President Trump has not hidden who he is. He started his presidential campaign, after slowly descending his gilded escalator, with a no-holds barred racist attack on Mexicans. Then, he began his time as president by banning Muslims from entering the country. Later that summer, he called white supremacists who terrorized blacks and Jews in Charlottesville, Virginia, “very fine people.” And now, his seemingly only policy solution to coronavirus has been to label it the “Chinese virus” and hope the racism would scare it away.
Racism courses through Donald Trump’s blood and is one of the foundational principles of his presidency. Which is why, when faced with one of the greatest uprisings against police brutality this nation has seen, a movement led by black people around the country and joined by all other people of color and white people as well, his only policy solution is to start a race war. And unfortunately, American law gives him the authority to do so.
You’d have to be living under a rock to not know what’s going on right now, so just a short recap here. Last Monday, Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, an unarmed black man who had been accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill in a convenience store. In the days that followed, protests grew and spread, starting in Minneapolis and now taking place in seemingly every city in the country on a daily basis. The protests have been loud, angry, and forceful, demanding justice for Floyd, Breonna Taylor (killed in Louisville, Kentucky, earlier in May), and all other unarmed black people who have been murdered by police and other white vigilantes (such as Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin). As has been well-documented, police around the country have engaged in violent attacks against protesters, journalists, and citizen watchdogs.
Enter Trump. After initially being taken to the White House bunker Friday night when protests raged in Washington, D.C., and then turning off the White House lights on Sunday night in some weird attempt to hide the building, President Trump tried to project a different image on Monday evening. Right before curfew fell on the city, the president announced: “I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.” His goal is to use federal resources, including the military, “to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans, including your Second Amendment rights.” For D.C., he said that “I am 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.”
Action soon followed. Federal police used tear gas to clear a path for the president to walk to a nearby church and pose with a bible, a photo op that “outraged” the Episcopal bishop of D.C. Then, later Monday night, military helicopters executed an aggressive low-level flyover in D.C. to scare away protesters.
As of press time, the president has not called the military to the states or cities beyond D.C. to respond to the unrest. However, thanks to a series of laws Congress has enacted, re-enacted, and amended over the past two centuries, he does have the legal authority to do so. The Posse Comitatus Act sets the baseline that the president cannot use the American military for domestic actions. However, it specifically allows him to do so if authorized by statute.
The Insurrection Act is that authorization. And it is broad and vague: “Whenever the president considers that unlawful obstructions, combinations, or assemblages, or rebellion against the authority of the United States, make it impracticable to enforce the laws of the United States in any state by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, he may call into federal service such of the militia of any state, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.” There is a similar provision for when “insurrection, domestic violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy … hinders the execution of the laws of the state.”
In other words, when Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy thought that the governors of Arkansas and Mississippi were not doing enough to protect black students desegregating Little Rock Central High School and the University of Mississippi, the Insurrection Act gave them the authority to use the military to enforce desegregation. As these examples indicate, domestic use of the military can be used for good.
But, it is highly controversial and has grown incredibly rare. The last time the military has been used for domestic purposes was in 1992, when President H.W. Bush called on the military to help control the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. Since then, President G.W. Bush considered using the military after Hurricane Katrina to restore order in New Orleans in 2005, but he decided against it because of how politically dicey it would be. Using the military on American soil against Americans is a line that many people consider uncrossable.
And maybe that will ultimately stop Trump from doing so as well. But, if he wants to, it’s clear that he has the authority to do so. His use of military helicopters over D.C. last night doesn’t bode well in this regard. (Using the military in D.C. is different because it is a federal territory in which the president can use the military as part of emergency powers.)
Neither does Trump’s undeniable racism. He is down in every national poll against Joe Biden. He has pretty much given up on trying to quell the coronavirus from killing Americans at rates no other country is seeing. And now, the people of the country, particularly black people, are demanding racial justice.
In other words, Trump’s political back is against the wall, and he is doing the only thing he really knows how to do — project the image of a tough white guy and hope that racial division will, once again, win the election for him in November. It’s just that this time, rather than doing it with promises of a wall or a travel ban, he’s doing it with the military and promises of a racial war. And unfortunately, Congress long ago ceded this authority to the president.