Seeing US army boots on foreign ground has been commonplace over the past seven decades. According to one estimate, Washington's proclivity for military solutions has seen US troops deployed in 150 countries around the world. It is not something done on the US mainland though. That is why the sight of army snipers at the open door of a helicopter swooping over protesters in Washington DC, and a "military chopper… so close to the ground that [protesters] were buffeted around by the wind from the rotor, a dispersal technique learned in counter-insurgencies abroad" is causing many people to stare in disbelief. Few have envisaged a scenario where a US President, even Donald Trump, would unleash the US military on American citizens in the capital.
Trump, though, is no ordinary President. He is loved by white supremacists, Middle East autocrats, law-breaking Israeli colonialists, Hindu extremists and Christian fundamentalists as much as he is despised by reasonable people the world over. His dislike of minorities, which saw him introduce a ban on Muslims entering the US, has now taken an even uglier turn.
With one eye on November's presidential election, Trump is unlikely to view civil unrest on the streets of America as potentially ruinous to his chances of re-election. Far from it. As the de facto global leader of the resurgent far right, the opportunity to present himself as the saviour of white America from rioting hordes of black people could be just the thing he needs to convince voters that he is still the man for the job.
We've been here before. In 2001, George W Bush transformed himself post-9/11 from a lame duck President to a wartime leader, a currency of immeasurable value in a militarised and nationalist country like the US. Civil unrest is the next best thing that Trump could have hoped for as he approaches the election with more than 100,000 deaths (and counting) from Covid-19, heavy criticism of his administration's handling of the pandemic and mass unemployment in the worst recession since the Great Depression (1929-30).
Little else explains Trump's response to the brutal killing of 46-year-old George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last week. Instead of trying to unite the country, he has stoked the flames of unrest and turned American citizens against each other. His verbal war on Twitter is now moving into a more substantial kind on the streets with his threat to have the US military "dominate" protesters. According to CNN, there are now more US National Guardsmen and women on active duty in the US than there are US troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, three countries that have endured some of the most brutal US-led conflicts since the Second World War.
More than 17,000 of these soldiers are readying themselves to march into mainly black neighbourhoods across America. This is Trump's way of presenting himself to the electorate as the President of "law and order", a dog whistle term that carries a specific meaning for his political base and the far right. He has already rebuked state governors and city mayors of being too soft on what he calls "domestic acts of terror". The reality, of course, is that US citizens have been exercising their Constitutional right to protest peacefully against injustice, and the heavy-handed response of the law enforcement agencies has provoked some into violence. Even journalists going about their lawful duty have been attacked by police using stun bombs, tear gas and batons.
Trump's critics have dismissed his claim about upholding the rule of law by suggesting that he is exploiting the murder of a black man to appeal to mainly white right-wing Christian fundamentalists. "I think he just wants to create a tone in which it's law and order versus people standing up for their rights," said Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, "and he'd just as soon run over people's rights." Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee for president, said on Twitter that Trump is "using the American military against the American people."
Senator Kamala Harris went further in her denunciation, describing Trump's call to "dominate" protesters as a "combination of the worst of George Wallace with Richard Nixon." The former resisted the emancipation of black Americans and was one of the first to use the phrase repeated by Trump over the weekend: "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." As Governor of Alabama, Wallace opposed extending equal rights to black citizens. "Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," he insisted. Nixon, of course, was mired in one of the worst scandals in US history when he abused his power to cover up a crime, leading him to step down as US President in 1974.
Nearly half of all states in America are reported by CNN to have activated the National Guard in response to the ongoing protests, as well as Washington DC. The deployment of these army and air force reservists is in addition to those already on active service helping in the efforts to curb the coronavirus pandemic.
Embodying the spirit of Wallace and Nixon, Trump now threatens to turn America's streets into battlegrounds. Is he abusing his power? The deployment of US troops without state governors requesting them is an ongoing debate in America. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits the use of the armed forces to uphold domestic law and order without specific congressional authorisation.
Nevertheless, Trump has threatened to use even earlier legislation — the 1807 Insurrection Act — that allows for the deployment of troops under special circumstances, such as dealing with rebellion. No US President, however, has used this since 1992 when riots broke out after four police officers were acquitted following the beating of yet another black man, Rodney King. This was also used during the 1960s to tackle black Americans taking to the streets. Although state governors have been reluctant to support troop deployments, Trump's divisive rhetoric appears intended to create the kind of hostile situation where no other option remains. The proclivity for a military solution seems to be just too hard to resist.
With no foreign war to boost his standing in the polls, Trump is taking a political gamble in election year with a war on black Americans. He may succeed. His electoral base is a collection of religious fanatics and right-wing nationalists with racism in their DNA; they could well be empowered to rally around the Great White Saviour, displaying their own substantial weaponry on polling day to intimidate undecided voters. If the people of America really do care about their country and, indeed, democracy itself, then they must take a stand against such base instincts and do the whole world a favour by voting Donald Trump out of office.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.