The thing about grown-ups is they are supposed to say when enough is enough. Jim Mattis had obviously had enough when he resigned as Donald Trump’s secretary of defence in December. Now the retired general — and the former leading “adult” in Mr Trump’s administration — says he owes a “duty of silence” to the government in which he could no longer serve. Some attribute Mr Mattis’s coyness to the military code of honour — though he retired from the marines two years before Mr Trump picked him. Either way he joins a small army of people who could damage Mr Trump but have chosen not to.
Such self-effacement is only adding to America’s democratic crisis. In the past three years westerners have discovered that their political systems rely less on the sanctity of the law than on the mettle of people in office. This applies as much to unelected officials in the judiciary, the military and the civil service as to elected politicians. It includes democracies with a written constitution, such as the US, and ones that run by convention, such as Britain. It also applies to people who have quit government. The secret to a strong democracy is its norms, not its rules. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, the only thing that is necessary for liberal democracy’s demise is for good people to do nothing.
Mr Mattis is in good company. His recent memoir, Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, was anticipated as a warning about the direction in which Mr Trump is taking the US. In the event, the only president Mr Mattis’s book criticises is Barack Obama (for letting politics trump military strategy). Mr Mattis thought it would be inappropriate to attack a “sitting president”. He also thought he had implied enough about Mr Trump by resigning as Pentagon chief last year. The same applies to Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s first secretary of state, who privately described the president as a “f***ing moron” but has largely kept his counsel in public.
A similar meekness possessed Robert Mueller, the former special counsel, when he testified about his report to Congress in July. Instead of spelling out the contents of his damning 448-page report, which few Americans have read, Mr Mueller used recurring non-answers such as “that’s outside my purview”. Like Mr Mattis, Mr Mueller held a grenade in his hand that he chose to keep pinned. Both men served their country with honour for decades. Neither, it seems, could alter the habits of a lifetime to take on the once-in-a-lifetime danger posed by Mr Trump. America’s 45th president has changed the norms. The old guard continues to function as if the old normal applies.
But the biggest abdication has come from elected Republicans. Mitt Romney, the senator from Utah, once called Mr Trump a “phoney” and a “fraud”. It is a fair bet he still thinks that in private. In public, however, Mr Romney is a reliable supporter of most things Mr Trump does. Mr Romney’s silence when Mr Trump smashes another convention — telling non-white Democratic congresswomen to “go home” for example — is deafening. The same applies to almost all of his 250 colleagues in Congress. Just one, Justin Amash, has stood up to Mr Trump. He will not run again. Mr Trump had made it plain he would back a primary challenger to unseat him.
The contrast with the self-sacrifice of 21 Conservative rebels in Britain’s parliament this week is stark. Each of them knew they would be expelled from the party if they voted against Boris Johnson, the prime minister. “No I don’t recognise my party,” said Kenneth Clarke, who was elected in 1970 when Mr Johnson was six. “It’s been taken over by a knockabout character.” Mr Clarke, unlike Mr Amash, is nearing the end of his career. Unlike Mr Mattis, however, he was prepared to speak truth to power in public.
The important lesson is that democracy is not a military chain of command. The system stands or falls by the actions of its servants. Shortly before Mr Mattis launched his memoir, he rejoined the board of General Dynamics, one of America’s largest defence contractors. Mr Mattis’s worth to GD is inversely related to the value of what he can say about the future of US democracy. The more he speaks against Mr Trump, the likelier his company will suffer.