It’s been less than two weeks since the murder by cop of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and in that short time, an astonishing rebellion has sprung up from the angry grass roots. It began among a black population for whom this vicious videotaped slow and casual killing of a non-violent black suspect of a minor alleged crime by a calm and clearly unthreatened white police officer was the last straw.
In no time, the protests spread across the country from Portland east to Portland west, from Chicago to Miami and points in between, often with mostly young white protesters outnumbering black ones, as the target of the anger and frustration spread from Floyd’s killer and the Minneapolis Police to all police, and to the governments that employ them in the name of “law and order” instead of peace and justice.
Meanwhile the response of the Trump administration has been to call for more repressive police action at all levels, and more proactive violence against protest. This has been particularly true in the nation’s capital, epitomized by President Trump’s ordering of a brutal assault by Federally-controlled National Guardsmen and National Park Police on peaceful protesters in front of the White House, who were told to clear a path for the president to waddle across from that building to a small historic church across Lafayette Square park for a photo-op with a Bible as a prop.
The assault on the protesters, which began with tear gas, flash-bang grenades and the firing of rubber bullets, was shocking and unusual, since it came with no warning and without a shred of justification, and was clearly intended to show a “toughness” against protest, even peaceful protest. Before making what had to be one of the longest transits by foot that this president has taken in his whole three and a half years as president, Trump announced that he was President law-and-order, and called on governors of the 50 states to join him in “dominating” the streets with force and mass arrests.
Martial Law suddenly seems conceivable
All of this — the deliberately fascist imagery of the Great Leader sternly holding up a Bible like a talisman, the stench of tear gas still hanging in the air, and camo-clad soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder establishing a perimeter to keep the area around the president clear of protest — had even mainstream media commentators speculating whether the country was heading towards martial law and an upending of constitutional government and First Amendment freedoms.
Those speculations were bolstered by Trump’s talk of using the hoary 1807 Insurrection Act to suspend those freedoms, and his threat to the nation’s governors and mayors to “send in active duty U.S. military troops” if they didn’t take sterner action to put down uprisings and “rioting” in their jurisdictions.
Meanwhile, Trump seems to be testing those ideas in Washington, D.C., a peculiar jurisdiction of some 700.000 residents, 47% of whom are black, and where whites, at 37% (including most of the Congress and White House staff) are a minority, which is not a state, but falls under the direct jurisdiction of the federal government. In addition to his action involving federally controlled troops and police in front of the White House, Trump ordered in other National Guard troops to help deal with the Black Lives Matter protests in the city, and there were multiple reports of unidentified uniformed and armed personnel patrolling the city who would not identify what agency or agencies they were with (speculation centers on federal Border Patrol agents, TSA agents, ICE agents and officers from the Federal Protective Service).
I used to scoff at what seemed wild claims made by many friends warning that Trump would eventually turn the U.S. into a fascist state — that he would usurp dictatorial powers over Congress and the Courts, call up the U.S. military in a national emergency, and cancel the Constitution and its Bill of Rights. The idea seemed preposterous to me.
Truman and the national security state
And yet, I had over the years written how the first baby steps in that direction were being taken by prior administrations beginning with Harry Truman, who in 1947, with the signing of the National Security Act, created the CIA and the national security state. This was followed by an expansion of intelligence and surveillance programs during the Eisenhower administration.
As the Civil Rights movement and the Anti-war movement against the Vietnam war grew in size and impact, the government under first John F. Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson, and the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover pursued increasingly aggressive and invasive spying, infiltration and disruptive campaigns against activists and protest leaders like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and Anti-war movement, even including assassinations, possibly of King and Malcolm X themselves. President Richard Nixon upped the ante, with the Senate Church Committee headed by Sen. Frank Church learning about a plan called Garden Plot for implementing martial law, and about the creation of an “enemies list” of over 800 people, including journalists, targeted for harassment and worse, and another list of 10,000 radicals — this one developed by the Defense Intelligence Agency — composed of people to be immediately rounded up and detained in the event of such an action. That potential detention list was ramped up much larger in 2001 under President GW Bush and his consigliere Dick Cheney. Unfortunately, expectations that President Obama and a new Democratic Congress would investigate that list and government spying, and punish the prior administration’s unconstitutional actions, came to naught, as Obama vowed to “look forward, not backward” and then proceeded to expand the spying and list-making during his two terms of office. In particular a Homeland Security watchlist was expanded enormously under Obama, adding to it people many degrees separated from any alleged person suspected of terrorism and including people put on the list for punishment, not national security reasons, like journalists (including this author!).and running right through Barack Obama who oversaw continued expansion of a multi-agency program of national spying, as we learned from the whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013, the introduction of domestic drones to spy on and potentially use weapons against U.S. citizens, and a legal attack on government whistleblowers, have undermined the legal protections in the Constitution that were designed to prevent authoritarian rule in the U.S. (It was Obama’s Justice Department that issued a secret indictment under the Espionage Act of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, now, after years in a British holding cell facing extradition to the U.S. to face trial on that and other charges.)
