One of the inherent safeguards against the rise of totalitarian fascism in America is our multilayered system of government. We don’t just have one national government and nothing else. Power is dispersed across overlapping layers of authority — municipal, county, state, and federal.
Over the years, that has unfortunately slowed national progress on important causes (think: the anti-civil-rights cry of “states’ rights!” or governors refusing to expand Medicaid), but it also makes it somewhat more difficult for a tyrannical president to weaponize the state for a political agenda — because there is no one single state.
But this safeguard is now in jeopardy. President Trump and Sen. Tom Cotton are floating the idea of militarily occupying American cities — and the idea is being normalized by the and some pundits. That kind of escalation would not only exacerbate tensions and likely result in a further curtailing of democratic rights, it could also undermine one of the key structural safeguards against presidential authoritarianism.
In real-world terms: Trump would go from being the president, to also being cities’ mayor and police chief, only with even less potential for local democratic accountability, pressure and control.
This dynamic hasn’t been discussed very much. Instead, there has been an oversimplified “law and order” narrative. As in the lead-up to most major wars in the last half-century, this kind of framing tends to depict military intervention as a reliable way to stabilize a chaotic situation, when often it ends up being the opposite. And that “law and order” discourse — which amplifies a similar discourse going back decades — has now resulted in at least one poll showing majority support for a domestic military invasion.
Clearly, many Americans are looking out at scenes of chaos and violence and feeling desperate for a quick path to tranquility and stability — and military intervention is being portrayed as that path. However, the long-term dangers of a Trump-led military occupation cannot be overstated. It could create precisely the conditions that have preceded fascist takeovers of other nations in the past: martial law directed by a single distant regime leader wielding one unified national paramilitary police apparatus against the people.
To be sure, Trump’s federal government already has its own array of domestic security forces — from the FBI, to the Park Police, to federal marshals to the unidentified soldiers now patrolling Washington, DC But that is just one (albeit large and powerful) level of government. Up until this point, most of the security forces patrolling our communities are governed by mayors, county commissioners, and governors — which means those elected officials have the power to start deescalating things right now.
That is to say: in our federated multilayered system of government, the local officials we have the most democratic control over still have the power to do the opposite of what Trump wants to do.
That would change under a Trump-led military invasion. In that scenario, local communities would have less of that power — and that’s downright scary. It’s so terrifying, in fact, that this specific issue — whether a president can domestically deploy the military — has long been one of the most delicate issues in all of American politics throughout our nation’s entire history.
Trump Would Be Intervening To Curtail Rights, Not Protect Them
During the nineteenth century, federal military intervention was used at times to try to protect civil rights during Reconstruction, but also to crush workers’ basic right to strike and protest. In the modern era, as Bloomberg News notes, the Insurrection Act “has been used very rarely to deploy federal troops domestically without a request from a state government, with examples mostly dating from the Civil Rights era.”
That’s an important point: many of those modern presidential decisions to override our multilayered system of government occurred in order to enforce constitutional rights and protect Americans’ civil liberties against state and local governments that were abrogating those rights and liberties. Those were good, laudable, and justifiable decisions by the federal government to be the final, last-resort defender of the most elemental democratic rights.
By contrast, if Trump invoked these same Insurrection Act powers, he would not be sending in federal troops to protect democratic rights and/or to halt police violence against peaceful protesters. He would not be Dwight Eisenhower sending federal troops to override Arkansas’ state government and make sure African-American kids can go to a desegregated school.
Trump would instead be intervening to — in his own words — “dominate” our communities, which he refers to as a “battlespace.” Specifically, he would be aiming to weaken the constitutional right to protest, to help local police continue to undermine Americans’ civil liberties, and to consolidate his personal authority to direct that political repression for the long haul.
Military Leaders Object
This is likely why a range of voices from across the political spectrum have been sounding such a particularly loud alarm about Trump’s behavior of late. We’ve seen Trump’s own Secretary of Defense and other top military officials push back on the idea of domestic deployment. Former military officials have also been similarly pushing back. One military scholar warns that Trump’s military invasion plan could be explicitly used “to advance his political agenda.”
Many may disagree with these military leaders on lots of issues — from defense spending to decisions about launching foreign wars. But they at least seem to understand how this moment existentially jeopardizes our democracy.
Our mayors, our governors, our city councilors, and our state legislators must do a better job of deescalating tensions and cracking down on police violence. At minimum, that would help strip Trump of his public justification for a military invasion. They can also go further — governors can turn down Trump administration’s attempts to intervene.
Just as important: our representatives in Washington can take concrete steps to prevent the federalization of the situation. They have the power to stop Trump’s power grab — we need them to use it right now.