On the Shoulders of James Mattis

I think we’re putting a lot on the shoulders of James Mattis, the current SecDef held up as the last “adult in the room” among Trump’s cabinet. Mattis is the only cabinet member not to fawn cravenly over Trump at that early cabinet meeting where all the others did, the one who is supposedly successful at tempering Trump’s worst impulses on behalf of the country while avoiding Trump’s easily aroused wrath.

Apparently there’s a historical precedent, going all the way back to ancient Rome, for the Mattis role, that of Tacitus to the Emperor Nero and his equally flawed successor, Domitian.

But there are other ways to act dutifully, Tacitus insisted. Service is not servility, just as deference is not subservience. Tacitus praised those Romans who, like his father-in-law, Agricola, acted under Domitian not just with energy but also with a sense of responsibility and piety. On the eve of a pivotal battle in Britain, Agricola told his legions: “Our best chance of safety lies in doing our duty.” For him, republican duty was not to an individual but instead to Rome’s past, present, and future. Hence, Tacitus’s famous claim that “even under bad emperors there can be great men.” Greatness was measured less by an “ostentatious death” like Thrasea’s (or, for that matter, Seneca’s), but instead by an “unassuming conduct” that maintained the security of the empire.”

James Mattis Is an Ancient Roman Action Hero

Basically, the point made here is that people who openly confront the authoritarian leader through words if not by withholding votes — like Senator Jeff Flake — fade from the scene and are without influence. People like Mattis who retain their integrity in a deeply flawed setting, hold their public fire while working in private, ultimately serve the Republic best.

A new divisive element is entering Trump’s inner circle in the person of John Bolton, giving Mattis yet another difficult chess piece to manage. I can’t imagine that having Mattis stand on principle and resign over new aggressiveness from Bolton and Pompeo would result in a better SecDef — more likely another uber-hawk like Senator Tom Cotton.

To put this in context, Mattis was removed from his post as head of Central Command by President Obama, who thought Mattis too hawkish on Iran. But relative to Trump’s impulsive bellicosity, Mattis seems like the paragon of reason and deliberation. On his apparently calm shoulders we place a great deal of hope.

What a scary situation for the country to be in.

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