Nicholas: Do you blame one candidate more than the other for the tone of the debate?
McMaster: These days, both reflect and magnify divisions in our society. I don’t think Donald Trump invented these divisions. But he certainly doesn’t do as much as he could to lessen those divisions and bring us back together. Oftentimes, we focus on the president’s bombastic or offensive rhetoric. The reaction to that rhetoric oftentimes is just as bad and pulls us apart from each other as well.
All of us face a choice at this moment. Do we get dragged down into this, even if we don’t want to, and then become part of the problem? Or do we try to transcend it? We have to try to transcend the partisan politics, transcend the candidates. If there’s hope for us, which I believe there is, the solution is not going to be apparent in this presidential campaign. We’re going to have to do more work ourselves to come together as a people and demand better in all of our government—including the presidential candidates.
Nicholas: Will democracy survive this election? Do you worry that if Trump refuses to concede in the event of a defeat, that could be a danger to our democracy?
McMaster: I don’t. Our Founders wrote the Constitution with every crisis they could imagine in mind. I have confidence in that system. It’s going to work.
Read: James Mattis denounces President Trump, describes him as a threat to the Constitution
Nicholas: Could the military get drawn into a post–Election Day dispute that arises?
McMaster: No. The military will have no role. Even any talk about the military having a role in the transition should be unconscionable. [The Constitution’s authors] feared any military role that would undercut this radical [American] idea that sovereignty lies with the people. Not with the king or parliament, but with the people. The only time you could say [that principle has] been violated on a large scale is the Civil War, when military officers essentially became traitors to preserve slavery. And so we have to make sure we don’t even have discussions about this.
The responsibility for maintaining the military’s studiously apolitical status and civilian control is on the profession of arms. But it’s also incumbent on politicians to keep the military out of it.
Nicholas: On a different subject: Is the president’s “America First” strategy driving away friends and allies? Do you worry that he might pull out of NATO if he’s reelected?
McMaster: The president undervalues—and many Americans do as well—the less tangible benefits of our allies, and in particular the influence the United States enjoys because of our ability to work with like-minded partners bound together not just by mutual interests, but by democratic principles that we hold dear.
I think our allies give us a great deal of moral authority—and they lessen the burden of defense. They also make us more prosperous. They help us establish and maintain an economic order internationally that is conducive to fair and reciprocal trade and commerce. It’s actually good when the president challenges our European allies to contribute more to collective defense. They have pledged to share that burden, and some countries are not living up to it.
The president doesn’t do it very tactfully, and that’s what alienates some of our allies and leads to popular doubts within those countries about the reliability of the U.S. as an ally.
I don’t [worry that Trump will abandon NATO if reelected]. There would be such an overwhelming response from those who are familiar with the benefits of the alliance.