Editor’s Note: Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor of history and public affairs. He is the author and editor of nine books, most recently “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.” The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
President Trump’s brandishing of the US military this week – particularly his threat Monday to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 – proves his cowardly and undemocratic proclivities.
Instead of working with governors and other domestic leaders to address the obvious anger and hurt throughout the country, he would prefer to hide in the White House, spewing aggressive rhetoric behind the uniforms of men and women who signed up for foreign duty – none of whom surely wish to find themselves pointing their weapons at their fellow citizens.
When the Constitution describes the president as “commander-in-chief,” it refers to his ability to deploy military force against foreign enemies. The Constitution severely constrains the president’s use of military force against domestic adversaries.
The Insurrection Act of 1807 creates a presumption that state leaders will consent, and in fact request, federal military assistance, when necessary. If state leaders do not request federal arms, presidents have little recourse. The only exception is when state conditions grossly violate federal laws, and the president has taken other actions, short of military force, to demand enforcement.
As a last resort, under the Insurrection Act a president must issue a proclamation giving the violators of federal law a chance to disperse.
Passed in 1878 to protect states’ rights in the former Confederacy, the Posse Comitatus Act hammered home the limits on the president’s domestic military power. It prohibited the domestic deployment of the US Army without an explicit order of Congress.
For almost 100 years, this restriction on presidential power gave cover to flagrant violations of federal authority in the South – including voter suppression, Jim Crow segregation and, worst of all, repeated extrajudicial lynchings, which continued until 1960s. Even as the power of the president grew in the shadow of the Second World War, he had little military reach within the states. Governors and mayors were the heavies; the Constitution set it up that way.
In the aftermath of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision to desegregate all schools, Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson reluctantly deployed limited military force to protect the rights of African American citizens as they attended schools and marched peacefully.
President Johnson sent federal soldiers to numerous cities in 1968, but with the consent of state authorities. President George H.W. Bush did the same in Los Angeles in 1992, at the request of California Gov. Pete Wilson. These were careful exceptions to the strong presumption that the US military would not interfere at home.
This history is foundational for our democracy, built on strict limits to presidential force and bullying within our boundaries. Freedom is imperiled if a commander-in-chief can threaten to turn our large military against his political enemies. Our system of federalism ceases to exist if the president can push his preferences on governors and mayors by force of arms. There is a constitutional reason why presidents have consistently flexed their muscles outside the boundaries of the United States.
President Trump’s threats to deploy the US military to states, despite resistance from governors, are claims of direct authority he does not possess. He is making a political judgment about the protests, and forcing his preferred response on local law enforcement institutions operating in their constitutionally defined spaces.
If the President can use the army to supersede the governors’ law enforcement today, what will stop him from doing more of the same when he does not like a state’s policy on pandemic prevention or assistance to the homeless? State authorities are already enforcing the law, as they understand it; the president is claiming that he can dictate the law, as no president has before.
Americans should not only reject President Trump’s abuse of power. They should actively resist it. The stakes are too high to let this pass as yet another “violation of norms.” Mayors, governors and other local officials must affirm their local authority – something Republicans revered until Trump’s presidency.
Citizens should continue to protest peacefully. We have a right to demand justice in our communities, and the US military that we support with taxpayer dollars should stay free of these issues. Our soldiers have plenty of work to do abroad, and this president has nothing to offer our communities but more suffering and hate.
Democracy requires justice and healing in our neighborhoods, not military domination on our streets.