War-Gaming for Democracy

It’s January 21, 2025, the first full day of the second Trump administration. Members of a right-wing paramilitary group, deputized by the president to patrol the border, have killed a migrant family. Video of the incident sparks outrage, sending local protesters swarming to ICE detention centers. Left-wing pro-immigrant groups begin arriving in border states to reinforce the protests, setting off clashes.

In response, the Democratic governors of New Mexico and Arizona mobilize National Guard units, ordering them to disperse the paramilitaries. But these groups, having been deputized by the president, are recognized under Articles I and II of the Constitution as legal militias. The commander of the New Mexico National Guard refuses orders from the governor, saying that migrants pose the true threat, not patriotic Americans defending their homes. The governor summarily relieves him of command. On his way out the door, the general pledges to “continue to follow the lawful commands of POTUS.”

Last month, at one site in Washington, D.C., and another in Palo Alto, California, the advocacy group Veterans for Responsible Leadership hosted Constitutional Thresholds, a war game “designed to address the potential extra-constitutional actions of a second Trump presidential term.” The events described above were part of their scenario, an extrapolation based on statements from key Trump advisers. The game’s participants, a mix of former government officials, retired military officers, political operatives, and leaders of veterans’ organizations, were divided into a red pro-Trump cell and an anti-Trump blue cell. “As veterans, we are people who can uniquely communicate to the American public how important the Constitution is, because we took an oath to defend it,” Amy McGrath, a former Marine Corps pilot and a Democratic candidate for Senate in Kentucky who was one of the event’s organizers, told participants before it began. “That oath doesn’t go away just because you took off this uniform.”

I would think about this injunction repeatedly over the course of the war game, which I attended in D.C. The organizers were sincere in their concerns about a second Trump administration, and earnest in their desire to prepare for the potential challenges. But I still wondered about certain of their assumptions—about the ways veterans on the left and the right assert moral authority in our society, the ways the organizers’ political opponents might behave, and the ends to which each side might go to preserve their vision of our democracy. Perhaps most of all, I wondered whether any of them had paused to consider how these war games might look to those who do not share their assumptions.

The war game started with some minor confusion. The red and blue cells were decamping to their respective conference rooms, but William Enyart, a former member of Congress and retired major general in the Illinois National Guard, didn’t know where to go. He was assigned to play the role of adjutant general of the New Mexico National Guard. Although his character worked for the Democratic governor, the scenario cast him as sympathetic to the Trump administration. He wasn’t sure whether to head for the red or the blue conference room. He would, as the game progressed, wind up shuttling between the two, dramatizing the divided loyalties that were a theme of the day.

With the players settled into their respective war rooms, the scenario began with a social-media post from the governor of Texas:

For too long, we Texans have paid the price as Democrat governors and a Democrat president failed to protect our borders. The American people voted out a weak president and replaced him with one who will enforce our laws, and who is now delivering justice on behalf of the people of Arizona and New Mexico. We stand with them and President Trump’s plan to end the open-border regime of the past.

Donald Trump, somewhat improbably played by the Never-Trump conservative Bill Kristol, posted his own brief statement of support on social media: “Help is on the way.” In addition to sending National Guard units, the president deputized members of two right-wing groups. Soon, the video of these groups killing the migrant family was introduced into the scenario.

The scenario reached an inflection point for the blue cell when Enyart, as commander of the New Mexico National Guard, refused to disperse the federally deputized militias. Kathy Boockvar, a former Pennsylvania secretary of state playing the role of New Mexico’s governor, pulled Enyart into a separate conference room to confront him. “I took a dual oath, one to the State of New Mexico and one to the Constitution,” Enyart told Boockvar. “I am obligated to follow the Constitution first and foremost. It is my duty to disregard any unconstitutional orders that I’m given. With all due respect, governor, I will obey your directions so long as they’re within the parameters of the Constitution.”

He began debating Articles I and II, and their authorities for use of militias, with Boockvar and a man playing the role of her counsel. They also began to debate which was the larger threat, the crisis at the border or the militias who’d ostensibly arrived to secure it. Boockvar summarily relieved Enyart of his command, and her counsel told him not to communicate with any of his subordinate commanders or key leaders within the New Mexico National Guard if he “wanted to remain on the right side of history.”

Events in the red-cell war room, meanwhile, were moving briskly along. The White House seized on reports of tuberculosis to reinstate Title 42, the COVID-era provision that secured the border. In coordination with the speaker of the House, the president was planning a joint address to Congress that evening in which he’d update the American people on the situation. At that address, the president also planned to pardon those convicted after January 6. There was some internal White House debate as to whether Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, should be present at the Capitol for the mass pardoning. The consensus, however, was that he should instead be flown down to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to galvanize the militias.

The situation at the border was deteriorating rapidly. In the last hour of the war game, the governors of New Mexico and Arizona ordered law enforcement to detain militia members. The Texas governor and Tucker Carlson hosted a mass militia-deputization ceremony next to the border crossing in El Paso. One of the right-wing groups warned that it might escalate; a left-wing veterans group responded by asking the Defense Department to remind veterans and National Guard members of their duty. Then, in the final minutes of the game, a shootout in El Paso left 14 members of a right-wing paramilitary group dead. This seemed to be the final provocation, the crescendo for which the entire scenario had been constructed, delivering the excuse Trump needed to invoke the Insurrection Act. Kristol demurred.

“Trump can be canny when his future is on the line,” Kristol said later. “He’s got a sense that there’s things he could do that would go too far, that would lose him the support he really cares about. He’s a very effective demagogue.” Kristol believed that Trump might ultimately hang back in such a scenario, allowing the governors to carry the burden of securing their states. Given Trump’s history of shifting responsibility for his mistakes onto subordinates, Kristol’s assessment certainly didn’t seem far off.

