Importantly, in justifying this threat, Trump cited “acts of domestic terror.” He described this as made up of “professional anarchists” and “violent mobs” and “looters” and “antifa.”
But there is no actual or meaningful “domestic terror” threat driving these protests. To whatever degree those other categories are contributing to the violence, it is not meaningfully driven by “domestic terror.”
When Trump recently claimed to be designating antifa a domestic terror organization, many pointed out that he doesn’t have the legal authority to do this. Antifa isn’t really a group, and the federal government can designate only foreign groups as terrorist organizations.
But we need to take the next step here, and make it absolutely clear that the larger claim that “domestic terror” is driving the violence and mayhem is a complete fabrication.
“It’s a fabricated ‘terrorist’ threat,” Ned Price, a national security adviser to former president Barack Obama, told me. “No one argues that there haven’t been episodes of violence. But those episodes can’t faithfully be described as terrorism, domestic or international.”
But here’s the rub: Trump and many members of his administration continue to use the phrase “domestic terrorism” to describe what’s happening.
For instance, Attorney General William P. Barr recently said that “the violence instigated and carried out by antifa and other similar groups” is “domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”
And Mark Morgan, the acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner, has now explicitly declared that the protests have “devolved into acts of domestic terrorism," to justify deploying CBP personnel to Washington.
Here you see senior members of Trump’s administration using this language to justify concrete law enforcement policies. But this language describes something that isn’t actually happening.
There is no domestic terrorism statute. And while certain types of violent domestic groups are often described as “homegrown violent extremists” — for instance, white supremacist groups — there is no legitimate way to claim that this is what we’re seeing with the protests.
An authoritarian set-piece
We’re now learning new details that underscore the degree to which Trump’s threats of military violence are functioning as an authoritarian set-piece designed to galvanize his base for reelection purposes.
The Post reports that in the lead-up to his staged visit to the church, which followed tear-gassing and force to clear away peaceful protesters, Trump “was upset about news coverage of him briefly retreating to the White House bunker Friday evening amid protests.”
Meanwhile, Axios reports that some top aides feared that amid Trump’s passivity, “the conservative base was turning on him.” And this:
One senior aide was exuberantly telling friends the photograph of him holding a Bible in front of the church that had been attacked by vandals was an “iconic” moment for the president.
And right on cue, some leading Republicans are underscoring this interpretation:
This is the stuff of authoritarian cults. One wonders how many more Republicans will respond to the use of military force against unarmed protesters to clear a path for Trump’s authoritarian propaganda set-piece by hailing his … bravery, thus reinforcing the set-piece’s intended message.
It’s in this context that we need to appreciate that the rationale Trump is offering for the threat of further military action is completely invented.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t violence; of course there is, and it should be roundly condemned and dealt with. Rather, it’s to say that Trump and senior administration officials are transforming the threat into something vastly different in scale and character than it actually is, either to justify the vow of military action against it, or, worse, to justify acting on that vow.
To be clear, the statute that Trump would need to invoke to send in the military to deal with violence and disorder — the Insurrection Act of 1807 — doesn’t require him to invoke a “domestic terror” threat, however that phrase is used, though there’s some debate over whether a state must request a military presence first.
But we shouldn’t overlook the importance of the fact that senior administration officials are using this language to completely distort the true nature of the threat.
As Price notes, we colloquially use “domestic terrorism” to refer to everything from “lone wolf” perpetrators of violence to organized far-right groups, but the phrase doesn’t have legal significance. And regardless, there’s no way to apply this term to what we’re seeing now.
“If you think of terrorists as those whose goal is political, to instill fear, I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing here,” Price told me. “In the overwhelming majority of cases, we’re seeing people exercising their First Amendment rights and doing so peacefully.”
“The cases we’ve seen in which there’s been violence and looting can’t be fairly described as domestic terrorism — even in the colloquial sense,” Price continued. “Their intent doesn’t appear to be to instill fear.”
And so, this language appears designed to create a justification for Trump to make his threat of military action, thus glorifying it (or worse).
“This is the president, the attorney general, and others in his administration using the language of incitement to lay the predicate for a more dramatic and even militarized response,” Price told me. “It seems to lay the predicate for more ominous action.”
Even if the threat doesn’t come to fruition, the threat itself is an extraordinary abuse of power, given that its rationale is invented.
But given that Trump has now demonstrated his commitment to using the protests as a foil to demonstrate his toughness, in contrast with alleged Democratic weakness, this fabrication of a “domestic terror” threat to justify military action to accomplish that propagandistic goal must be taken more seriously.