The way in which the National Guard is being encouraged by President Donald Trump to militarise the response to protesters is frightening, says the writer. Picture: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
The way in which the National Guard is being encouraged by President Donald Trump to militarise the response to protesters is frightening, says the writer. Picture: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Trump is the greatest threat to US democracy

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jun 10, 2020

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Johannesburg - Even the most admired democracies have the potential to slide into authoritarianism. Sometimes that slide is surreptitious in its creeping advance, and at other times it is so blatant that even army generals start to warn of the demise of democracy.

This may be one of the first times in modern American history that four- and five-star generals have spoken out, telling the American people that their democracy is in danger under the incumbent US president.

When former military commander General John Allen warned the country last week that US President Donald Trump’s threats to unleash the military on civilians could be “the beginning of the end of the American experiment”, not only do Americans have reason to worry, but so does the rest of the world.

Allen says that Trump’s threat on June 1 to deploy the military is a date that should be remembered, as it is a turning point for American democracy.

General Allen, the former US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, and the former presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter Isis, has said he has watched the recent events unfold “with horror”.

Allen and other generals have been particularly aggrieved at police violence against peaceful protesters last week in Lafayette Park, orchestrated so that Trump could have a photo op outside a boarded-up church and show he was not hiding in his bunker.

“That is what happens in authoritarian regimes. That is what happens in illiberal regimes,” Allen said. The fact that Trump was flanked by General Mark Milley, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was wearing battle fatigues was horrifying to the military’s top brass.

Military generals are shocked at Trump’s calls to militarise the response to protesters, and his desire to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807, which allows the president to deploy the military on US soil.

Even Trump’s own Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, risked his job by contradicting the president, saying he did not support invoking the act.

During a meeting in the Oval Office, General Milley and Attorney-General William Barr argued against invoking the Insurrection Act.

They succeeded in getting Trump to back down, but for how long?

Esper’s reference to the need to deal with the protesters by “dominating the battlespace”, and Trump’s calls on the police and National Guard to use “overwhelming force and domination”, are equally concerning.

Trump’s former secretary of defence, James Mattis, broke his silence last week, saying: “We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to dominate.”

Echoing those sentiments, General Tony Thomas, the retired head of US Special Operations Command, voiced his concern on Twitter, saying: “The ‘battlespace of America??? Not what America needs to hear... ever, unless we are invaded by an adversary or experience a constitutional failure ie a Civil War.”

Then General Martin Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote on Twitter: “America is not a battleground. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.”

Another former chairman, retired admiral Mike Mullen, wrote in the Atlantic: “Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in the country, gave succour to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicising the men and women of our armed forces.”

The way in which the National Guard is being encouraged by Trump to militarise the response to protesters is frightening.

Last week top Pentagon officials ordered National Guard Black Hawk helicopters to disperse protests in the capital. The helicopters dropped to rooftop level with their searchlights aimed at a crowd. Tree limbs snapped, nearly hitting several people, and signs were torn from the sides of buildings.

The downward force of air from the rotors was deafening. The helicopters were performing a “show of force” - a standard tactic used by military aircraft in combat zones to scatter insurgents. These are the type of manoeuvres that elite units use in operations in Afghanistan, not on the streets of Washington.

The pressure for such military tactics is ultimately coming from Trump, to boost his image as the self-proclaimed “law and order president”.

Following the helicopters' "show of force", retired senior military leaders condemned their successors for deploying such tactics.

General Allen, General Matthis, General Thomas, General Dempsey, General Mullen, and most recently the revered General Colin Powell are speaking out against what they believe are threats to the American constitution and democracy. This is something we have never seen in the US in our lifetime, and it is a strong indicator that the country is sliding down a very dangerous path, the type of path that led to the rise of fascist dictators.

Unfortunately in those contexts military generals were not prepared, or would not have survived, speaking truth to power in order to prevent the rise of tyranny.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

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