In trying to use the military to quell nationwide protests, Trump has given the most ominous example yet of his authoritarianism. On Monday night, the world witnessed the disturbing scene of Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, decked out in uniform, accompanying Trump to a photo op at St. John’s Episcopal Church, which had been cleared of protesters by the National Guard and law enforcement agents. Earlier that day, Defense Secretary Mark Esper made a troubling comment describing the American cities experiencing protests as a “battlespace” that the military needed to “dominate.” On Tuesday, there were the unsettling images of the military convoys filling the streets of Washington and a phalanx of uniformed soldiers standing guard outside the Lincoln Memorial.
These are appalling scenes and deserve to be remembered as among the most disgraceful events of Trump’s presidency. But they are also evidence of how feeble Trump’s authority is. Trump confirms the rule that macho bluster is usually a compensation for weakness.
The very decision to make the trip to St. John’s was motivated by a desire to counteract stories that Trump was taking refuge in the White House bunker, which conjured up images of a cowardly president. According to CNN, “Trump himself was angered by coverage depicting him holed up in an underground bunker. He told aides on Monday he wanted to be seen outside the White House gates, according to a person familiar with the matter, which is part of what drove the decision to stage the photo-op at St. John’s Church.”
Trump was surely mindful of the fact that he was being attacked on Fox News for having a weak response to the protests. On Monday Night, Tucker Carlson lambasted him for a supposed failure to protect Americans from protesters. “How are you going to protect the country?” Carlson asked. The Fox News host continued to needle Trump by observing, “The president reassured America that he and his family were just fine. The federally funded bodyguards had kept them safe. He did not mention protecting the rest of the nation, much of which was then on fire. He seemed aware only of himself.”
Carlson and other hard-right ideologues have been calling for a harsh crackdown on protesters. Given their prior bigoted rhetoric, it seems like they want to turn the current crisis into a race war.
Trump’s push for a military solution to the uprising seems designed to placate these critics. But he is meeting resistance from the military. Both Esper and Milley are getting pushback from the Pentagon for complying with the president’s wishes on Monday night. In response, the defense secretary and the military leader have been quietly distancing themselves from the St. John’s photo op.
According to NBC News, Esper now denies that he knew he was going to a photo op. The network reports, “Esper said he believed they were going to observe the vandalized bathroom in Lafayette Square, which is near the church.”
The New York Times provides a parallel account:
Neither Mr. Esper nor General Milley knew when they went to the Oval Office on Monday that they would be taking part in the president’s photo op, Pentagon officials said. Nor did they know, officials said, that law enforcement personnel would be firing chemical spray and rubber bullets on protesters in Lafayette Square before they crossed that park with Mr. Trump.
During the meeting in the Oval Office, which officials said became heated, General Milley and Attorney General William P. Barr argued against invoking the Insurrection Act to override governors and send active-duty troops to states where there are protests. They were able to get Mr. Trump to hold off for now, but the president nonetheless ordered active-duty troops deployed to the one place where he did not have to go through governors: the District of Columbia.
The message of these reports is clear: Esper and Milley are signaling that they didn’t approve of the St. John’s photo op and in fact tried to blunt Trump’s push for using the military all over America and not just in D.C. Nor is the Pentagon alone in wanting to keep Trump at arm’s length. The FBI has leaked information undermining Trump’s preferred narrative of antifa terrorism.
Strikingly, some Republicans are also trying to distance themselves from the St. John’s fiasco. As usual in the Trump era, these criticisms are extremely muted. But they are being made. Maine Senator Susan Collins said, “It was painful to watch peaceful protesters be subjected to tear gas in order for the president to go across the street to a church that I believe he’s attended only once.” She added, “I thought that the president came across as unsympathetic and as insensitive to the rights of people to peaceful protest.”
Oklahoma Senator James Lankford and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse made similar comments. Also notable was the fact that few Republicans, other than extreme ideologues like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, rose to Trump’s defense.
Trump was bothered enough by these remarks to tweet out a peevish response. “You got it wrong!” Trump tweeted. “If the protesters were so peaceful, why did they light the Church on fire the night before? People liked my walk to this historic place of worship! Sen. Susan Collins, Sen. James Lankford, Sen. Ben Sasse. Please read @MZHemingway below.” Accompanying the tweet was a link to an article by Mollie Hemingway defending Trump’s photo op.
Trump wants to project strength. He told the governors they need to display “dominance” over the protesters. That is the role Trump is trying to perform, of the masterful and overpowering ruler. But such dominance is an aspiration, not a reality.
In truth, Trump is clearly trapped: The hard-right base of the GOP may be goading him to use the military, but the military itself is resisting. Meanwhile, more moderate Republicans are getting skittish. Trump’s coalition is fraying, which is a big problem for his reelection chances. He won in 2016 only through the fluke of his minority of the vote being dominant in the right places by a thin margin. If he wants to win again, he can’t afford for his coalition to shrink even a little bit.
Trump is weak, but he’s still very dangerous. A wounded animal is often fiercer than a healthy one. The weaker Trump is, the more likely it will be that he’ll use what power he has in a reckless manner. The Washington deployment is an attempt to use the military as a political shield. Even if he can’t send troops elsewhere in the United States, there’s still plenty of damage Trump can do with the powers he has as commander in chief.