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Bill Straub: It’s the autocratic way — using (or threatening) military force against U.S. citizens

The nation dodged a bullet, figuratively and, perhaps, literally, this week when President Trump, aka President Extremely Stable Genius, aka President Great and Unmatched Wisdom, failed to follow through on his threat to deploy the military to deal with the generally peaceful protests generated in wake of the death of George Floyd up in Minneapolis.

Floyd, an African-American, died when a white policeman, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck and back for eight minutes and 46 seconds after arresting him for passing what was thought to be a counterfeit bill. His death, along with that of Breonna Taylor, an innocent 26-year-old Black woman who was gunned down by Louisville police in her bed when they entered her residence on a no-knock warrant, have come to symbolize the plight of people of color dealing with law enforcement.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

All too often, it’s been shown, Black folks wind up in the morgue as a result of confrontations with police and people are rightfully sick of it. So over the past couple weeks they hit the street, demanding justice and changes in the way cops go about their business.

That didn’t sit all that well with Trump, America’s Il Duce, who is callous at best regarding the dilemma facing African-Americans on a daily basis. It was Trump, you’ll remember, who demanded the death penalty for the Central Park Five, young Black and Latino men who were wrongly convicted of the brutal 1989 rape of a jogger in New York City.

While demonstrations across the nation were generally peaceful, looting and property damage resulted in some instances, leading Il Duce naturally to get on his high horse and demand that cities “dominate the streets” – threatening to use the military if they failed.

“As we speak, I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting, looting, vandalism, assaults, and the wanton destruction of property,” Trump said in a White House presentation. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

The deployment, and possible military-protester confrontation, never came to pass despite the threats of an addled president thanks, in some apparent measure, to objections from the military itself. And the demonstrations continued unabated.

Most presidents before Trump, those who managed to get through their terms without losing their marbles, were understandably reluctant to activate the military for duties best reserved for local authorities, although it has on occasion proved necessary. But Il Duce, the autocrat wannabe, immediately turned to the guys with camo and guns to bring about what he characterized as “LAW AND ORDER” in tweet after tweet without considering the consequences.

First, an acknowledgement that using the military in domestic situations is necessary. In 1957, for instance President Dwight Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne out of Ft. Campbell to Little Rock, AR, at the request of Mayor Woodrow Wilson Mann, to protect nine African-American students breaking the color barrier at Central High School. The students had been blocked from registering by the Arkansas National Guard under orders from the state’s moron segregationist governor, Orville Faubus. Ike ended that display by sending in the troops and federalizing the guard, placing it under his command.

More recently, President George W. Bush dispatched 7,200 troops, including members of the 82nd Airborne, to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding that devastated the region, a disaster that overwhelmed local law enforcement.

But more times than not sending in the troops to deal with domestic matters creates more problems than it solves and raises the specter of a military state. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, signed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, was in fact adopted to intentionally limit the powers of the federal government in the use of federal military personnel to enforce domestic policies or serve in a law enforcement capacity within the nation’s borders.

Still, posse comitatus hasn’t proved to be a be-all and end-all to federal engagement. Officials have found their way around it by citing, as Trump said he might, the Insurrection Act of 1807, which empowers the president to deploy military and federalize National Guard under particular circumstances – mainly to suppress civil disorder, insurrection and rebellion.

Utilizing the Insurrection Act has proved “exceedingly rare” since the onset of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, according to a report issued by the Congressional Research Service. The most recent test came in 1992 to quell riots in Los Angeles after police brutally beat an African-American named Rodney King.

And its use has been ugly. In July 1932, about 43,000 protesters known as the Bonus Army encamped in Washington D.C. in the midst of the Great Depression demanding the federal government provide early compensation for the disbursement of their WWI bonuses. President Herbert Hoover ordered the Army to roust the veterans, a plan enthusiastically undertaken by Gen. Douglas MacArthur with an infantry charge featuring fixed bayonets and tear gas. The assault resulted in 55 injuries to the demonstrators and contributed to Hoover’s defeat at the polls that November.

It’s generally understood that turning under-trained military personnel into cops will relegate this nation into nothing more than the sort of Banana Republic where dictators employ troops to maintain their version of the peace. Perhaps that’s the exalted status Trump is aiming for.

It’s just the sort of thing this president, Il Duce, would want to do – use the military to demonstrate power and generate fear. It’s the autocratic way.

And he has supporters. Sen Tom Cotton, R-AR, who has his beady little eyes focused on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., began his 2024 campaign with a repugnant op-ed in The New York Times calling for the use of troops to crush protests, citing the Insurrection Act.

“The American people aren’t blind to injustices in our society, but they know that the most basic responsibility of government is to maintain public order and safety,’’ Cotton wrote. “In normal times, local law enforcement can uphold public order. But in rare moments, like ours today, more is needed, even if many politicians prefer to wring their hands while the country burns.”

Cotton’s proposition was duly endorsed by Trump, who said on Twitter that the lawmaker was “100% correct.” Interestingly, Cotton’s Mein Kampf moment drew more attention than Trump’s threat of deployment, creating something of an insurrection in the Times newsroom over publication of the treatise, resulting in the resignation of the editorial page editor and the reassignment of his assistant.

Screen capture from ABC news

But the idea of using troops to suppress folks who don’t think cops ought to go around killing Black folks for no reason is so bizarre even the most bizarre member of the Kentucky congressional delegation, Rep. Thomas Massie, R-SomewhereorotherLewisCounty, doesn’t consider it a very good idea.

Mind you, Massie characterized demonstrators as “violent looters and lawless criminals” during an appearance on WVHU-AM in Huntington, WV, even though reports indicate the contemporary protests are more peaceful than those from times past.
Regardless, he wants to see the military out.

“I don’t think that the U.S. military gets involved,” Massie said. “I just I don’t think it’s good for our republic.”

Massie was joined by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, a longtime critic of the militarization of police departments.

“I don’t think we need bayonets and tanks in our streets,” Paul said. “I think it sends a wrong message and it’s not really what our country’s about.”

Then there’s our boy, Senate Republican Leader Mitch “Root-‘n-Branch” McConnell, of Louisville, trying desperately to come up with a response that doesn’t place him on the wrong side of Il Duce.

In a floor speech, McConnell attempted to bolster his civil rights bona fides and acknowledged that “our nation needs to hear’’ the “anger, pain, or frustration of black Americans.”

Then he turned heel and said the civil disorder “has already gone on for entirely too long.”

“I hope state and local authorities will work quickly to crack down on outside agitators and domestic terrorists and restore some order to our cities,” McConnell said. “And if state and local leaders cannot or will not secure the peace and protect citizens and their property, I hope the federal government is ready to stand in the breach.”

McConnell wouldn’t say if “ready to stand in the breach” involves the military. But the sentiments are obvious and lord knows he wouldn’t want to disappoint the president.

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