“It” may very well happen here.
“No, U.S. troops won’t massacre protesters, as Chinese troops did [at Tiananmen Square], but Trump’s deployment of troops for political purposes would betray our traditions, damage the credibility of the armed forces and exacerbate tensions across the country” — NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof
Since Donald Trump became President, a constant refrain in mainstream media discussions of his character has been, “He has ‘authoritarian tendencies,’ but he’s not Hitler.”
True, Trump isn’t Hitler. Nor was Pol Pot, Franco, Idi Amin or Stalin. Nor is Kim Jung-un, Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte or any of the other contemporary strongmen Trump admires. But their failure to attain Hitlerian infamy hasn’t keep any of them from murdering hundreds, thousands or even millions of their fellow countrymen.
An authoritarian personality is an authoritarian personality — someone who is paranoid, sadistic, tribal and prone to committing violence. An authoritarian ruler will do whatever it takes to remain in power, including having his police, secret police or military kill members of opposing tribes — especially if his own tribe finds the slaughter titillating and rewards it with adulation. By forcefully subduing his perceived enemies — who are often weak, peaceful and unarmed — the authoritarian, always hollow within, compulsively tries to prove his illusory manhood to himself and the world. His actions are beyond his control — he must dominate, or at least appear to.
Trump fits the authoritarian profile to a T, and has expressed his urge to commit vicarious violence, especially against the vulnerable, for decades. As Hillary Clinton said during the 2016 presidential debates, “He’s telling you who he is.” He tells us who he is when he urges capital punishment for the innocent Central Park Five, tells police to rough up their detainees, or threatens to sic the U.S. military on the American people.
Stating, as so many have, that Trump is not Hitler is beside the point. Trump is an authoritarian who is a threat to far more than the “American way of life.” He is a direct threat to American lives.
The question isn’t whether Trump is Hitler (or some pale incarnation thereof), but whether this is still America — whether “it can happen here.”
Can it? What if, contrary to the good Mr. Kristof’s assertion in the quote above, U.S. troops, or at least some U.S. troops or government agents, would massacre protesters?
Just as the press’s reluctance to directly compare Trump to Hitler has masked a real danger he poses, the liberal press’s refusal — in large part because the possible answer is so scary and devastating — to ask whether some U.S. soldiers or federal law enforcement agents would “massacre” protesters also conceals a possible threat facing our citizens. While it is comfortable for the comfortable liberal establishment to deny this possibility, their very denial adds to the danger by virtually bowdlerizing any serious discussion of a possible pending horror show. But given the events of the past couple of weeks, including the clearing of Lafayette Park for Trump’s photo op, it is dangerously delusional for us not to ask the question, and not to answer it realistically.
So, let’s ask and answer the question: Would any military personnel or federal agents follow Trump’s orders to violently attack and likely kill at least some unarmed protestors?
The simple answer, of course, is, “Yes. At least some of them would.”
Who would those some be? Concerning the “Federal Agents” mentioned above, recall that during the “Bunker Boy” days — when Trump was holed up in a White House surrounded by nine-foot fence topped with razor wire — Bill Barr supervised a motley crew of prison guards, border patrol and ICE agents, and assorted riot-outfitted and armed but unidentified “officers” who, for all we know, were mercenaries working for Eric Prince. It turns out there are some 132,000 Federal security personnel employed by dozens and dozens of agencies. Many of them have unclear law-enforcement mandates, but they are all ultimately under the command of the Attorney General. As one member of something called the “United States Police” recently told a Politico reporter, “We can’t arrest you, but we can kill you.”
Then there’s the military proper. While it’s nice to think that an order coming from the President/Commander in Chief to use live ammunition and maximum force against protestors would be countermanded by the top brass, there is no guarantee of that. If the president were to invoke the 1807 Insurrection Act, he has the power to order federal troops into any state, even if the governor of that state does not request their presence. Any general who rescinded the President’s order would technically be guilty of at least insubordination possibly of insurrection or treason. Most would pass the order down the chain of command.
