How Trump Brought Home the Endless WarRoundup
tags: foreign policy, counterinsurgency, militarism, policing
Stephen Wertheim is the deputy director of research and policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and the author of Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.
Every generation delivers its own update to the worry, as old as democracy, that military crusades abroad will come back to damage freedom at home. The Founders of the United States, haunted by ancient Rome’s descent from republic to empire, resisted establishing a standing army. At the end of the First World War, the American Civil Liberties Union formed in opposition to mass arrests and deportations carried out by the Department of Justice. In our own time, it seemed apparent, until recently, that the main blowback of the war on terror would be the surveillance state inaugurated by the Patriot Act of 2001. Yet, while troubling, mass surveillance did not prompt most Americans to think that their country had become fundamentally unfree. The link between foreign intervention and domestic repression retained an almost metaphorical quality, as when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned, in 1821, that if it became “the dictatress of the world,” America “would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
What is under way now, during the Presidency of Donald Trump, is something different. War—its implements, its enmities—pervades civic life. In June, the National Guard deployed to the streets of Washington, D.C., in the face of largely peaceful protests against police brutality and systemic racism, and active-duty troops were stationed outside the city. “You have to dominate,” Trump told the nation’s governors. In July, his Administration sent to Portland, Oregon, paramilitary-style agents who forced people into unmarked cars, predictably causing resistance to swell. The President kicked off September by visiting the scene of police and paramilitary shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin. After making excuses for Kyle Rittenhouse, his seventeen-year-old supporter charged with using a military-style rifle to commit two homicides, Trump crowed that “all the violence is coming from the left” and is “really domestic terror.” At Tuesday’s debate, asked to condemn white supremacists, Trump appeared to encourage them instead, telling the far-right Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
As the war on terror loses its emotive force, American leaders cast fellow-citizens as akin to foreign enemies. Senators call for an “overwhelming show of force” against protesters with the knee-jerk zeal once reserved for distant peoples. Endless war has not merely come home; endless war increasingly is home. American politics has taken on the qualities of American wars.
According to a great deal of prevailing wisdom, this was not supposed to happen. Politicians and intellectuals often hold up America’s armed leadership of the world as one of the last remaining sources of unity at home. Inverting John Quincy Adams, they assume that global dominance is part of the solution to political division, not one of its sources.
Endless war began to come home on America’s southern border. In “The End of the Myth,” the historian Greg Grandin describes two surges of anti-immigrant vigilantism. The first came with the launch of the Minuteman Project, in 2005, the year a majority of Americans turned against the Iraq War. Founded by Jim Gilchrist, a Vietnam veteran, the Minuteman network claimed to seek an end to illegal immigration coming from Mexico. Volunteers in Long Island, Kansas City, and San Clemente patrolled their communities to catch undocumented immigrants and either turn them over to law enforcement or harass them directly. The vigilantes located the border, as one leader put it, “all over America.”
A second infusion occurred during Obama’s second term, as young service members returned from battle and Central American migration swelled. For some, the country’s foreign threats melded together; the head of the group Arizona Border Recon claimed to spot “Somalis and Middle Eastern guys with beards and everything else” among the border crossers. Trump rode nativist militancy to the White House. Throughout his 2016 campaign, he jumbled “radical Islamic terrorism” and Central American migrants into a single spectre of nonwhite threat. Two years later, as President, he warned that a caravan of migrants arriving from Central America constituted an “invasion of our country.” Trump declared a national emergency and ordered the U.S. military to the border. “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” Trump tweeted.
From the beginning of his right-wing ascent, Trump also connected African-Americans to the foreign threat. By promulgating the lie that Obama was foreign-born, Trump implied that America’s first Black President was subverting the nation. As soon as this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests began, the President and his allies treated any violence not merely as lawbreaking but as an attack on the country as grave as an outside invasion. Four days after police killed George Floyd, Trump warned that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a word-for-word echo of segregationists. Then he had peaceful protesters tear-gassed in Washington’s Lafayette Square so that he could cross the street, flanked by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be photographed holding a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. The military, dispatched to the southern border two years before, took up positions in the nation’s capital.
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