America is in crisis, a decorated former government official recently warned.
“Virulent, take-no-prisoners attacks on the media, the judiciary, labor unions, universities, teachers, scientists, civil servants — pick your target — [are threatening to] tear down the scaffolding on which society is built,” he wrote. “We talk about what divides us and seldom acknowledge what unites us.”
They were powerful words, but hypocritical ones, given their author: James Mattis — the retired general and defense secretary who left President Donald Trump's administration last year over disagreements on foreign policy — now badly wants the world to know he is more principled than Trump.
Mattis is finishing up a book tour in which he has touted his 50 years of military leadership but has been maddeningly unwilling to directly critique the president. His high-minded language about “what unites us” came in a recent piece in the Atlantic that urged Americans to channel their better angels and “trust in the capacity of collective deliberation to move us forward.”
It’s not surprising that Mattis now seeks to burnish his reputation after tying his fortunes to the most corrupt, amoral, and unqualified US president in history. But it’s pure revisionist history for him to cast himself as above the fray. If the true test of leadership is how one’s principles fare when challenged, Mattis’s professed values crumbled the moment they came into conflict with the scorched-earth politics of the president he chose to serve.
In 2017, Trump rashly tweeted his intention to prohibit transgender Americans from serving in the military, a policy that imperiled the careers of 14,700 currently serving troops as well as countless more young people who dream of one day serving their country. Despite a robust consensus among military and medical leaders that service by transgender individuals does not threaten combat readiness, Mattis failed spectacularly to “trust in the capacity of collective deliberation.” Instead he embraced a shamelessly fact-free and divisive policy in service to Trump’s hateful agenda.
Mattis then affixed his name to a grossly misleading report and recommendations to reinstate a ban on transgender service. In that report and subsequent talking points, the Pentagon claimed, with no evidence, that allowing transgender service posed “substantial risks” that threatened to “undermine readiness, disrupt unit cohesion, and impose an unreasonable burden on the military.” The Pentagon went on to ban service by transgender individuals and even characterized transgender identity as a “deficiency” classified alongside bed-wetting and “disturbances of perception, thinking, [and] emotional control.”
Mattis advanced this discriminatory policy at the behest of a patently bigoted commander in chief with no military service, intellectual curiosity, or respect for data or truth. And he did so despite the fact that all the research available on this topic, along with the service chiefs of all the military branches — that is, all the fruits of the collective deliberation he so reveres, in theory — concluded there was no need for a ban.
This wasn’t the only example of Mattis undermining respectfulness, trust, and unity. Asked recently about his thoughts on women’s equality — a principle successfully enshrined in military policy when the last combat restrictions were lifted under the Obama administration starting in 2015 — Mattis hedged on whether to even allow women to join rifle platoons, reverting to oddly inscrutable talking points about football and community college that somehow landed on the suggestion that gender equality could cause death.
To mix together “young men and women at a time when they grow very fond of one another,” he said, would increase “the coarseness of our society, especially towards women, young women.” He worried that having women in combat could mean writing more “next of kin” letters — death announcements — to mourning parents and widows as a result of a “drastic” experiment in gender equity.
Mattis’s outdated views on gender segregation and female fragility are an embarrassing source of division, not a font for shoring up the common ground he touts as necessary to secure our future. His stated concern with our country’s social divisions maps awkwardly onto his willingness to remove transgender Americans serving in the military, which has exacerbated the very divisions he now frets about in the pages of the Atlantic.
He has been called “the most revered living marine” and was considered by many to be the last remaining adult in the Trump administration. But it’s beyond time for a clear-eyed view of how his self-image as a principled leader and bridge-builder stacks up against reality: This is a man who fell in line with, and enabled, one of the most divisive and destructive presidents we’ve ever had — a choice it has taken him far too long to regret.
Nathaniel Frank is a senior research consultant at the Palm Center and director of Cornell’s What We Know Project. He is the author of Awakening: How Gays and Lesbians Brought Marriage Equality to America, published by Harvard University Press in April 2017.