result of grievous personal loss and the psychic toll exacted by eleven arduous combat deployments.
In January 2019, he was serving as a CIA contractor in Africa when news came of the death of his wife, Shannon Smith, a Navy cryptographer, in an ISIS suicide bombing in Syria. At Dover Air Force Base, awaiting the return of her coffin, Kent ran into Trump, and there was an instant bond. Trump had wanted to pull the troops out of Syria, but he had been blocked, according to Kent, by “mid-and senior levels” of the military. Kent’s analysis continues – “This attempt to end a war brought out the Establishment’s true colors as they resisted him at every step” – and he seals it with the tragedy of his wife’s death: “My wife would be alive today had Trump not been double-crossed by the Establishment.”
What makes Joe Kent so distinctive is how this story of personal loss has evolved into a cogent analysis of our current political crisis, one that exactly mirrors the arguments of Steve Bannon, whom he now describes as “a political prisoner of the Biden regime” since Bannon’s conviction in July for criminal contempt of Congress. Kent outlined his worldview in detail in a recent long interview on Rumble, one of the social-media platforms now favored by the far right.
In essence, his argument is that his wife’s death was the symbolic culmination of decades of policies promoted by the elites of both parties. Globalization, ushered in by George H. W. Bush after the end of the Cold War and turbocharged by Bill Clinton, has destroyed America’s manufacturing base and its working class. Simultaneously, an all-volunteer military has been asked to wage endless, unwinnable wars of nation-building; their dedication and sacrifice has gone unacknowledged, other than with the rote cliché of “thank you for your service.” The main beneficiary of this long, slow process of betrayal has been China, starting with the wholesale takeover of American manufacturing and thereby transformed into a mortal threat to the nation (which includes the unleashing of COVID as a vehicle for destroying our freedoms). For Kent and Bannon, the logic behind this is inescapable: elites of both parties have been actively complicit in China’s ascent, and those two enemies have now joined forces.
On another show, Bannon asked Kent to speak directly to his fellow veterans. “You answered your nation’s call, you did your part,” Kent said. “It’s our political leaders that failed, and are continuing to fail by putting this Critical Race Theory, this anti-American theory into the U.S. military to gain control of the U.S. military. And you have to ask yourself why they’re doing that. They are desperate to cover up what they did with the election, the stolen election.”
The culprits Kent had in mind in this case, of course, were Biden and the Democrats. But like Don Bolduc’s campaign in New Hampshire, taking out the enemy is a two-stage process. The first is to purge the GOP of “RINOs,” Republicans in Name Only. Bolduc’s initial target was the Republican establishment’s favored candidate for the Senate nomination, Governor Chris Sununu, scion of New Hampshire’s most famous Republican family. Sununu was forced out of the race, Bolduc told Bannon, by a “body slam.” “We ran a pure Sun Tzu strategy,” he said, citing the legendary Chinese general of the 6th Century BCE, author of The Art of War. “We won the battle, and we didn’t even have to fight for it.” Now the campaign shifts to New Hampshire’s Republican primary on September 13th and then the fight to unseat Maggie Hassan, with whom Bolduc is running neck-and-neck in current polls.
Kent’s job, meanwhile, was to take down Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, “the America Last RINO,” one of the ten House Republicans targeted by Donald Trump for removal after voting yea in his second impeachment trial. Kent was given little chance of defeating Beutler in last month’s primary in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, but he edged her out by barely 1,000 votes and now seems likely to replace her in what should be a relatively safe Republican seat. “This just shows everyone what many of us have been saying for a very long time,” he said, celebrating his victory with another appearance on Bannon’s War Room. “We’re at war…. These guys don’t care about winning arguments anymore. It’s a total, full-frontal assault, and they’re going after every one of us. So what we have to do when we take back power… we have to play smash-mouth.”
Not all of these “full-MAGA” veteran candidates will win in November, of course. Dozens have already been weeded out during the primaries or are running for largely symbolic reasons in safe Democratic districts. One notable casualty was Eric Greitens, a retired Navy SEAL and former governor of Missouri, whose history of corruption, domestic violence, and sexual misconduct was too egregious for even Trump to endorse him for the Senate. In Ohio, J. D. Vance—who served with the Marines in Iraq before becoming better known as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, heavily promoted by Trump and the recipient of lavish support from the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel—may squander a seat that ought to be the GOP’s for the taking. Bolduc himself may turn out to be too toxic, derided by one mainstream Republican critic in New Hampshire as “a tinfoil hat-wearing loose-cannon conspiracy theorist.” Trump has lavished praise on Bolduc for an “incredible presentation” on Fox and Friends in which he called for the resignation of Mark Milley (described by Trump as “the Taliban and China’s all-time favorite general”), but that’s as far as it has gone, even though, as Bolduc said last year, “I am doing everything I possibly can to earn his endorsement.”
