Every generation delivers its own update to the worry, as old as democracy, that military crusades abroad will come back to damage freedom at home. The Founders of the United States, haunted by ancient Rome’s descent from republic to empire, resisted establishing a standing army. At the end of the First World War, the American Civil Liberties Union formed in opposition to mass arrests and deportations carried out by the Department of Justice. In our own time, it seemed apparent, until recently, that the main blowback of the war on terror would be the surveillance state inaugurated by the Patriot Act of 2001. Yet, while troubling, mass surveillance did not prompt most Americans to think that their country had become fundamentally unfree. The link between foreign intervention and domestic repression retained an almost metaphorical quality, as when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned, in 1821, that if it became “the dictatress of the world,” America “would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
What is under way now, during the Presidency of Donald Trump, is something different. War—its implements, its enmities—pervades civic life. In June, the National Guard deployed to the streets of Washington, D.C., in the face of largely peaceful protests against police brutality and systemic racism, and active-duty troops were stationed outside the city. “You have to dominate,” Trump told the nation’s governors. In July, his Administration sent to Portland, Oregon, paramilitary-style agents who forced people into unmarked cars, predictably causing resistance to swell. The President kicked off September by visiting the scene of police and paramilitary shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin. After making excuses for Kyle Rittenhouse, his seventeen-year-old supporter charged with using a military-style rifle to commit two homicides, Trump crowed that “all the violence is coming from the left” and is “really domestic terror.” At Tuesday’s debate, asked to condemn white supremacists, Trump appeared to encourage them instead, telling the far-right Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.”
As the war on terror loses its emotive force, American leaders cast fellow-citizens as akin to foreign enemies. Senators call for an “overwhelming show of force” against protesters with the knee-jerk zeal once reserved for distant peoples. Endless war has not merely come home; endless war increasingly is home. American politics has taken on the qualities of American wars.
Read the full article in The New Yorker.