For decades, conservative activists and leaders have warned that “jackbooted thugs” from the federal government were going to come to take away Americans’ civil rights with no due process and no recourse. Now they’re here—but they’re deployed by a staunchly right-wing president with strong conservative support.
In Portland, Oregon, federal agents in military fatigues have for several days been patrolling the streets amid ongoing protests about police brutality. These forces, employed by the Department of Homeland Security, have snatched people off the streets of the city, refused to identify themselves, and detained people without charges. Ostensibly, they are present to protect federal buildings from protesters. In practice, they seem to be acting on a much wider mandate, either to suppress protests or (more cynically) to provoke confrontation on behalf of a flailing White House that sees it as electorally beneficial.
Federal officials have insisted these forces are necessary to stop “anarchy” (Trump’s word). But local officials, including the mayor of Portland and Governor Kate Brown, have criticized their presence and asked, in vain, for them to leave, saying they are causing more trouble than they prevent. (As the local press notes, the idea that the city is consumed by chaos is ridiculous, though there has been some vandalism.)
The DHS deployment to Portland follows the militarized crackdown on peaceful protesters in Washington’s Lafayette Square in June, and it’s apparently a pilot for a broader deployment. Speaking with reporters in the Oval Office on Monday, Trump said that Portland was only the first step in a planned operation.
“New York and Chicago and Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore and all of these—Oakland is a mess—we are not going to let this happen in the country, all run by liberal Democrats,” he said. “We’re going to have more federal law enforcement, that I can tell you.”
While law enforcement violating civil rights is sadly not new, Trump appears to be trying to do something novel in this country: establishing a force like interior ministries in other countries. The United States has a Department of the Interior, but it is unlike most agencies with that name around the world. Here, it oversees units such as the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Geological Survey. But in many countries, the ministry’s role is much broader and more powerful: Its role is to oversee the interior of the country.
One common tool for an interior ministry is a national police force. That can be a dangerous tool because an armed national police force at the disposal of the central government has a tendency to be misused. A repressive regime that is in danger, or simply faced with protests it finds troublesome, can use the national police to crack down, turning the force into an agency that protects the rulers, rather than one that defends the rule of law. Even in more democratic countries, a national police force can be a threat. In early post-Franco Spain, the Guardia Civil was a hotbed of fascist irredentism.
The United States has never had a national police force like this, for reasons that emanate from the country’s founding. While the federal government has grown ever stronger since independence, the federalism embedded in the American system militated against a national police force. (Even state police were slow to emerge.) The Founders were wary of establishing any permanent, armed force under the control of the federal government, even warning against a standing army.
“A standing military force with an overgrown executive will not long be safe companions to liberty,” James Madison told the Constitutional Convention. “The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.”
To be sure, the federal government has, at times, used its force against the people. Under the 1807 Insurrection Act and its subsequent amendments, the president can, under certain circumstances, deploy the Army inside the United States. In 1932, U.S. troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur dispersed the Bonus Army, a contingent of thousands of destitute World War I veterans who had camped out on the grounds of the Capitol. In 1957, after Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to integrate Little Rock’s Central High School and mobilized the state’s National Guard to surround the school, President Dwight Eisenhower sent the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne to clear the way for Black students. Faubus and the Guard blinked.
Given deep-seated American concerns about tyranny, sending in the Army is politically risky, and so it’s seldom done—and then usually either at the request of local authorities (as following the 1992 Los Angeles riots) or to defend civil rights (as in Little Rock). Firm opposition by governors is one reason Trump backed down from a June threat to invoke the Insurrection Act in response to anti-police protests. The presence of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Mark Esper at the Lafayette Square debacle brought a flurry of condemnation from retired military officials, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Chairman Mike Mullen. Milley ultimately said he had erred: “My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics.”
