It was imperative, a convergence of the language of civic engagement and the language of social media engagement:
Associated Press: “READ: Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ resignation letter to President Trump”
Bloomberg: “Read Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s resignation letter to Trump”
Read it. READ. Read the full text, from “I have been privileged to serve as our country’s 26th Secretary of Defense which has allowed me to serve alongside our men and women of the Department in defense of our citizens and our ideals” to “I very much appreciate this opportunity to serve the nation and our men and women in uniform”—the ending going right back to the ground trodden in the beginning: serving, our men and women, our country and/or nation.
Nobody was promoting it as a work of prose, nor even really as a piece of political thought. It was dully written and dully reasoned; what mattered was that it was a speech act, the Secretary of Defense announcing that he could no longer pretend Donald Trump is an adequate president.
Most people could have told him that going in. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic poured heavy orotundity over the whole event, in the hopes it would pass for dignity and substance. He told about speaking with Mattis in 2016, when the then-retired general complained to him about some “mild, calibrated criticism Obama directed at a set of allies who probably deserved it”:
[I]n the spring of 2016, virtually no one in the American national-security establishment had yet imagined that Donald Trump—the target of Mattis’s scorn and derision that day—would become president, and make his task the dismantling of the American idea.
I tell this story because it underscores a salient point: James Mattis understood from the beginning the nature of Trump’s intellectual, ideological, and characterological defects, even as he was pulled into Trump’s orbit, and into his Cabinet.
Yeah yeah yeah—no. Donald Trump is a dumb goon and anyone who worked for him was signing up to do dumb goon work. And installing a military general in the civilian job of running the Department of Defense, and then expecting him to keep the president in line, was only a defense of “the American idea” to the extent that the American idea includes softcore coup fantasies.
Mattis’ letter was still playing to those fantasies on the way out the door, using his military credentials to pull rank on his civilian commander-in-chief: “My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues.” It’s true that Trump is ignorant, but it’s also true that by that same four-decades-of-immersion standard, Mattis wouldn’t have seen any reason to listen to Barack Obama or George W. Bush either.
The vital—desperately vital—principle for understanding the Trump era is that when bad people are turning against one another, the transitive property doesn’t work. You can’t reason your way to figuring out who the good ones are. There’s not a word in Mattis’ letter about the sharp increase in civilian airstrike deaths under Trump, or the expansion of borderless undeclared war to the point where American fighters were killed in Niger, or the deployment of the armed forces on United States soil as theatrical props in a midterm campaign stunt.
What turned Mattis against Trump was, in the letter’s terms, that they were not “aligned” on the questions of how to treat allies and enemies. If he’d been writing plainly, he would have said he meant Trump’s sudden announcement of a withdrawal from Syria and a cutback on forces in Afghanistan. It’s not necessary or sensible to claim that these changes are good ideas, or that the results won’t be worse than the status quo. Trump never has good ideas, and even if he did, he would have no idea how to act on them. That doesn’t change the fact that, out of everything Trump has broken or threatened to break, the only thing that Mattis couldn’t tolerate was a threat to the integrity of the perpetual war machine.