Even in the House, predictions of a “red wave” have become more muted lately, with the backlash against the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade, the Biden Administration’s recent string of legislative accomplishments, and falling gas prices. Other possible wild cards include the next round of hearings before the January 6th Committee, Trump’s ongoing legal jeopardy, and further revelations of what exactly was in all those boxes at Mar-a-Lago. Yet even by the most cautious estimates, at least 20 right-wing veterans, most of them from the elite units favored by Bannon, could win seats in November, and the Republicans need a net gain of only six to flip the chamber and strengthen its most extreme voices—think a MAGA military caucus of Marjorie Taylor Greenes and Jim Jordans in camo. More than half of the 20 seem to be shoo-ins, running either for safe Republican seats or in currently Democratic districts that have been gerrymandered. Most of the others, if current polling holds, are an even bet in battleground districts, and one or two more have an outside chance.
The easiest way to place a candidate on the political spectrum, and to see how campaign drives are being orchestrated, is to look at their endorsements. Of the eleven MAGA veterans likeliest to win, all of whom served in elite military units, seven have been endorsed by Trump and no fewer than nine by SEALPAC, the most startling in the expanding universe of political action committees dedicated to electing right-wing veterans. We’ve come a long way since the War Veterans Fund PAC set up in 2019 by Waltz, Crenshaw, and Gallagher, and Veterans for Trump, which has now morphed into Veterans for America First and has made plenty of endorsements of its own.
The military is highly stratified, not only in its pyramid of ranks but in the self-regard of its individual units. At the risk of oversimplification, in the realm of combat infantry, Marines consider themselves superior to the Army. Airborne divisions, Rangers, and combat pilots are another cut above. Within each arm of the service, the true elite are the Special Forces (Green Berets), Marine Raiders, and Navy SEALs, and even then there is another rung to the ladder, the elite within the elite, like the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL Team 6, which is charged with the most hazardous and secret of all missions, such as hostage rescue and targeted captures and assassinations.
SEALPAC is the creation of a highly decorated veteran of SEAL Team 6, Robert J. O’Neill, famed for his more than 400 combat missions, including a failed attempt to rescue his fellow SEAL Marcus Luttrell (whose brother Morgan, yet another SEAL, is all but guaranteed to be elected to Congress from Texas’s deep-red 8th District). But O’Neill is also a deeply controversial figure, even among others in the tight-knit SEAL community, with its ethic of team unity and discretion, for his self-aggrandizing claim to be the man who killed Osama Bin Laden—a claim disputed by others who say he merely delivered the coup de grace., As a contributor to Fox News, O’Neill is no stranger to the culture wars. He courted further publicity during the height of the pandemic by posting images of himself on social media flying maskless, with a boast that “I’m not a pussy,” which resulted in a travel ban from Delta Airlines.
The chairman of SEALPAC, meanwhile, is Ryan Zinke, also a veteran of SEAL Team 6, who will likely take his place as representative for Montana’s safely Republican 1st District. (Other SEALs who seem set to join Zinke and Luttrell in the 118th Congress are Eli Crane, in Arizona’s 2nd District, and Derrick Van Orden, in Wisconsin’s 3rd, both of whom are sure to add their voices to their states’ potent movements for “election integrity.”) Like O’Neill, Zinke is no stranger to controversy; he was dogged by multiple claims of dubious ethical practices before finally being forced to resign as Trump’s first secretary of the interior.
The fierce discipline, single-minded sense of mission, and ruthlessness of the Navy SEALs in combat make them powerfully appealing to the far right, with its growing drumbeat of martial rhetoric—Mike Flynn with his “digital warriors”; the “thirty-front war” of Ginni Thomas’s Groundswell; Jerry Boykin with “God’s Army” and the “warrior men idea”; the “army of patriots” and “shock troops” proposed by Matt Gaetz on Bannon’s War Room; the “brigade of 2,000 warriors who will stand together against the tide of Socialism” being formed by Army Col. Mark Robertson, another SEALPAC endorsee, who is contesting Nevada’s highly competitive 1st District.