How would the infantry responding at the street level interpret the orders? What would they do when facing angry crowds of protesters?
Remember, it’s always safer to obey than to disobey orders — even if, in your own mind, those orders contradict your sworn duty to protect the Constitution. If you obey orders, the institution that issued them will defend you — and you can justify your actions and forestall your own pangs of guilt by invoking the classic, “I was just obeying orders” defense. If you disobey orders to shoot civilians, your institution will prosecute you, and you will have to try to defend yourself against its overarching power. All that aside, there are soldiers who, on their own, would never dream of using their weaponry against ordinary civilians. Then there are those who would love to, and would see shooting into crowds of protestors as fulfilling their patriotic mission, as well as satisfying a sadistic urge to dominate.
There are historical precedents for these types of actions. The most recent of note, in the public’s general awareness, was when national guardsmen shot 13 and killed four students at Kent State University in 1970. Technically, those were state, not federal National Guard troops, but the effect was the same.
A presently lesser-known event that involved the army proper, recently reviewed in Politico, was the 1932 attack on a ragtag group of impoverished WWI veterans in Washington, D.C. Calling themselves the Bonus Marchers, the Depression-impoverished veterans from all over the country descended on the capitol to demand payment of their congressionally-approved bonuses for their service during the war. Arriving in the early spring, the vets, many accompanied by their families, set up a shantytown encampment just outside the city.
On July 28, under the direct orders of President Herbert Hoover, Major Dwight Eisenhower and General Douglas MacArthur led the 12th Infantry and 3rd Cavalry troops in an attack on the unarmed campers. Wielding bayonets and supported by tanks and machine guns, the military used tear gas to quickly disperse 2,000 men, women and children in the camp, then burned their temporary shacks to the ground. Fifty-five veterans were injured in the fracas.
The next day the War Secretary (now euphemistically called the Secretary of Defense) Patrick Hurley called the action “a great victory.” However, the newsreels showing troops ousting terrified women and children from their shacks contributed heavily to Hoover’s reelection defeat later that year.
To quell the extensive rioting that gripped D.C. after the assassination of Martin Luther King, President Lyndon Johnson ordered about 3,500 National Guard and 11,500 regular army troops into the city. Although 7,600 arrests were made before the riots ended, no deaths or serious injuries were attributed to the occupying soldiers. Apparently, they had been ordered to restore calm, not “dominate the battle space,” as our current acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said America’s governors should do during the recent George Floyd protests.
Among the aftermaths of the June 1, 2020 attack on peaceful protestors at Washington’s Lafayette Square that cleared the way for Trump’s photo op, there have been apologies and a disavowal of the action by Secretary Esper and General Mark Milley, the Commander of Joint Chiefs of Staff. This took some courage. However, both men can, and I believe likely will be fired by Trump, and replaced by sycophants eager to the commit the violence against protestors that Trump calls for.
This scenario is especially likely if, as seems highly probable, Trump loses to Biden in November’s election, then claims he won, setting off a vast, nationwide series of protests at least as fractious as the George Floyd disturbances. Plans for massive protests and strikes are already being formulated by two national political action groups — Stand Up America and Indivisible — and any rioting or serious disruption of “business as usual” resulting from those actions could be the perfect pretext for Trump to “call out the troops.” (And probably call out his armed, far-right paramilitary supporters as well.)
For now, the liberal press remains focused on the bad effect such “riot control” would have on the relationship between the public and the military and law enforcement. The concerns of Mr. Kristof about the betrayal of traditions and damage to the credibility of the armed forces are echoed by other publications such as Politico which, in its article about Hoover’s assault on the WWI veterans cited above, states, that “The real worry, though, is the lasting damage Trump’s decision to blur the line between the civil and military…may have on America’s relationship with its military and law enforcement.”
I beg to differ. The real worry is the death of citizens exercising their First Amendment rights and of the American Republic.
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