Trump appears to be planning to invoke the Insurrection Act, which would turn his administration’s dystopian fantasy of urban combat against U.S. citizens into a reality. Typically, federal troops are deployed under this law only at the request of state officials — but the act also allows the president to send in troops on his own initiative in response to rebellion or insurrection, or when either “any part or class of [a state’s] people is deprived of a right, privilege, immunity, or protection named in the Constitution … and the constituted authorities of that State are unable, fail, or refuse to protect” them or an act of rebellion or violence “opposes or obstructs the execution of the laws of the United States or impedes the course of justice under those laws.”
The last time the act was invoked over local objections was when past presidents used it to send federal troops to enforce desegregation orders in the South during the civil rights era. Using it now to suppress protests about police racism would be a bitter inversion of the spirit of the law.
So far, no state legislature or governor has requested the deployment of federal troops, and aside from some looting, property destruction and isolated acts of violence, there is little reason to believe that state and local officials are unable to safeguard the constitutional rights of their people or are obstructing federal law. Nonetheless, standing in the Rose Garden as authorities forced peaceful protesters out of Lafayette Square on the other side of the White House grounds, Trump declared that he was “dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property.”
Trump’s bellicose rhetoric often precedes actions that are less draconian than his initial language would suggest, but this time, his threats may not be empty. Just look at the actions of federalized D.C. National Guard units operating alongside U.S. Park Police on Monday. These guard troops and their law enforcement colleagues weren’t quelling a riot or preventing a violent assault; instead, they were ordered to clear Lafayette Square so Trump could pose for a photo op in front of historic St. John’s Church. They did so with little restraint, and on Attorney General William P. Barr’s orders, using tear gas, flash grenades and rubber bullets to clear a path for the president and his Bible.
The same evening, a military helicopter with U.S. Army markings flew down to street level in the District’s Chinatown neighborhood, forcing frightened protesters to disperse. Meanwhile, reports suggest that units from the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division have already been activated and sent to the Washington area, along with units from the 10th Mountain Division and 1st Infantry Division.
No responsible citizens support looting or violence, regardless of the legitimacy of the underlying grievances — but deploying active-duty federal troops to American cities is still a stunning step. As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey tweeted after Trump’s announcement: “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.”
Worse, Trump appears to be deploying combat units, not soldiers with expertise in law enforcement or nonviolent crowd control. Placing soldiers more used to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq on American streets filled with angry, distraught protesters is an incendiary move — and one likely to end in tragedy.
It’s a situation fraught with terrible ironies. Most obviously, here in America, the “land of the free,” we’re well accustomed to condemning repression when we see it abroad. For instance, when the Polish government responded to the emerging Solidarity movement with violent crackdowns, President Ronald Reagan spoke out: The Polish government, he wrote, has “answered the stirrings of liberty with brute force. … How can they possibly justify using naked force to crush a people who ask for nothing more than the right to lead their own lives in freedom and dignity?” In 2015, when Burmese police used batons and fists against student protesters, President Barack Obama’s State Department issued a statement “condemn[ing] the use of force against peaceful protesters.”
If recent scenes of military force being used against peaceful protesters had occurred in any other country — while any other U.S. president was in office — they would have been quickly condemned by senior U.S. officials, both civilian and military. But while Trump’s actions were decried by former vice president Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, who denounced “using the American military to move against the American people” and called on Trump to serve “the needs of the people in his care” rather than “the passions of his base,” many Americans seem too paralyzed by shock and disbelief to take action. Meanwhile, Trump continued to praise “overwhelming force,” and most leaders of the Republican Party — the same party that declared in its 2016 platform that “America has always been a beacon of hope” to “those who stand in the darkness of tyranny” — either remained silent about Trump’s behavior or actively fanned the flames of violence.
But there’s an even deeper and more painful irony. This isn’t the first time an American president has invoked the Insurrection Act over the strenuous objections of state and local officials — but the last time, the law was invoked to further the cause of racial justice, not hinder it.
In 1957, when nine black students attempted to enter an all-white school in Little Rock pursuant to a federal court order, then-Gov. Orville Faubus sent troops from the Arkansas National Guard to block them. With state troops under the command of a governor openly defying an order of the federal courts, writes legal historian William Banks, President Dwight D. Eisenhower scribbled his thoughts in a handwritten note: Standing by “in the face of organized or locally undeterred opposition by violence” would, he feared, cause “the entire court system [to] disintegrate” and lead to “the destruction of our form of gov’t.” Reluctantly, he invoked the Insurrection Act the next day, and soldiers from the Army’s 101st Airborne Division formed a protective cordon to allow the nine black students to walk safely to class.
Similarly, in 1962, President John F. Kennedy invoked the Insurrection Act over the objections of local and state officials. This time, he did so after the governor of Mississippi defied a federal court order to integrate the University of Mississippi. After James Meredith became the first black man to register at Ole Miss, it took the deployment of more than 9,000 federal troops to restore order.
In both of these cases, presidents — one a Republican, the other a Democrat — used the awesome power of the U.S. military to protect those demanding racial justice from local officials who answered lawful protests with violence. Today, we see the opposite: A growing popular movement calling for an end to racist violence, up against a president eager to deploy the weapons of war against his own people.
Past presidents invoked the law only briefly, reluctantly and with restraint, for they knew how dangerous it is for any nation to turn the power of its military loose on its own people. But Trump is no Eisenhower or Kennedy; he has shown, time and again, that he has no respect for ordinary legal or political norms. And as we move closer to a presidential election certain to be one of the most divisive in our history, it’s time to ask ourselves a fearful question: If Trump will gleefully deploy the military into American cities after just a few days of disorderly protests, what else will he do before November?