Nicholas Kristof: Trump uses the military to prove his manhood

Soldiers with Utah National Guard stand guard as demonstrators gather to protest the death of George Floyd, Wednesday, June 3, 2020, near the White House in Washington. Floyd died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

For two decades, the United States has repeatedly made the mistake of over-relying on the military toolbox to try to solve intractable problems — particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq — without adequately relying on diplomacy. Now President Donald Trump wants to repeat the mistake at home.

The U.S. military is, according to Gallup polling, the most trusted institution in the country. But Trump’s call to dispatch armed forces to crush protests so that he can look tough betrays the military’s nonpartisan tradition and should trigger all our alarm bells.

It was exactly 31 years ago that I covered the Chinese military’s assault on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. There was outrage worldwide, with virtually the only praise in the West coming from … Donald Trump.

“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it,” Trump told Playboy Magazine months later. “Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”

No, U.S. troops won’t massacre protesters, as Chinese troops did, but Trump’s deployment of troops for political purposes would betray our traditions, damage the credibility of the armed forces and exacerbate tensions across the country.

Trump introduced Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to governors as the man “in charge” of putting down protests. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch,” Trump said of a National Guard crackdown in Minneapolis.

The Pentagon has rushed active-duty military police and combat engineers to just outside Washington, where they would back up National Guard units, and military helicopters have already been used in a show of force to intimidate protesters.

“I am dispatching thousands and thousands of heavily armed soldiers, military personnel, and law enforcement officers to stop the rioting,” Trump said in his Rose Garden address.

The Times has reported that there have been heated arguments in the White House about whether to invoke an 1807 law called the Insurrection Act that on its face provides broad authority to deploy the military. Trump also declared, “I am mobilizing all available federal resources — civilian and military — to stop the rioting and looting.”

Think of that phrase: “all available resources.” In this annus horribilus, the United States has endured more than 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus and 40 million jobs lost. In response to those cataclysms, Trump responded lethargically and ineffectively: The American death rate from the virus is three times Germany’s and the unemployment rate roughly four times Germany’s. But in response to a week of protests and looting, Trump seeks to send in the Army? According to the Daily Beast, he even inquired about sending in tanks.

The impulse to call in the military is perhaps rooted not only in his authoritarian instincts but also in something more personal. Trump seemed mortified at disclosures that when protesters approached the White House he was rushed to an underground bunker; on Wednesday, he claimed instead that he went down “more for an inspection.”

Embarrassment at his “inspection” trip seems to have fueled his desire to project toughness by using the U.S. armed forces as a prop.

Most shamefully, Trump’s aides dispatched federal forces to use rubber bullets, chemical irritants and flash bang grenades to clear peaceful, lawful protesters — so that the president could indulge in a photo op at a nearby church. The church’s leaders were outraged, for those protesters had as much moral right to be there as Trump did.

Milley and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper accompanied Trump on this stroll, and Esper spoke of U.S. cities as a “battlespace.” I spoke to several retired American commanders who were deeply troubled by this.

“I cannot remain silent,” Admiral Mike Mullen, a much-respected former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in The Atlantic. “Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so.”

“America is not a battleground,” tweeted Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Our fellow citizens are not the enemy.”

On Wednesday, Esper backed off and said that he opposed the use of active duty military forces for now.

I find it thrilling that so many Americans have marched peacefully against racism, although I do wish they would all wear masks and be extremely careful about spreading the coronavirus. My 88-year-old mom joined a peaceful protest the other day in rural Oregon, with hundreds of people turning out in a lily-white community and chanting “black lives matter.”

Rioting and looting are deplorable of course, and it’s great that protesters have tried to stop the looters. Police forces are available, so it’s baffling to hear Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, suggest sending in the 101st Airborne Division. We need not turn American cities into Fallujah.

When you’ve seen the ugliness of war, you don’t lightly summon tanks, helicopters or heavily armed troops to deal with civil disturbances; that’s a dangerous and damaging tactic of insecure old men who claimed heel spurs to dodge the Vietnam draft and now need to prove their own manhood.

Nicholas D. Kristof

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.