At a CNP-sponsored strategy meeting in February 2020, Catherine Engelbrecht, founder of True the Vote, with the strong support of Morton Blackwell, long prominent in the Council for National Policy and a member of the Republican National Committee, proposed an initiative called Continue to Serve, which would recruit SEALs and other veterans as Republican poll-watchers. (Using former soldiers in this way was banned by a judicial consent decree in 1981 in response to Republican efforts to intimidate African-American voters, but the ban was lifted by a New Jersey judge in 2018.) “You want to talk about people who understand and respect law and order and chain of command,” Engelbrecht said. “You get some SEALs in those polls and they’re going to say, ‘No, no, this is what it says. This is how we’re going to play this show.’ ”
All of these currents, taken together, are the embodiment of Steve Bannon’s grandiose vision. “I believe that we will destroy the Democratic Party as a national political institution,” he declared in June outside the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse, during his trial on charges of contempt of Congress. “We will govern for a hundred years after we win a hundred seats.” This kind of hyperbole can make it easy to dismiss Bannon as a marginal fanatic. But the numbers aren’t the point; it’s the breadth of his ambition, the sweeping nature of his vision, and the extent of his influence. His plans for a hostile takeover of the Republican Party are quite explicit. Don Bolduc is important not only because he’s a hero of special operations who believes that the political establishment and the “woke military” leadership are plotting to turn our armed forces into a clone of China’s People’s Liberation Army. The real key to his Senate campaign, whether he wins or loses, is that it’s aimed at “guys who carry a lunch pail to work.” More than that, Bannon says, is that the future Republican Party will be driven by a “populist uprising” of “Hispanics, African-Americans, and the working class.”
If liberals continue to insist that White Nationalism and “Christian nationalism,” as represented by radical white evangelicals, are the keys to understanding the MAGA movement, they will find themselves in an increasingly blind alley. They could start by looking at where the funding is coming from. Over the past two years, the largest known donation to a political advocacy group in U.S. history, $1.6 billion, has been made to Leonard Leo, co-chair of the Federalist Society and one of the CNP’s most prominent members. Leo is a Catholic. The donor, a secretive Chicago businessman named Barre Seid, is Jewish.
The multi-ethnic make-up of the veterans running for Congress in November, as well their gender diversity, is crucial. Veterans for America First, the new incarnation of Veterans for Trump, highlights 42 endorsements on its website; 17 are for women, and 13 are for people of color. Bannon might also have added Asian-Americans to his list, having actively promoted the candidacy of retired Navy Special Operations officer Hung Cao in Virginia’s 10th District. Cao is the son of parents who fled Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon in 1975, and his importance, Bannon says, is in “flipping the Democratic racial playbook.” Opposition to Critical Race Theory has been central to Cao’s electoral campaign, helping him to outflank from the right an Elise Stefanik-based Republican opponent whose main theme was his opposition to “wokeness.” “Minority communities have been taken advantage of by the Democratic Party,” Cao tweeted recently. “We have had enough. We’re people who believe in God, family, and the greatness of this country.”
Liberal Democrats, as well as much of the legacy media, have alienated many conservative and swing voters in the Latino/Hispanic community by their insistence on the gender-neutral catch-all word Latinx. Bannon, meanwhile, has focused on that community’s greatly increased voter turnout in 2020, and how its internal diversity and segmentation accounted for a significant movement toward Trump—anti-Communist Cuban-Americans in Florida, Mexican-Americans in the Texas borderlands eager to restrict illegal immigration, and the many others of all national origins who embrace historically conservative social values. African-American voters also moved in Trump’s direction, if to a more modest degree, though there was a six-point shift in Trump’s favor among Black male voters. The reasons for the shift are unclear, though possible explanations include a concerted push on Black Pentecostal churches and support for the former president from a string of famous rappers like Ice Cube, 50 Cent, and Lil Wayne. Bannon, with his customary extravagance, claims that 50 percent of the Black vote is there to be won.
