In ancient Rome, during times of great crisis, the city’s elected leaders would temporarily put their republican form of government on hold and appoint one man to take over.

They called him “dictator.”

The word is used only as an insult today, but the concept is still alive among people who worry that the democratic process won’t give us the leaders that we need. Their latest hope is a charismatic retired Marine Corps general named James Mattis.

According to an article in the Daily Beast making the rounds on social media this week, there is a group of anonymous billionaires who have hired a team of conservative political operatives, including former advisers to the Jeb Bush campaign. They are planning the strategy for a Mattis campaign that could take the White House without winning the election.

All he would need to do is campaign in a handful of states that Barack Obama won in 2012 and win enough of them to deny any candidate the 270 electoral votes needed to make a majority. That would throw the race to the House of Representatives, where each state’s delegation would get one vote.

Twenty-six votes in the Republican-dominated House would make Mattis commander in chief.

Improbable? Sure. But this year, improbable has been the norm. If both parties nominate candidates who have more enemies than friends, nothing is impossible.

So the question isn’t could it happen, but should it happen? Are enough angry voters sufficiently angry to want a dictator instead of a president?

There is nothing new about having a former general as president. And we have seen third-party candidates in all recent presidential elections, most notably Ross Perot’s 1992 run, which may have tipped the election to Bill Clinton.

But this particular combination of a military man, billionaire backers and an intentional end run around the democratic process is something we have never seen, at least not in this country. And the fact that serious people are even talking about it should send a chill through everyone who believes in self-government. It’s not easy to defend this ugly election cycle, but it is the system we have used for 227 years – the one that gave us Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln isn’t on the ballot this year, however, and Mattis is a larger-than-life character. It’s easy to see why people would want to line up behind him.

According to the Military Times, he has “developed a cult-like following among service members during his 34-year military career, in large part due to his blunt talk about the nature of combat. He once advised Marines serving under him to ‘be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everyone you meet.’ ”

Mattis is known as the “warrior monk” because he never married and has devoted his life to the study of armed conflict. He is loyal to his troops, famously taking sentry duty himself so a young Marine captain could spend Christmas with his family.

Where he stands on abortion, health care, tax policy or transgender bathrooms is anybody’s guess. Those are the kinds of questions you answer in a presidential campaign, and he’s not a candidate.

So far Mattis, who is 65, has publicly rejected the idea of entering politics, and given his reputation for plain talk it’s hard to understand why people don’t believe him.

But John Noonan, a former Jeb Bush aide now involved in the project to draft Mattis, told the Daily Beast that the general could be convinced to jump in:

“He’s a man of character and integrity … . It’s damn hard. But Trump is a fascist lunatic and Hillary has one foot in a jail cell. That means the lunatic can win. I’d be first in line to plead with the general to come save America.”

The Mattis movement appears to be closely linked to Donald Trump’s fortunes. If Ted Cruz or some other orthodox conservative is the Republican nominee, then it probably doesn’t come together, Noonan said.

If Trump is the nominee, though, the damage that his reckless campaign has caused the country will be measured by how many people would be willing to junk the democratic process and run to find a dictator to take charge of the government and rescue them.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: