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Never Use the Military to Trigger the Libs
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Never Use the Military to Trigger the Libs

On the profound implications of the attack in Lafayette Square.

We are living through a remarkable moment in American history. Many of the nation’s most distinguished former military leaders—including Donald Trump’s own former secretary of defense, James Mattis—are rising up to express alarm at Trump’s leadership during this national crisis. At the same time, current military leaders are using their platforms to both publicly express their own policy preferences and to present a sharply different message than the message coming from the White House. 

What is going on? The answer is simple. The president went too far—in both his rhetoric and actions—and now there is genuine alarm that Trump is willing to abuse the reputation and power of the military, not just to restore order but also for political gain. 

Let’s look at the timeline. On May 29, as widespread rioting and looting touched off across the United States in response to the police killing of George Floyd, Donald Trump tweeted this: 

The next night, after protesters swarmed the streets around the White House, Trump congratulated the “professional” and “very cool” Secret Service for protecting the executive mansion, but he also made threats regarding the “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons” that awaited anyone who breached the fence. He indicated that young agents were “just waiting for action.” 

On Monday, presidential rhetoric escalated into action. First, he endorsed Tom Cotton’s blustery tweet saying “let’s see how tough these Antifa terrorists are when they’re facing off with the 101st Airborne Division” (Cotton later tweeted that if regular army units were called up, they should give “no quarter” to “insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters.”) 

Next, in his Rose Garden speech, Trump “strongly recommended” that governors deploy the National Guard “in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets.” Trump continued with this vow:

If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.

Just before Trump spoke, a mixed collection of federal forces—backed by military police—attacked peaceful protesters with riot control agents, smoke bombs, flash-bang grenades and with physical force to clear a path for Trump (with the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mike Milley in tow) to walk to St. John’s church and stand there holding a Bible aloft for a photo op.

Taken together, these words and actions painted an alarming picture of a president who doesn’t just threaten gratuitous use of force, he’s willing to act—and not just to impose order but for personal political purposes. 

To put this mildly, Trump’s words and actions confront the military with a profound challenge, both external and internal. The internal challenge lies in the military’s extraordinary diversity. Officers command soldiers from every race, ethnicity, religion, and political faction within the United States. The military’s unity and diversity are the product of decades of persistent effort, and while that force is certainly willing to serve as a last-ditch backstop for public order, it is not willing to be deployed to disrupt peaceful protest—especially when no doubt hundreds of thousands of members of the military share the protesters perspective.

And that brings us to the external challenge. As I wrote in my Monday newsletter, the military is the single-most trusted public institution in America. It’s the only institution that has dramatically increased in public trust since 1975. The reasons are varied and complex, but they’re related to the paragraph above—as the military has become one of the most diverse institutions in the United States, it’s been an instrument of national solidarity, personal pride, and upward mobility for millions of Americans from every walk of life. 

The military’s trust is also rooted in its competence. As I wrote earlier this week, as a general rule, members of the military are more disciplined than the police. The Guard in particular has transformed itself since the riots of the 1960s. In normal circumstances, National Guard intervention should be viewed as improving the ability of governors and mayors to suppress actual violence while also protecting free speech and peaceful protest.

The military’s continued success as an elite, all-volunteer trusted force depends on its ability to recruit Americans from across the demographic spectrum. Of course we’ll never see all demographics and all regions represented equally (military recruits come disproportionately from the South and from military families), but every demographic and every region is represented, in ample numbers.

Putting this all together, four reasonable perceptions emerge:

  1. Trump’s public statements indicate an inappropriate and perhaps even unlawful understanding of the proper use of force to suppress civil unrest;

  2. He has also indicated willingness to deploy troops under his command to states and cities regardless of gubernatorial consent;

  3. Federal law enforcement under his command attacked peaceful protesters to facilitate a blatantly political photo op designed to shore up his Evangelical base; and

  4. As a consequence there is deep concern that Trump will continue to use his authority recklessly and perhaps even unlawfully—violating the constitutional rights of protesters and damaging the morale and reputation of that military.

That’s the true backdrop of the extraordinary expressions of concern from retired officers and extraordinary reservations within the active military over Trump potentially invoking the Insurrection Act and deploying active-duty troops under his command. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen kicked off the outcry in The Atlantic in a piece posted the day after the attack in Lafayette Square:

It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church. I have to date been reticent to speak out on issues surrounding President Trump’s leadership, but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent.

Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces.

Then, the next day, Gen. Mattis broke his silence, and he also referred directly to the events in Lafayette Square:

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. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

More:

We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln’s “better angels,” and listen to them, as we work to unite.

After the Lafayette Square incident, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated unequivocally, “I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.” Mark Milley, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, penned this remarkable memorandum:

The memorandum wasn’t simply a standard reminder that troops do their duty. Its’ pointed statements about legal equality and free speech were an implied (but hardly subtle) rebuke of the administrations’ actions the previous day.

Fortunately, for now, the pressure inside and outside the administration is bearing fruit. Trump has not yet invoked the Insurrection Act, and he’s even consented to sending back home elements of the 82nd Airborne (an active-duty division) that had been deployed to Washington earlier in the week. But even this decision was reportedly contentious:

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper initially tried to send home a small portion of the 1,600 active-duty troops on Wednesday, only to have Mr. Trump order him to reverse course during an angry meeting. The president finally acquiesced on Thursday, according to an administration official who asked not to be named discussing internal deliberations, but it did not appear the two men spoke directly.

Moreover, it’s an open secret that Trump is angry with Esper and may sideline him (if not force his resignation). From Politico:

President Donald Trump is unhappy with Pentagon chief Mark Esper. Aides are gossiping about who could replace him. Yet the embattled Defense secretary may be on his way to a more Trumpian punishment: sidelined within the administration.

Esper’s future is in question after he opposed Trump on Wednesday over the president’s call to deploy active-duty troops to quash protests taking part throughout the U.S. In the 24 hours since Esper spoke out, he has met with the president at the White House and has received tepid-at-best endorsements from Trump’s team.

The collapse in trust in American institutions has flowed from a collapse of competence and norms within those institutions. In other words, the loss of trust has been richly (and sadly) earned. The increase in trust in the military has flowed from its own decades-long effort to restore competence and enforce moral norms. The increase in trust has been richly deserved. The attack in Lafayette Square raised the possibility that the Trump administration may put those norms to the test.

Throughout the Trump administration, his most stalwart supporters have delighted in his willingness to punch back at his enemies and to “own” or “trigger” the libs. When critics raise the alarm, his defenders often shoot back—“They’re just words. His actions are responsible.” 

On June 1, however, the fight moved from Twitter to the streets of our nation’s capital. His words turned to actions, and his administration used federal law enforcement to “own the libs.” It was a dark day and it has triggered remarkable and righteous resistance. We should hope that Trump hears the critique and chooses to stay his hand. Wherever possible, let the nation’s governors and mayors maintain control of the forces arrayed to defend free speech and protect public order. 

One last thing … 

It’s been a tough week in the United States of America, but there was good news. Great news, even. The NBA is coming back! And to prepare you for the greatness, I’m giving you exactly what you want: a montage of Ja Morant’s 20 greatest rookie highlights. Enjoy:

Photograph by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.