Wesley Hunt and John James, Army combat helicopter pilots running in Texas and Michigan respectively, are both African-American, both endorsed by Trump and SEALPAC, both in interracial marriages. Looking to flip a marginal Democratic seat in Michigan is Jennifer-Ruth Green, a retired lieutenant colonel in Air Force Cyber Operations of mixed African-American and Filipino heritage, who describes herself as “a true conservative who will fight back against the Woke insanity.” One of the biggest of all Democratic scalps in November would be that of Rep. Elaine Luria, a Navy veteran herself and a member of the January 6th Committee, who is now trailing in the polls behind Navy combat helicopter pilot Jen Kiggans, yet another SEALPAC endorsee, in Virginia’s military-heavy 2nd District. Kiggans was one of just four of the state’s 19 Republican state senators who backed a bill calling for a $70 million “forensic audit” in support of “election integrity” proposed by a colleague who had called for Trump to impose martial law after the 2020 election.
But if there is a single poster child for Bannon’s vision of a diverse working-class party that has transcended old ethnic and gender prejudices and has the military at its center, it is probably Anna Paulina Luna. Like Cory Mills, she is the beneficiary of Ron DeSantis’s redistricting in Florida, where she is strongly favored to take the 13th District seat currently occupied by Democrat Charlie Crist, who is running against DeSantis for governor. Like Kent, she has a compelling back story, a Mexican-American who grew up in poverty in southern California, the daughter of a drug-addicted absentee father and a single mother, and went on to serve in Air Force Special Operations. Showcased on Bannon’s War Room and joined on the campaign trail by Marjorie Taylor Greene, Luna boasts perhaps the broadest range of endorsements of any Republican veteran seeking office in November—from Elise Stefanik to Trump and SEALPAC, by way of Veterans for America First, Jim Jordan, Scott Perry, and Turning Point Action, the youth-oriented organization run by CNP member Charlie Kirk, for which she serves as Latino outreach coordinator. Absent only an interest and expertise in policy issues, Luna has the potential to become the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the far right.
So what are the larger implications of this new wave of MAGA-inspired veterans ascending to elected office in November?
Three of them—Bolduc in New Hampshire, J. D. Vance in Ohio, and Adam Laxalt in Nevada (who is endorsed by Trump as well as by Mike Flynn, Ron DeSantis, and Senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton) may be enough to flip the Senate.
Military veterans running in gubernatorial races—Tim Michels in Wisconsin and Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, and Joe Lombardo in Nevada (who served in the Army, National Guard, and Army reserves before becoming sheriff of Clark County)—could take control of the electoral machinery in three critical swing states.
But the main action in the short term will be in the House of Representatives. At the very least, there will likely be the “smash-mouth” politics promised by Joe Kent. The January 6th Committee will be immediately disbanded, and it’s a safe bet that it will be replaced by hearings in the Armed Services Committee on the “woke military” and Critical Race Theory, and the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. “We’re impeaching Biden and Harris on day one,” Kent vowed in his : interview. “2023 is going to be all about obstruction, impeachment, and conducting oversight. We’re going to use the venue of Congress, congressional oversight, to adjudicate the election of 2020, and when we do that they’re going to throw everything at us, they’re going to disqualify us from elections, they’re going to try to burn the cities again.” As he says, “We’re at war.”
However, there may also be a cascade effect that goes much deeper than these short-term theatrics, extending to the highest levels of the military establishment. Congressional offices are stacked with ambitious young staffers with aspirations to greater things: high-level appointments to the executive branch. The case of Kashyap (“Kash”) Patel is illustrative. At 37, Patel became senior aide to hard-right California congressman Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, making a name for himself by leading the drive to discredit the FBI for its alleged abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) process during the “Russia hoax.” By 39, Patel was senior director of the Counterterrorism Directorate, a new position created expressly for him. By 40, during the final weeks of the Trump presidency, he had been appointed chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense, retired Special Forces Col. Christopher Miller. If Trump had had his way, Patel would have been named acting director of the CIA.