After the game, the participants gathered to debrief. They were struck by the speed at which events had unfolded. Some believed that the courts would, in reality, have slowed things down, serving as a check on executive power, while others were equally certain a second Trump administration would blow past the judiciary. “In the second term, there will be no grown-ups in the room. No one in that room will even have a moment mentally where they say, ‘This is against the law, Mr. President. We can’t do it,’” said Rick Wilson, a political operative and co-founder of the Lincoln Project, who’d played the White House chief of staff. “They’ll say, ‘This is against the law, Mr. President. How do we do it?’”

Kristol wasn’t so sure. “There’s lots of ways to slow this down,” he said. “Trump can’t replace everyone on January 20.” He suggested that if Trump wins, the Biden administration can spend the months before his inauguration preparing for the challenge, and outside groups can ready legal challenges to the things he’s promising to do.

Participants lamented that the left was too often caught flat-footed by the right, and started exploring ideas about how best to prepare. Some floated the idea of forming “a parallel government” or “government in exile” or “shadow government” focused on countering Trump’s administrative actions. Will Attig, one of the few participants with a background in organized labor, noted that a third of airline pilots are veterans. What if those pilots organized a boycott and decided that they wouldn’t fly into red states? At times, the participants spoke of veterans as a cohesive group, one that the left could corral. Yet veterans are divided politically, just like the rest of Americans—and a majority of veterans supported Trump in the 2020 election. No one seemed to consider that political action designed to appeal to veterans on one end of the political spectrum would inevitably invite a response from veterans on the other side.

Veterans played a leading role in the day’s events. Most of the game’s key organizers were veterans. And although many participants were not, the veterans are the ones who argued most stridently that constitutional norms would do little to stymie Trump, and that veterans should help lead efforts to organize against a second Trump administration. Perhaps that’s because those who have experienced war—particularly the brutal insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan—need less convincing of civilization’s inherent fragility.

Veterans have played a vital role in our civic life. A disproportionate number of veterans held elected office after the Second World War, the last era in which our politics was functional. Their shared experience helped ward off the endemic hyper-partisanship we suffer today. If you’ve fought a war together, you’re less likely to fight a war among yourselves.

The idea that veterans should play a central role in resisting any constitutional overreach from Trump seemed to rely on the argument that the oath we swore to “support and defend the Constitution” extends to civilian life. But this neglects a far less frequently referenced, but equally essential, portion of the oath of office, which concludes with a commitment to “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.” When you take off your uniform, the term of your oath ends. When veterans assume an active role in civic life, they do so as civilians, not as extrajudicial defenders of the Constitution.

The far-right has long urged veterans to remember their oaths. Does the left want to travel further down that same road? Imagine if the Heritage Foundation, or any other right-wing advocacy group, hosted a set of veteran-led war games based around countering the sort of extra-constitutional violations that some conservatives already allege that President Joe Biden is indulging: Biden has stolen the election through mail-in ballots; Biden has abandoned his obligation to seal the border. It’s not hard to anticipate the denunciations that would flood in from the left. In such exercises, the scenarios reveal as much about the participants and how they imagine their adversaries as they reveal about those adversaries themselves.

The war game I witnessed built to the question of whether the president would invoke the Insurrection Act. The organizers approached the federalization of the National Guard as an unconscionable act that would grant President Trump dangerous powers. A previous war game, organized by many of the same participants and turned into the documentary War Game, which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, also featured the invocation of the Insurrection Act as the scenario’s climax. In the documentary, the scenario was built around a repeat of January 6, and centered on the question of whether the Democratic president would evoke the Insurrection Act to contain protesters at the Capitol, deploying the military to contain the protests with force. He did not.

And yet, many presidents have made a different choice. Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, LBJ, and Reagan all invoked the Insurrection Act at least once during their administrations. Kennedy and Johnson each invoked it three times, Kennedy twice to federalize the Alabama National Guard when the governor refused to integrate schools. The Insurrection Act was last invoked 32 years ago, in 1992, by President George H. W. Bush during the Los Angeles riots. Whether you identify as a Democrat or a Republican, a president of your own party has invoked the act within living memory of many of your fellow citizens. The problem, it seems, is not invoking the act, but the fact that Trump might be the one who has the power to invoke it. Follow that logic. Trump would reclaim that power only if he wins the election. And if he wins the election, it will be because enough Americans choose to give him their vote.

This is where the logic of war games begins to break down in a democracy. Unless you believe a constitution that can deliver a Trump presidency is not worth upholding, you must accept a president’s legal use of his executive authority. Is it possible that war games in American politics are, at least in this moment, less about countering illegal actions and more about planning to undermine opposing administrations? If war games like the one I watched become a political norm, will that be healthy for our democracy?

During the debrief, Kristofer Goldsmith touched on the role of the courts. Goldsmith is an Iraq War veteran who now works for an organization called Task Force Butler, focused on countering right-wing extremist groups. “I know gameplay for this type of scenario can feel very fast,” he said. “I just want to emphasize that this is the way things can develop on the ground, and there will not be time for the courts to intervene. The distance between deputizing an extremist organization and 14 people getting killed on the ground is minutes, and there’s no way to actually do a filing or to get a response from a judge.”

I walked away from the war game wondering whether the participants were cognizant of how their actions might be perceived not only by those on the right, but also by those who don’t entirely share their views. If some on the left don’t believe that courts or systemic checks will be able to halt the extra-constitutional actions of a second Trump administration—or even its legal ones—does it follow that the opposition should abandon constitutional norms and establish “shadow governments” and resistance cells to check executive authority? Many of the war game’s participants seemed to think so.

If the divide between the left and the right in America has become so wide that neither can conceive of the other wielding power legitimately, then perhaps the war game I observed wasn’t a game at all.

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