Donald Trump’s announcement that federal forces will occupy American cities should lay the tiresome myth of the United States as an ‘exceptional nation’ to rest.


First published in July 2020.


On July 22, Donald Trump announced that a ‘surge’ of federal forces would be sent to cities where law is deemed to have broken down.

But this surge is not directed against a foreign country. It is directed against American cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia and threatens others such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee. All of these cities have large Black populations and are run by Democratic mayors.

This surge of troops builds on events in Portland, where anonymous Department of Homeland Security forces, most likely Border Patrol, has begun kidnapping Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors, forcing them into the back of unmarked cars.

The media has condemned the ‘occupation’ of American cities, but these actions follow up on earlier demands by the president that law enforcement ‘dominate’ cities that have seen significant unrest following violent police crackdowns on BLM protests.

Acolytes of the president welcome these moves.

Tom Cotton, a far-right Republican senator for Arkansas who recently wrote a controversial New York Times editorial arguing that the military should retake US streets by force stated on Fox News that protestors would only have themselves to blame if police or federal forces opened fire on them. Radical-right media voices have condemned protestors for promoting insurrection and urged the president to control American cities by force.

The so-called surge marks an escalation of Trumpian rhetoric against American cities and the mainly liberal, Democratic populations who live there. But it is also spectacle. The surge is that hoary old political trick: the ‘dead cat bounce.’

The surge builds on an us vs. them divide prevalent in the United States. It is fodder for voters drawn to Trump because of a sense of cultural loss and grievance or for those who perceive law and order, frequently a guise for white supremacy, to be under attack.

It diverts attention from the real danger: efforts to expand the scope of executive authority.

Trump would like to expand the scope of his executive authority. / Flickr – The White House

On July 20, John Yoo, a senior Bush administration lawyer, confirmed that he was working with the White House to find a legal loophole that will allow Trump to ignore Congress and rule by decree. Yoo should be a familiar name: he was the author of a memorandum that offered a legal justification for the torture of prisoners of war under George W. Bush.

Yoo bases his argument on a recent Supreme Court ruling, which stated the White House broke the law when it ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for the children of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States before they were 16.

DACA was enacted as an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2014, when previous efforts at immigration reform foundered. Amongst other rights, it gives recipients the ability to work legally and to live in the United States without fear of deportation.

The Supreme Court found that while the Trump administration had the legal right to end DACA, the means it went about this process were unconstitutional because it failed to consider the hardship created by ending the program.

John Yoo authored the infamous “torture memos” while serving in the George W. Bush administration’s Justice Department. / Flickr – Miller Center

This focus on harm is crucial for Yoo. He suggests that the precedent set by President Obama means that presidents can issue executive orders and impose laws without congressional authority, even if they violate the constitution. In the present context, this would allow Donald Trump to transform the Department of Homeland Security or Border Patrol into a federal militia loyal to the White House, not Congress or the constitution.

Such orders would not just remain in existence for the life of the Trump administration. A future Democratic president would need to craft a reversal that causes minimal harm to those affected. This would be a tortuous process.

Specialists in constitutional law consider this sophistry ‘dictatorial’ and a reflection of the ‘lawless’ nature of the Trump administration. But Republicans, who claim to favor constitutional probity, have been much more muted. To understand why, we need to look further afield.


In her new book Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum writes of the way in which religious conservatives in Poland, despairing at the rapid cultural transformation of the country, seized on authoritarianism as a means of forestalling significant change. Opportunists on the political right seeking power and wealth swiftly followed, blending national institutions with those of a political movement, the Law and Justice Party. The result was the rapid collapse of democracy in the 2010s.

A similar process is underway in the United States. The surge appeals to religious conservatives, rural-dwellers, and white working classes who fear cultural change. The blending of federal institutions and the interests of the president is of little concern to the business and Republican supporters of Trump who espy the opportunity for enrichment and power.

America proclaims itself to be an exceptional nation. The announcement of the surge should lay this tiresome myth to rest. There is nothing exceptional about this tawdry descent into authoritarianism.🔷


PMP XTRA

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🗳️ Donald Trump

🗳️ Tom Cotton

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[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 25 July 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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