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.
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“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.”
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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.