The main reason this did not come to pass, other than the generalized chaos in Trumpworld, was last-ditch resistance from within the government, notably by CIA director Gina Haspel and Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whom she warned that “We are on the way to a right-wing coup.” Exactly what Patel himself was doing during those final days of the administration remains unknown, since his cell-phone records were wiped on January 22nd, followed by those of Miller, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, a former Army Ranger with U.S. Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, and perhaps also Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, a former helicopter pilot and commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division. Of course, the same is true of the cell-phone records of Secret Service agents on January 6th, as well as those of senior Department of Homeland Security officials Ken Cuccinelli (another member of the CNP) and Chad Wolf, not to mention the seven-and-a-half-hour gap in Trump’s phone log for January 6th, a day on which he is known to have spoken at least twice with Steve Bannon, once in the morning and again in the evening after the rioters had dispersed. It’s hard to avoid seeing that amount of smoke as an indication of a five-alarm fire.
All of these developments raise fundamental questions about the role of the military, as well as the intelligence agencies and other key government departments, in any future constitutional crisis. Speaking on one of Bannon’s War Room shows in May 2021, Jerry Boykin insisted that “The biggest danger of the left being able ultimately to take over in a totalitarian way, to take over our government” is the “senior institutional military.” As evidence of this how deeply the rot had spread, he pointed to the letter signed by all ten living former secretaries of defense, including even such right-wing hawks as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and published as an op-ed in the Washington Post on January 3rd, 2021, which asserted unequivocally that the military has no role in resolving election disputes.
Milley came under fire almost as soon as Bannon’s seven-part series on the military ended. On June 22nd, 2021, he pushed back hard against questioning by Matt Gaetz in the House Armed Services Committee on the teaching of Critical Race Theory in the military. “I’ve read Mao Zedong,” Milley retorted. “I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist.” Less than a month later, Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker published I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, which included Milley’s extraordinary warnings of a “Reichstag moment… the Gospel of the Führer,” suggesting that Trump planned to stage an incident that would serve as a pretext for deploying the military to keep him in power. Six weeks after that came Peril, by Bob Woodward and Bob Costa, also of the Post, describing two secret calls Milley made to his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Li Zuocheng, one at the end of October 2020 and the other two days after the January 6th insurrection, to assure him that while American democracy was sometimes messy, the government remained stable and there would be no surprise last-minute diversionary attack on China before Trump left office.
A number of retired generals called for Milley’s resignation over these comments, including Don Bolduc and Mike Pence’s national security advisor, Keith Kellogg. Far from abating, the calls for Milley’s head have only intensified, with the most extreme demand coming from Judicial Watch, the legal advocacy group headed by the CNP’s Tom Fitton. On August 30, 2022, the group’s director of investigations and research, retired Army intelligence officer Chris Farrell, wrote that the general should be court-martialed for “the most egregious examples of treasonous subversion by a commissioned officer since Benedict Arnold.”
Should the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff unquestioningly follow the orders of the president, even if the president goes rogue? Similarly, should the primary loyalty of the secretary of defense be to the president or to the Constitution? Two defense secretaries, Robert McNamara and James Schlesinger, wrestled with that question during the war in Vietnam. It’s safe to say that if Trump should return to office there would be no repeat of the obstacles posed by Mark Milley or Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who resisted Trump’s demands to deploy the 82nd Airborne on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., during the Black Lives Matter protests. Even if Trump’s ambitions for a return to the presidency are derailed, there’s little reason to think that Ron DeSantis, the obvious alternative, would act much differently. It’s often forgotten that apart from DeSantis’s well-established authoritarian tendencies, he has his own military history, as an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and an adviser to a Navy SEAL team in Fallujah, Ramadi, and the rest of Anbar Province during the 2007 “surge” in Iraq. And the man often named as a likely future secretary of defense, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, himself a veteran of the 101st Airborne, was a fervent advocate of sending in the 82nd in that tumultuous spring of 2020.
Nominations to these two posts are a president’s ultimate prerogative, another reason why future control of the Senate is so important. Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs are generally confirmed by unanimous voice vote. Secretaries of Defense are almost invariably approved with single-digit opposition, or none at all. (The only recent exception was Chuck Hagel, but the circumstances in his case were unique, the 41 dissenting votes being an expression of anger at his positions on Iran, Israel, and the Iraq surge, but more than anything his disloyalty as a Republican agreeing to serve in the hated administration of Barack Hussein Obama.)