Trump inherited a clear path to Martial Law
Now, thanks to all those actions over decades setting the stage for it, I fear we are really not that far away from the potential establishment of martial law becoming the real thing, having now in the White House a president clearly anxious to pull the trigger.
I wrote in Salon magazine in 2002 about various White House master plans for launching martial law including one quite elaborate one in the Reagan administration titled Rex-84 Alpha drawn up by Reagan’s FEMA Director Louis Giuffrida, who had been FEMA director in California when Reagan was governor of that state, and by Reagan’s favorite White House resident fascist, convicted felon Col. Oliver North. Plan Rex-84 Alpha was thankfully never put into effect but I have no doubt its detailed roadmap for martial law remains on the shelf of the Oval Office of the White House War Room, alongside other earlier (and perhaps more recent or updated) plans for establishing martial law.
Meanwhile, of course, while cities all over are being convulsed by the anti-police brutality uprisings and concomitant spates of riots and looting by desperate people who are suddenly jobless and trapped in their homes because of the coronavirus pandemic, the country is not in danger of being overthrown by protesters. At least at this point, there is no concerted effort or coordinated strategy (much less an organization capable of planning one) to take over the government.
But that’s not the point. The point is that the uprisings and chaos, and the economic crisis bred of the COVID-19 pandemic, offer this president the pretext to declare a national emergency and to claim dictatorial powers under martial law. Unfortunately, years of Republican control of the Senate have led to a Supreme Court stacked with right-wing Federalist Society jurists who would likely be all to happy to endorse such a move. And Remember, Democrats in the House obligingly passed a renewal of the Patriot Act, giving the Executive Branch virtual carte blanche to monitor all American’s every move and every electronic communication.
The primary line of defense against the dreadful prospect of a military dictatorship headed by a Generalissimo Trump would be concerted overt resistance by millions of us in the streets. The outcome of such resistance would be completely unpredictable of course, and a lot would depend upon how powerful what seems to be a lingering reluctance within the professional military to become the enforcers of such an upending of constitutional government really is.
Ex-Gen. Mattis speaks up
Evidence of that reluctance came from an unlikely quarter this past week, in the form of retired Marine General and fired Defense Secretary James Mattis. After staying largely quiet about his former boss and Commander in Chief for a time, Mattis came out swinging on Wednesday, with a public announcement, widely reported, blasting the idea of using US troops under federal command against American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, and blasting the president specifically for using uniformed U.S. troops to clear away peaceful protesters from around the White House so he could do a photo op in front of a church. Perhaps most stunningly, Mattis came close to calling Trump a Nazi, saying, “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.’ We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.”
Mattis would seem a poor “savior” of civilian democratic governance, having been a willing and even bloodthirsty centurion of empire under several presidents and an enthusiastic supporter of Trump early in his administration. But his condemnation of Trump’s domestic policies and tactics now is powerful and is being backed by other top retired generals and admirals.
Mattis’s call-out of his replacement as Secretary of Defense (sic) Mark Esper is also having an impact, with Esper backing away from his support for use of active duty troops in controlling protest, and his use of the term “battlespace” to describe cities facing protests and uprisings.
Perhaps the professional military, of all things, will show more spine and principle than the timid, cowed and insipid Republicans in the U.S. Congress, who have set the bar for independence and courage pretty damned low. Perhaps the U.S. military would at the critical moment refuse to follow any unconstitutional orders issued by a power-mad Commander in Chief calling for the establishment of martial law. Perhaps this draft-dodging self-aggrandizing narcissist of a president will finally go a bridge too far and land on his fat ass, booted from office and sitting in jail after a hasty impeachment or invocation of Article 25 of the U.S. Constitution.
It seems like a long shot, but I’m afraid that it’s hard to see what else is standing in Trump’s way beside tens of millions of militantly opposed American citizens willing to face down the troops, or the military itself deciding to honor their oaths to defend the Constitution.
Organizers of Black Lives Matter and the groups that support that movement deserve enormous credit for having turned the tide of public sentiment away from an unacceptable tolerance of police and support for unbridled police violence to a majority sentiment that police in the US are targeting blacks and that they themselves have become threats to liberty and freedom and to constitutional rights. That is a rapid and huge shift in public opinion against the police. The question is would that new majority view hold if national unrest and rebellion grew and if police began mass arrests?
Meanwhile I know that China’s rulers, like rulers in authoritarian states around the globe — so often the targets of sanctimonious sanctions by the U.S. for their behavior over the years — are watching events in the U.S. with smug satisfaction. Nothing would please them more than seeing U.S. troops in the streets defending state power against a restive and unruly public.