Donald Trump’s Failed Counterinsurgency Against America

The recent protests have fully exposed the president as a vicious and incompetent authoritarian.

Over the weekend, CBS News broke the story that during the height of the mass protests across the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd, President Trump had yet another meltdown. In a heated exchange with Attorney General William Barr, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, he demanded 10,000 active-duty troops be deployed across the country to suppress protest activity. According to CBS, these officials rejected Trump’s demand, but tried to placate him by urging state Governors to request a military presence on the now infamous “dominate the streets” call with the President.

Now, before delving further, it’s worth pointing out that a cabinet official’s only proper response to a president demanding 10,000 active-duty servicemembers to crush protected speech should be to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove the President from office.  But that would be expecting too much from Esper and Barr. In this instance, they chose to refuse the order but placate their unstable, intemperate and incompetent Commander-in-Chief. It was Esper, after all, who referred to “dominating the battlespace” when referencing crowd control measures at protests, and Barr who is still defending the assault on peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square to clear a path to deliver Trump a photo op at a church.

It’s clear that President Trump views himself as a wartime president waging a counterinsurgency against his own citizens. He does not view protesters as Americans who are exercising their constitutional right to free speech and to petition their government for redress of grievances. Instead, he views protesters as violent insurgents little different from the opponents of America’s occupation forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

For those in the profession of arms, this is a repulsive and dangerous attitude. Professional military education in the United States emphasizes not just the military’s constitutional acquiescence to civilian authority, but also the extremely limited and very unwanted circumstances in which the military can be ethically and legally deployed against, rather than on behalf of, its fellow Americans on United States soil. It is no surprise that Trump’s attitude has drawn condemnation from some of the country’s most respected military leaders, including Retired Generals James Mattis and Martin Dempsey.

But Trump’s desired counterinsurgency response isn’t just vicious, immoral and unconstitutional. It’s also completely incompetent and counterproductive. David Galula was a French military officer who participated in the brutal French colonial counterinsurgency campaigns in Algeria and Southeast Asia, and drew on these experiences to argue against the use of excessive force in counterinsurgency campaigns. He is widely credited with being one of the most influential figures in modern counterinsurgency theory, and his works form part of the core curriculum on counterinsurgency theory for American professional military education. In Counterinsurgency Warfare, Galula argued that insurgencies depend on just causes, and therefore,“depriving an insurgent of a good cause amounts to solving the country’s basic problems.”

Consequently, the barbaric use of massive force by the French in Algeria was countereffective, because use of force has to be applied extremely judiciously. Successful countcounterinsurgent force does not want to be seen as a country’s basic problem. As Galula wrote, “every military move has to be weighed with regard to its political effects.”

Mattis himself was heavily influenced by Galula, and applied these lessons to counterinsurgency in Iraq by trying to make his Marines as non-threatening as possible given the situation:

“Yes, when soldiers walk into a city, and they’re foreign soldiers, the first thing people are going to look at is all that gear and the weapons hanging off them. Generally the second place people look is into people’s eyes, to see if they can trust them. So Marines removed their sunglasses and we tried to build the trust one act at a time. They learned quickly to trust us; they would even protest against us at times. On the suggestion of my Catholic chaplain, the marines would take chilled drinking water in bottles and walk out amongst the protestors and hand it out. It is just hard to throw a rock at somebody who has given you a cold drink of water and it’s 120 degrees outside.”

Of course, when you have conquered a country by force on false pretenses and are killing its civilians on a near-daily basis, you will become a cause for protest and insurgency regardless of whether you’re handing out water bottles or not. Still, compare Mattis’ approach to the Trump Administration’s approach to the protests in the District of Columbia. Instead of trying to sympathize with the protesters, Attorney General Barr has deployed nameless, faceless, non-uniformed personnel in order to provide an unaccountable show of force, and in so doing has made himself and his forces a cause for further protest.

At a time when many citizens of America’s largest cities already see the police as a hostile and even illegitimate occupying force for myriad reasons, Trump’s instinct to double down on and reinforce that perception is not only evil but blindingly stupid. 

To re-emphasize, it is extremely dangerous and disqualifying for a president to view himself as leading a counterinsurgency against his own people. But the Trump Administration has a unique ability to match its malevolence with an equal amount of incompetence. To echo Galula, police violence is one of this country’s basic problems. But instead of doing his part to address the unmet needs of the protesters, Trump has escalated the situation and made himself and his administration a further reason for massive protests in the nation’s capital, across the country, and around the world.

Short of actually accomplishing the massive bloodshed on the streets that Trump seemed so eager for, it is hard to imagine how he could have handled this situation any worse. The recent protest movement has fully exposed Trump as a vicious and incompetent authoritarian who is overmatched by this moment in every single way and makes a daily case for his own immediate removal from office.

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Dante Atkins

Dante Atkins is a former Hill staffer and current progressive communications consultant. Originally from Los Angeles, he resides in Washington, DC.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.