Trump’s Russian Cyber-Hack Controversy: New era of post-Civil-Military Relations?

18 January 2017, 0952 EST

The following is a guest post by Jahara W. Matisek.  Jahara “FRANKY” Matisek is a Major in the U.S. Air Force, with plenty of combat experience flying the C-17 and an instructor pilot tour in the T-6. He is an AFIT Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Northwestern University, a recent Summer Seminar participant in the Clements Center for National Security, and Coordinator for the War & Society Working Group at the Buffett Institute. Upon completion of his doctoral studies, Major Matisek will be Assistant Professor in the Military & Strategic Studies department at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The opinions espoused in the essay do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense, or U.S. government.

How bad would the Russian cyber-hack have to be in your mind to make you reconsider Trump being allowed to become President on the 20th of January?

I posed this provocative question to 28 individuals[1] that are currently serving in the U.S. military,[2] or had served at some point.[3]

Depending on where you fall along the political spectrum and level of engagement, this question came off as a genuine question to some, and to others, it was perceived as a loaded/slanted question. Thing is, I intentionally asked this, not because I wanted a direct answer to the question, but because I wanted to understand the current sociological state of civil-military relations (CMR) relative to this incredibly divisive political election season.  Understanding these answers can provide greater clarity to Peter Feaver’s civil-military problematique, where “the very institution created to protect the polity is given sufficient power to become a threat to the polity.”  Indeed, it is right to openly wonder military attitudes concerning civilian control of the military under the pretext of political leadership that might be perceived as illegitimate.

Nonetheless, I was greatly surprised with the incredibly high percentage of responses from such an opening question directed at military personnel – given the contentious election and continued controversy. Even as a mid-level military officer, I was able to start with this type of question, and many opened up immediately – regardless of rank and position – telling me much more than I anticipated, to include about half of the respondents – on their own accord – admitting who they voted for.

So why ask a very narrow segment of American society this question? 

A survey by the Military Times after the election, showed that 51 percent of active-duty troops supported their new president-elect, but that about a quarter of respondents were worried Trump “may issue orders that violate military rules or traditions.” My semi-structured interviews were intended to provide more clarity and texture to such findings.

In this context, each person I made contact with had a security clearance (or had one when they served). Having such a security clearance inherently gives most individuals a legalistic understanding and interpretation of laws and rules. Many individuals within this framework, perceive no gray area in behaviors and actions. Such binary thinking leads many to perceive any deed as either legal or illegal.  Such an internalized sense of rules was surely to guide thinking (in my opinion at least) on Hillary Clinton’s past and the controversies surrounding Donald Trump before and after the election.

Second, it would have been incredibly sensitive to ask any of the military members (active duty especially) about their thoughts on whether they would disobey illegal or unethical orders from a future commander-in-chief, especially with some thinking Trump is illegitimate.  Opening with my provocative question unlocked a window into the deeper thought processes of military personnel (to include veterans) to assess their present sociological state, understanding of presidential legitimacy, and comprehension of American institutional processes.

Finally, as there are two main branches of CMR, I felt it necessary to consider which one is more salient in the 21st century, or if there needs to be a third branch to account for the current state of CMR in the U.S. and other liberal Western states. The first branch, an institutional approach established by Samuel Huntington in The Solider and the State (1957), contended that the military was much more conservative and illiberal in many ways when compared to society, making it a threat to government unless civilian leadership could foster military professionalism in conjunction with objective control of the armed forces.  The second CMR branch founded by Morris Janowitz in The Professional Solider (1960) was a sociological approach that agreed somewhat with Huntington’s assertion concerning a difference between civilian society and military culture, but Janowitz believed that convergence between both spheres would solve civil-military strife.

Given the level of convergence (or lack thereof known as the civil-military gap) between society and the military, to include America’s apathy towards its perpetual war – has the U.S. military become so institutionally isolated from society that it is embedded within the state?  In essence, has the U.S. military moved beyond Feaver’s civil-military problematique via institutionalization; posing no threat to civilian leadership even if leaders might lack legitimacy?

