The events of this week have startled even those who have been alarmed for some time about the trajectory of American politics. On Monday, Trump used security forces to disperse demonstrators before a photo op by a church. In the days since, he has kept up his steady drumbeat of divisive rhetoric, vowing to unleash the armed forces on U.S. cities. Such calls, echoed by Trump loyalists, belie the scenes of peaceful protesters gathered daily outside the White House.
We may be now inside Trump’s “Götterdämmerung,” as Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution declared — the “vicious downward spiral” as his presidential term draws to a combustive end. National polls show Trump slumping behind Democratic challenger and former vice president Joe Biden. On the streets of Washington, out-of-town federal forces confront protesters, including armed officers with little to no identification of the agency to which they belong.
Trump’s inner circle is doing little to curb his aggressive instincts as protests over the death of George Floyd continue across the country. Attorney General William P. Barr warns of a “witch’s brew” of extremists, no matter that the majority of marches and demonstrations have not been violent. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper speaks of U.S. cities as “battlespaces.” A White House spokesman told reporters that “all options are on the table” regarding military deployments to quell protests, language the administration more often uses when seeking to deter geopolitical adversaries overseas.
So far, the most significant rebuke to the president came from his former defense secretary. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Jim Mattis wrote in a widely circulated statement Wednesday. “We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.”
Serving in Trump’s Cabinet for nearly two years, Mattis was, to an extent, an accomplice to this effort. But his remarks were buttressed by other ex-Trump officials, including former chief of staff John F. Kelly, a retired Marine general. Amid suggestions of disquiet at the Pentagon over Trump’s rhetoric, Esper stated his opposition to invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act to stop the protests. Like his predecessor, he may yet risk facing Trump’s wrath.
“Every appearance in uniform, every word out of the mouth of a senior military leader, at this point has consequences,” wrote Eliot Cohen, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “While these men and women are not the only or even the prime safeguards of American freedoms, they constitute an important line of protection. And if they are willing to take a bullet for the country, they need to be entirely prepared to take obscenity-laced tirades and a pink slip for it.”
Critics warn of the damage already done by Trump’s threats to use military might at home. “Creating a sense that the military is a partisan political actor really does violence to the nature of the civil-military compact of the United States,” said Kori Schake, a former Pentagon official at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, to the New York Times.
“To divide and conquer at home, using the United States military, is an incredible escalation of the government’s coercive power,” said Alice Friend, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, to Reuters.
The world’s sole superpower is starting to look like more fragile countries elsewhere. Trump and his loyalists are only the second camp in the Western Hemisphere this past month to entertain notions of domestic military crackdowns: Supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro have urged a full-fledged takeover of the administrative state as the president faces a storm of controversies amid the coronavirus pandemic. And while top brass in both countries now feel compelled to publicly pledge fealty to their constitution and democracy, experts fear a growing far-right radicalization further down the ranks, especially among the local police.
“The Trump administration and its allies in Congress should dispense with incendiary, panicky rhetoric that suggests the U.S. is in armed conflict with its own people, or that some political faction is the enemy, lest security forces feel encouraged or emboldened to target them as combatants,” noted the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that focuses on conflict prevention and rarely comments on domestic American affairs.
On one hand, the erosion on view challenges the country’s deep embrace of its armed forces as a wholly benign actor. The irony of prominent Republicans calling for the military to flush out demonstrators on the 31st anniversary of that kind of intervention in Beijing was not lost on many commentators.
“Tiananmen in the American imagination is something fantastic and distant, deliberately placed far away and long ago,” wrote Rui Zhong in Foreign Policy. “It is a black mark against the Chinese state alone, rather than a possibility in America itself. Only under a dictatorship could such things happen, we say, forgetting Ocoee, Opelousas, Tulsa, or Kent State.”
On the other hand, it also serves as a reminder to observers abroad of the limits of American commitments to democracy and the rule of law. “It will certainly be very easy for leaders in Africa, those with their own dictatorial tendencies, to justify future behavior by referencing the actions of the U.S. administration in the last few weeks,” wrote Nigeria-based analyst Idayat Hassan. “What Africans can learn from recent U.S. events is that democracy must never be taken for granted and that the rights of all citizens must continually be fought for.”