But the questions to be answered in a future Republican administration go well beyond guarantees of unswerving loyalty from high-level political appointees. They also implicate the fate of tens of thousands of career members of the federal civil service, the heart of the “administrative state” that Steve Bannon is intent on dismembering. As we now know from the extraordinary reporting of Jonathan Swan for Axios, eleven days before the 2020 election, Trump issued an executive order, known as Schedule F, that had been worked on secretly for much of the preceding two years. The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 exempts from protections those federal employees “whose position has been determined to be of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character”—political appointees, in other words. Career officials were thereby shielded from retaliation for political reasons. Schedule F simply did away with that protection, allowing any troublesome employee, especially in the State Department, the Pentagon, and the realms of national security, law enforcement, and intelligence, simply to be redesignated as a “policy advocate” and removed. Biden immediately rescinded the order; Trump would obviously reinstate it and stack the permanent bureaucracy with MAGA loyalists, and why would a DeSantis be trusted to do any different? As Swan reported, the candidate lists are already in place, and would no doubt be swelled by an incoming class of ambitious young congressional staffers after the November midterms.
Parallels with the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s are sometimes overblown, but when the nation’s highest-ranking military officer invokes the Führer and the Reichstag fire, Congressman Jamie Raskin of the January 6th Committee refers to the rioters as “Fascist traitors,” and even Joe Biden, the lifetime personification of old-fashioned bipartisan comity, evokes the “semi-Fascism” of the MAGA true believers, perhaps the comparison is not so far-fetched.
In The Divider: Trump in the White House, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser report that Trump’s ideal of military leadership was Hitler’s unfailingly loyal generals. In terms of presidential powers and “higher loyalty,” one of Hitler’s most significant steps after the Reichstag fire and the death of President Paul von Hindenburg was to reword the oath taken by soldiers in the Wehrmacht. Formerly they had sworn to “ever loyally and sincerely serve my people and fatherland.” After 1935, this was changed to “render unconditional obedience to the leader of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces.” (Trump was apparently unaware of the fact that the Führer’s generals tried three times to assassinate him.)
Events would unfold very differently here, of course. It’s a different time, and a different country. Similarly, if we have indeed embarked on a second Civil War, as millions of Americans now believe, it will bear no resemblance to the first one. But a large proportion of the MAGA base is primed for violence. In November 2021, researchers at the non-profit Public Religion Research Institute found that 30 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” Among those who believed that the 2020 election was stolen, the figure rose to 39 percent. That computes to 20 million people. Similar figures are reported by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, who has conducted half a dozen nationwide polls since January 6th, repeatedly finding that between 15 and 20 million American adults believe violence might be necessary to return Trump to office.
Depending on the outcome of the 2022 midterms (especially at the gubernatorial level) and the 2024 presidential election, it’s entirely possible that not all the violence would be restricted to one side. If the Democrats were accused of a second steal, the scale of a second January 6th is all too easy to imagine. But what if the outcome were reversed, if next time there were a genuine steal rather than a fictitious one, perhaps enabled by a Republican takeover of the election machinery in key states and a future Supreme Court ruling on the Independent State Legislature Doctrine, (which among other things would give Republican-controlled state legislatures the discretionary authority to overturn election results).
A February 2021 survey by the conservative American Enterprise Institute posed a slightly different question than the other polls: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves, even if it requires violent action.” Seventeen percent of Democrats agreed with that, as did 31 percent of independent voters. (The figure among Republicans was 39 percent.)
Images of the relatively small number of violent incidents during the Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and early summer of 2020 were a defining moment for the far right, becoming the constantly repeated refrain of the MAGA argument that Democrats are bent on the destruction of America. Similar protests, or worse, would be the likely response to the fraudulent election of a Republican president in 2024.
If troops were sent in to quell these protests, the unit of choice—explicitly demanded by Trump and backed last time by Tom Cotton—would most likely be the 82nd Airborne, whose graduates include generals Mike Flynn, Keith Kellogg, and Don Bolduc, as well as the riot-control specialist and likely future Florida congressman Cory Mills. In addition to its legendary role in foreign wars, the 82nd specializes in restoring order at times of domestic civil unrest—a role it played during the Detroit riots in 1967 and antiwar protests in Washington in 1968 and 1971, as well as in humanitarian emergencies like Hurricane Katrina.
To be sure, these are nightmare scenarios. But if the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that such outcomes have become all too plausible, and the first remedy for dealing with a nightmare is to wake up.
George Black’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and many other publications. His forthcoming book, The Long Reckoning: A Story of War, Peace, and Redemption in Vietnam, will be published by Knopf in March, 2023. Additional reporting contributed by Anne Nelson.
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