Trump’s War on Democracy

“I’ve had a lot of wars of my own.  I’m really good at war.  I love war….”

– Donald Trump, Campaign Rally in Iowa, 2015

“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it.  Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength.  That shows you the power of strength.  Our country is right now perceived as weak.”

– Donald Trump, Interview with Playboy magazine, 1990

Donald Trump has been at war for the past three and a half years as president of the United States. But he is waging his war against U.S. institutions and norms. He began his verbal assaults on American governance  in his inauguration speech (“American Carnage”) in January 2017, and ever since he has assaulted the Department of Justice and the justice system itself; the intelligence community; the departments and agencies of government that deal with science and reason; and the international world order that Democratic and Republican administrations have supported since the Second World War.

His recent attacks on the nation’s Inspectors General has compromised the government’s ability to conduct oversight and accountability. His attacks on the treaties and accords of arms control and disarmament have weakened our national security.  His pardon of a war criminal who was convicted by the U.S. military has undermined the Pentagon’s command and control for unconscionable conduct.

But Trump’s statements and actions in the wake of the killing of George Floyd have raised Trump’s war on democracy and governance to a new and dangerous level.  He is exacerbating social unrest and provoking greater violence in the United States.

–In a teleconference with the nation’s governors, Trump described the crisis as a “war,” and urged them to “use the military.”  He told the governors “You have to dominate.  If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you.  You’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.”  With the exception of Illinois Governor J. B. Pritzker, most of the governors pandered to the president.  Republican Governor of Maryland Larry Hogan, for example, told Trump he “couldn’t agree more with what you just said.”

—After Maine Governor Janet Mills tried to convince Trump to cancel a trip to Maine for “security reasons,” he told his advisers “She tried to talk me out of it and I think she probably talked me into it.”  He tellingly added “She just doesn’t understand me very well.”

–Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke briefly to the governors and told them “We need to dominate the battlespace,” a bizarre statement by the very official who is supposed to maintain civilian control of the military.  Esper said that the “sooner you mass…the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to normal.”  Trump described the arrival of the National Guard in Minneapolis as “domination” and a “beautiful thing to watch.”  Esper, Attorney General William Barr, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are Trump loyalists who can be counted on to support the worst of Trump’s statements and actions.

–After spending several hours in a White House bunker on Friday night, Trump decided to deploy a “palace guard” for his own protection, so that he could walk across the street for a photo opportunity.  This force included active-duty military police; National Guard troops from several states; the U.S. Park Police; the Drug Enforcement Agency; and a variety of law enforcement agencies.  Even the FBI’s elite Hostage Rescue Team was brought into Washington to “assist” local police.  His need for “protection” resulted in peaceful protesters—including church clergy—being attacked by this overwhelming force.

–Trump announced that he had placed the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley “in charge” of managing the unrest.  The Pentagon had no comment on this statement, and referred all questions for       comment to the White House. Pentagon lawyers presumably recognize that Trump’s actions could ultimately violate the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act that prevents use of the military in domestic law enforcement unless there is an act of Congress.

–He said that he would “activate” Attorney General Bill Barr “very strongly,” which was his most indecipherable statement.  No one in the White House or the Department of Justice could explain this assignment for Barr. Over the past year, however, Barr has been weakening efforts of the Department of Justice to scrutinize shortcomings in police departments, such as the notorious one in Baltimore.

Trump told the governors they should make no concessions to the protesters and encouraged them to throw caution to the winds.  “You’re allowed to fight back,” he said.  “When someone is throwing a rock, that’s like shooting a gun.  You have to do retribution in my opinion.”  Several days earlier, he repeated the warning of a white segregationist police chief, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”  In the Rose Garden of the White House on Monday, June 1, Trump gratuitously invoked the importance of the Second Amendment.  All of Trump’s comments were framed for his base, particularly the white supremacists who favor use of force.  His blasphemous pose, holding a bible in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church, had fascist imagery.

Trump’s failure to develop a coherent national strategy to deal with a real “war,” the pandemic, ensures that he will not be able to develop a compassionate strategy for dealing with a crisis in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.  The fundamental problem is that Trump is Trump; he is not capable of dealing with a crisis.  For Trump, every crisis is a personal crisis, and his malignant narcissism and paranoia creates incoherence and confusion.  The very nature of our republic is at risk as a result.

As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, an anxious citizen asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”  With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”  We will find out in November whether Donald Trump is a comet across the sky or someone who changed this nation forever.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for