In the absence of internal military deployments or a true national police force, other bodies have sprung up that fulfill some of the same functions. The Federal Bureau of Investigation conducts criminal investigations, polices terrorism, and conducts counterintelligence, among other roles. The Secret Service investigates financial crimes. The U.S. Marshals system serves the courts. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms polices the misuse of, well, alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, as well as explosives and arson. Customs and Border Protection guards the border; Immigration and Customs Enforcement polices immigration inside the country.
While some of these agencies, especially the FBI, have often abused their power, none has as broad a mandate as a national police force. They are also splintered across Cabinet departments, diffusing their power. FBI, the Marshals, and ATF are all part of the Justice Department, while CBP and ICE are part of the Department of Homeland Security. So is the Secret Service, but it used to be part of the Treasury. Garrett Graff notes that there are some 80 federal law-enforcement agencies in total, ranging across the executive branch.
The agents out on the streets of Portland are detailed from Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Among the forces deployed in Washington last month, when Trump briefly barricaded himself within the White House, were officers from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. When the president ramped up security around statues, in response to vandalism and destruction of monuments, DHS agents were assigned that duty.
None of these tasks has much to do with the stated mandates of these agencies or departments—Coast Guard officers aren’t generally trained for riot control—and this is “homeland security” in only the most general sense. The reason these agents are the ones being deployed is simply that they’re the ones who are available. In the absence of a federal police force, the administration is simply pulling in any federal law-enforcement officer that it has the power to reassign.
This is an amateurish way to cobble together a national police force, characteristic of the improvisational authoritarianism of the Trump administration. But it is a strange historical irony that a Republican president would be the one to create a de facto interior ministry.
While Republicans have often portrayed themselves as devoted to law and order and defending the police, there’s also a strong libertarian current in the conservative movement that bristles at the growth of federal law enforcement. This became especially strong following the deadly federal sieges at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, and Waco, Texas, in 1993. The ATF in particular became a bête noire. In an infamous 1995 fundraising letter, National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre warned of “jackbooted thugs” from the federal government seizing guns under the Assault Weapons Ban:
Not too long ago, it was unthinkable for federal agents wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms to attack law-abiding citizens … In [Bill] Clinton’s administration, if you have a badge, you have the government’s go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.
Yet on Thursday, as reports emerged from Portland of heavily armored federal agents attacking law-abiding citizens, the NRA announced it was endorsing Trump for a second term, praising him for “stand[ing] tall for the constitutional freedoms in which our members believe.”
The silence of many high-profile conservatives (with some exceptions) in the face of Trump’s attempt to create a national police force to crush dissent has much to do with the specifics. The subjects of the government’s repression are not white, rural gun owners, as at Ruby Ridge, but a multiracial coalition of urban residents, who tend to lean liberal, and who are protesting police violence against people of color. (The NRA has been conspicuously quiet when police violate Black people’s right to bear arms.)
The Trump administration’s moves in Portland are different from previous domestic policing efforts in important ways that underscore the dangerous project being attempted. The federal government is not defending civil rights, as in the Little Rock case; in fact, it’s cracking down on protesters who are demanding better civil-rights protections. Nor is it acting at the request of local authorities; as we’ve seen, the state and local governments have called for the federal government to withdraw. Chad Wolf, the man leading DHS amid the crackdown, is also accountable only to the president: Trump, who loves circumventing the Constitution’s requirement of Senate confirmation for some positions, has often chosen to leave acting heads in charge of agencies so that they are more pliable and dependent on him.
As traditional politics, Trump’s promise of broad federal law enforcement is puzzling. The violent clearance of Lafayette Square was one of the worst blunders of his presidency, drawing widespread condemnation, creating splits within his leadership team, and precipitating a huge drop in public approval of his handling of riots and race. Even within the context of Trump’s peculiar base strategy, there’s little chance that sending federal agents into American cities to make dubious arrests is likely to halt his own tumble in the polls.
That’s led critics toward bleaker interpretations, suggesting that Trump is trying to stifle resistance ahead of the election, suppress the vote, or prepare to contest the election if he loses. Whatever his motives, the precedents he’s creating are likely to endure: His successors will have a blueprint for the creation of a national police force that answers to the president.