War on the Streets

June 1, 2020 4:22 p.m.

A full recording of President Trump’s call with the nation’s governors has now been published. President Trump’s sometimes hysterical comments turn out not to be the most disturbing part. The Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, and apparently also the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley are heard on the recording using language that presumes mounting warfare against demonstrators in American cities. “I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace,” Esper tells Governors, “the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal.” This is the language of mechanized warfare and he’s describing American cities.

America has a bloody history of public disorder, rioting, pogroms against African-Americans and other minorities. We also have a long and seldom breached tradition, confirmed in a number of laws, against turning the regular army on US citizens other than in cases of actual rebellion. These comments out of the Pentagon remind us of one reason why. Career soldiers think in military terms. That’s what they’re trained to do. That’s a big, big reason you don’t want to mix and match civilian police power with war fighting.

There’s also something specific to President Trump. As a pretend tough-guy President Trump gravitates toward military leaders and uniforms. I was remembering just a few days ago how Trump’s original cabinet was totally dominated by recently retired geenerals. John Kelly at DHS, James Mattis running the Pentagon, Michael Flynn as National Security Director – and those are just the biggest examples. There is not and should not be a general ban on retired generals serving in civilian government. Many have served honorably and well in post service civilian roles. But the training, particularly with those in recent field commands, is at least in tension with civilian strategic policy making. Having a government dominated by those men is a mistake.

But the current situation teaches a slightly different lesson. Over almost four years, across board Trump has ground the government down to the most incompetent and reckless individuals. Whole sections of the governments are now run by people who never faced the constitutional advise and consent process in a Senate controlled by the President’s own party. Only the incompetent, obsequious and corrupt have survived the winnowing. And that’s the footing on which we confront the current moment.

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We know President Trump can only think in his raw and reflexive equations of either dominating or being the object of laughter or ridicule. Of the current situation he told the nation’s governors today, “It is a war, in a certain sense.” But he’s a braggart and a loudmouth and fool. What is far more relevant is that he apparently has the people who actually plan and execute military orders thinking on similar lines.

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