As thousands of active-duty troops mobilize to quell violence in the nation’s capital, and potentially in other cities as well, it’s worth asking, far from the first time in recent weeks: What the hell is going on?
Few contest that President Donald Trump has the legal power to send the U.S. military onto American streets. In principle, the Posse Comitatus Act forbids the use of troops to enforce domestic laws, but other legislation—notably the Insurrection Act of 1807 (revised several times over the years) as well as several emergency statutes—allow for exceptions, and considerable leeway for the president to decide what those exceptions are.
The question is whether he is right to do this here and now.
It would hardly be the first time presidents have sent active-duty troops to settle domestic unrest that state and local police are unable to handle. In 1992, the governor of California asked for the Army and the Marines to come restore order during the riots prompted by the police beating of Rodney King. In 1967, the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division was sent to Detroit to calm riots and, a year later, to D.C. after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
The current turmoil is vastly different. For instance, the 1968 riots in Washington—three days of looting and arson—left 13 people dead, hundreds injured, and thousands arrested, with hundreds of blazes and whole swaths of the city left in rubble, which took decades to repair. According to Robert Kaiser, a former Washington Post reporter who covered the riots, the 82nd arrived after the violence had pretty much ended. “They didn’t walk the streets,” Kaiser recalled. “They mainly drove around in big trucks.”
Today’s troubles amount to nothing remotely so devastating. But they do reveal that the police in many cities are ill-trained to use—or, more to the point, refrain from using—the heavily militarized arsenals that their departments have purchased, or that have been handed down by the Pentagon, to deal with terrorists, real or imagined, since the 9/11 attacks. Hoisting so much firepower, and shielded by so much protective gear, some (though far from all) of these police swagger into hot zones, psyched up to meet and defeat the enemy, instead of looking for opportunities to defuse tension.
Sending in the Army and the Marines—not mere National Guard reservists, who have already been deployed in some cities, but active-duty battalions trained to fight in places like Fallujah, Iraq, and Kandahar, Afghanistan—would only aggravate the turmoil. The armed forces, flying in to a city for the first time, have neither any knowledge of the local scene nor any time or incentive to scope out distinctions between the peaceful protesters and the looters or provocateurs. And their presence would legitimize the us-versus-them aggressions of the more gung-ho police.
Trump has waved away any need for fine-tuning, slamming the full panoply of crowds on the streets as “anarchists,” “terrorists,” “losers,” and “lowlifes,” and heaving contempt on “democrat” governors who call for unity or understanding as “laughing stocks” and “weak,” exhorting them to “get much tougher.”
Always eager to satisfy the boss, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, perhaps in a swoon of nostalgia for his days as an infantry officer in the Gulf War before settling into a string of desk jobs, spoke of the need to control the “battle space,” as if his own country’s cities were theaters of foreign wars.
Then there is Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assigned by Trump to coordinate military operations in the cities, strutting around the streets of D.C. Monday night in full battle uniform, even escorting Trump to his photo-op across the street from the White House in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church, where a fire was set in the basement the night before—a scene, with Trump hoisting an unopened Bible, that his aides have already memorialized as a made-for-campaign video. Left on the cutting room floor was a scene, just minutes before, when police fired tear gas at peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square so the president could make his appearance unimpeded by bottles or catcalls.
It’s unclear what Milley was doing there in the first place. Since the Goldwater-Nichols reforms passed in 1986, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs has no role in military operations. U.S. Northern Command was created in 2002 to defend the homeland (though the premise was that we might be attacked by foreigners). But this is high reelection drama for Trump, so he wants the nation’s top officer to survey the scene. It’s head-shaking that Esper and Milley signed up for these scenery-chewing roles. Michael Hayden, retired four-star general, former director of the CIA and NSA, tweeted of the chairman’s appearance, “I was appalled to see him in his battle dress,” adding, “Milley (he’s a general?!?) should not have walked over to the church with Trump.”
Again, the president can do all this, if he wants. He could have named Jared Kushner to devise battle tactics, if he’d wanted (who knows, maybe he has). But it is way disproportionate to the crisis at hand. The militarization might swiftly crush the troublemakers, though it might also crush a lot of legitimate protesters and bystanders. It will likely prolong and intensify the protest, too. In the long run, it will further discredit the institutions of our government and further splinter our politics and society.
This, of course, is what Trump wants. Reuters reported on Sunday that some White House officials advised him to hold listening sessions with mayors and community leaders and to deliver a speech to the nation. But, as the Washington Post reported, they dropped the idea when they realized Trump had nothing to say.
Trump has made it very clear that he has no interest in calming the nation or unifying its factions. He phoned the family of George Floyd, the man killed by police in Minneapolis, in the horrible videotaped incident that triggered the protests. But the victim’s brother, Philonise Floyd, later said that the conversation “lasted probably two minutes” and that Trump “didn’t give me an opportunity to even speak. … I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept, like, pushing me off.”
Lacking the inclination to pay so much as lip service to the concept of bringing the people together, Trump is instead reverting to his default strategy of firing up his base. Hence his hoisting the Bible in front of the fire-damaged church—though only for a photo-op, moving the Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Episcopal bishop of Washington, to decry his tactic as “outrageous” and “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus.”
Hence, too, Trump’s ultratough rhetoric and his call-up of the toughest of the tough, seeing no need—believing it would be seen as an act of weakness—to try to solve the crisis through a shrewd mix of conciliation, dialogue, and more traditional law enforcement. The mix might have been a plausible one: Many protesters have decried the looters and, when possible, turned them over to police.
Trump wants fire and bloodshed, then he wants to douse it with more and take credit for the smoldering peace. This is the only path to a queasy stability that’s consistent with his character and thus the only road open to reelection, which, in everything he does, is his one and only aim.
Update, June 2, 2020: This piece was updated to more accurately describe the nature of the damage to St. John’s Episcopal Church.