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Retired Marine Gen. John Allen on Wednesday said President Trump’s threats to use the U.S. military on protesters “may well signal the beginning of the end of the American experiment.”
“The slide of the United States into illiberalism may well have begun on June 1, 2020,” Allen wrote in a scathing essay published online by Foreign Policy magazine. “Remember the date.”
Allen, the former commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said Trump’s halting Rose Garden speech in which he declared himself the “president of law and order,” the use of tear gas on protesters outside the White House and the church photo op that followed Monday was a “stunning” moment and potentially a pivotal one.
“Donald Trump expressed only the barest of condolences at the murder of George Floyd, but he also said nothing about the fundamental and underlying reasons for the unrest: systemic racism and inequality, a historic absence of respect, and a denial of justice,” Allen wrote. “Yes, he mentioned George Floyd, but he did not touch on long-standing societal problems at all. He sees the crisis as a black problem — not as something to be addressed by creating the basis and impetus for a move toward social justice, but as an opportunity to use force to portray himself as a ‘law and order’ president.
“...Trump was clear he views those engaged in the unrest and criminal acts in these riots as terrorists, an enemy,” Allen continued. “He said so, ostensibly as justification to deploy the U.S. military to apply federal force — his ‘personal’ force — against the riots.
“...Donald Trump isn’t religious, has no need of religion, and doesn’t care about the devout, except insofar as they serve his political needs,” he added. “He failed to project any of the higher emotions or leadership desperately needed in every quarter of this nation during this dire moment.”
Allen — who retired from the military in 2013 and is now president of the Brookings Institution — was particularly struck by the juxtaposition of Trump’s claim to be “an ally of peaceful protesters” and the removal of those peaceful protesters to clear the street in front of St. John’s Church.
“Fully equipped riot police and troops violently, and without provocation, set upon the peaceful demonstrators there, manhandling and beating many of them, employing flash-bangs, riot-control agents, and pepper spray throughout,” he wrote. “These demonstrators had done nothing to warrant such an attack. Media who were watching over the scene craned their cameras to try to understand what had happened to justify this violence, until it became clear for all to see. The riot police had waded into these nonviolent American citizens — who were protesting massive social injustice — with the sole purpose of clearing the area around St. John’s Episcopal Church, on the other side of the park, so the self-proclaimed 'ally of peaceful protesters,' Donald Trump, could pose there for a photo-op.”
Allen’s essay echoed a statement issued Wednesday by former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who said he was “angry and appalled” at the White House’s response to the protests.
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Mattis said in the statement. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens — much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Mattis continued: “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.”
Allen warned that Trump’s ongoing threats to send U.S. military troops into states whose governors do not sufficiently “dominate” the protests should be chilling to all Americans.
“There is no precedent in modern U.S. history for a president to wield federal troops in a state or municipality over the objections of the respective governor,” Allen wrote. “Right now, the last thing the country needs — and, frankly, the U.S. military needs — is the appearance of U.S. soldiers carrying out the president’s intent by descending on American citizens. This could wreck the high regard Americans have for their military, and much more.”
In fact, there is such a precedent, as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., pointed out in a controversial op-ed in the New York Times on Wednesday: the dispatch of federal troops to Southern states, including Arkansas, to enforce desegregation orders. “Gov. Orval Faubus, a racist Democrat, mobilized our National Guard in 1957 to obstruct desegregation at Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower federalized the Guard and called in the 101st Airborne in response. The failure to do so, he said, ‘would be tantamount to acquiescence in anarchy,’” Cotton wrote.
The difference, of course, is that Faubus and other Southern governors were refusing to enforce the law and the Constitution, as ordered by the federal courts. In the present situation, state authorities are seeking to enforce the peace, and reserving for themselves the right, as the law and Constitution provide, to decide if they need help from the U.S. military.
Allen concluded his essay with a warning, and call to action.
“At nearly the same moment that Americans were being beaten near the White House on behalf of their president, George Floyd’s brother Terrence Floyd visited the site of George’s murder,” Allen wrote. “Overcome with grief and anger, he loudly upbraided the crowd for tarnishing his brother’s memory with violence and looting. And then he told Americans what to do: vote. ‘Educate yourselves,’ he said, ‘there’s a lot of us.’ So, while June 1 could easily be confused with a day of shame and peril if we listen to Donald Trump, if instead we listen to Terrence Floyd, it is a day of hope.”
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