Trends in Responses from Military Personnel

I identified three major trends from the 28 respondents, concerning the election outcome and controversies.

  • Resentment: Almost half of the personnel I interviewed did not answer the question directly.  Instead they immediately deflected the question by blaming Hillary Clinton, launching into interesting tirades against her and the wrong direction the country has been taken by democrats, republicans, media, etc.  Such responses were illuminating because these individuals also told me who they voted for without asking (support split between Donald Trump and Gary Johnson).  Nonetheless, it is sociologically important to understand this sort of frustration and resentment directed at the political system, especially by individuals responsible for guarding said system and entrusted with national defense.


  • Faith in Institutional Procedures: Most individuals that did answer the question directly stated that if Trump had colluded with Russia and/or if votes had been altered, they believed Congress would need to take action in both cases.  First, if Trump had conspired with Russia, many believed that Congress would need to initiate impeachment hearings. Second, if votes had been altered resulting in a fraudulent election, then many believed Congress would need to order a new election.  These answers indicate that most military personnel have an attachment to the institutional and legalistic processes that dictate how the government operates, to include the procedures that are supposed to sustain rule of law in government.


  • Apathy: Despite many offering comments about correcting the possibility of an illegitimate presidential election, most expressed a sense of helplessness and inevitably.  For example, a high ranking officer admitted that even if Trump had colluded with Russia and votes had been altered that “it’s almost impossible to stop the train at this point.”  Similarly, a lower ranking officer expressed similar sentiments, stating “we’re full speed ahead at this point and it would look worse to renege everything that’s happened the past month with him contacting world leaders and picking cabinet members.”  Such remarks from personnel in the armed forces indicate a subconscious attachment to the polity and its civilian leaders, regardless of issues pertaining to legitimacy.  It also indicates a professional adherence to military and civilian institutions, which invariably defaults towards a normative deference for civilian control even when Trump might possibly pose a danger to CMR.


Entering a new paradigm of post-Civil-Military Relations?

Answers from these respondents seem to indicate that we have entered a post-Civil Military Relations era.  Deference to political institutions and civilian leaders is so embedded within the mindset of military personnel that there is an instinctual reverence for the institutional framework built into the military.  Despite personal feelings, such leaders and institutions are impersonally accepted despite their legitimacy being at stake.

If there is such a new era of post-Civil Military Relations in the West, where militaries no longer pose a threat to the government regardless of its validity, then perhaps the CMR literature needs to shift towards a new conceptualization of how political and military leaders interact.  Perhaps a third branch of CMR literature should adapt to how Douglas North et. al. conceptualizes states in the world as either Open Access Orders (OAOs) or Limited Access Orders (LAOs).  Only 20% of countries are OAOs, where there is open access in organizations and the rule of law is applied in a rational-legal manner throughout society.  The rest of the world is made up of LAOs, where dominant coalitions of elites personally control the state and economy and focus more on securing rents and loyalty, all while trying to limit internal threats to the regime.

The election of Trump makes CMR incredibly more interesting because in other parts of the world, military coups are sometimes a reflection of popular will, where “democratic backsliding” compels the military to intervene, attempting to reign in a leader becoming more authoritarian (e.g. Egypt in 2013, Turkey in 2016, etc.).  Even if Trump were to rollback democracy in America, it is highly doubtful the U.S. military would intervene given its institutional embeddedness in a rational-legal system (i.e. OAO), indicating that we might have transitioned into a post-Civil Military Relations phase.


[1] Response rate of 28 out of 30.

[2] I queried male and female personnel that were enlisted or officers. While most respondents were primarily drawn from the U.S. Air Force, some individuals had experience in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. I guaranteed each individual anonymity.

[3] Responses from ranks as low as E-3 and as high as O-6 (e.g. Colonel), to include a retired General. Personnel in the reserves and national guard were also included.