The military has long enjoyed a special status in American culture. Nearly every president has allied himself with our men and women in uniform. But they have not tried to turn that alliance against the people. President Donald Trump's use of our armed forces in the wake of the killing of George Floyd should send shivers of fear through every American who believes in the principles that have guided our nation since its founding.
It started Monday when federal law enforcement personnel were ordered to attack peaceful protesters with rubber bullets and chemical gas to clear a path for Trump to do a cheap photo op near the White House. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley accompanied Trump while wearing battle fatigues, a further blurring of the line between peace and war. National Guard helicopters flew low over demonstrators in Washington, a wartime method of dispersing crowds and striking fear. Military vehicles packed our nation's capital and National Guard, Border Patrol, DEA and ICE agents patrolled the streets like storm troopers.
Some personnel in tactical attire had no identifiable insignia, no way to hold them accountable for their actions, like anonymous thugs who prop up tinpot autocrats. On Tuesday, National Guard troops in camouflage and body armor stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an occupying force at a national symbol of reconciliation. Throughout, Trump speaks the language of war, echoed by Defense Secretary Mark Esper urging governors to "dominate the battlespace."
Is this our country?
Places where protesters exercise their First Amendment rights are not battlespaces to be won, which Esper conceded when he apologized and broke with Trump in saying active-duty troops were not needed to deal with protesters.
It's telling that military leaders are criticizing his words and actions. Former Defense Secretary and Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis blasted Trump for being divisive and for forcing troops who swore an oath to defend the Constitution to violate the constitutional rights of fellow citizens. On Thursday, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski called Mattis' remarks "necessary and overdue," a strong rebuke of the president from a party that has cowered before him.
This politicization of the military is dangerous. It puts soldiers and civilians into enemy camps, and erodes the trust required between Americans in uniform and the people they pledge to protect. Trump doesn't care. For him, the military is a vehicle for intimidation, a prop in a political campaign he plans to win by sowing more division. Consider a recent Trump campaign fundraising pitch offering gear in a camouflage print to potential members of "our exclusive Trump Army," informing them that "YOU are the President's first line of defense when it comes to fighting off the liberal MOB."
Images and symbols matter in politics. How a leader deploys them is critical. Trump has trampled the boundary of what's acceptable. Egregious displays of military strength don't make you a strong leader. That comes from character. Good leaders know that. So, increasingly, does the nation. — The editorial board