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.
According to a great deal of prevailing wisdom, this was not supposed to happen. Politicians and intellectuals often hold up America’s armed leadership of the world as one of the last remaining sources of unity at home. Inverting John Quincy Adams, they assume that global dominance is part of the solution to political division, not one of its sources.
They think so for a reason. American society reaped certain gains from the international struggles of the twentieth century. Fascists in the Second World War and communists in the Cold War offered the global masses an alluring model of modernity. Competing with them spurred the United States to make sure it delivered material abundance to its own people. From the nineteen-forties to the sixties, the United States enjoyed not only stellar rates of economic growth but also greater equality in incomes than before or since. The Cold War played a role in this success. Capital put a ceiling on its share of the gains; labor remained resolutely anti-communist in return. Then, as colonized peoples broke free of their imperial masters, U.S. leaders grew embarrassed by racist violence and segregation at home, spotlighted by Soviet propaganda. As the historian Mary Dudziak has shown, some came to favor civil-rights legislation partly in order to win hearts and minds around the globe.
Even then, however, military mobilization came at a steep price. Throughout the Second World War, the government baselessly interned around a hundred and twenty thousand persons of Japanese ancestry. The Cold War unleashed Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on alleged subversives and left a legacy of demagoguery and paranoia. And, although the Cold War spurred civil-rights reforms, it also contained them. The result, as Dudziak argues, was a series of formal, legal improvements that could be touted abroad even as social and economic inequalities persisted at home. Perhaps the United States would have achieved more progress, and faster, had it never mobilized against outside foes.
However one assesses the record, the domestic effect of foreign antagonism has never been straightforward. It depends on the forces ascendant within the United States. It also hinges on how America defines its adversary and how the two define what they are competing to achieve. In fighting the other, we remake ourselves. So far, the twenty-first century looks much less auspicious than its predecessor.
Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States was fracturing. Bitter partisanship, culture wars, and economic stagnation led the writer David Brooks to travel to some red states. “Are Americans any longer a common people?” he asked. After 9/11, he answered yes, in large part because he believed the attacks were having the effect of healing the nation’s wounds. Their aftermath, Brooks concluded, “has been a bit like a national Sabbath, taking us out of our usual pleasures and distractions and reminding us what is really important.”
The President agreed. On September 15, 2001, George W. Bush declared, “A terrorist attack designed to tear us apart has instead bound us together as a nation.” America’s indulgent interlude after the Cold War had ended; in taking up arms, the nation would find its purpose and keep the carnage away. Bush maintained this view to the end of his tenure, telling the American Legion, in 2007, “Our strategy is this: we will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America.” Becoming the dictatress of the world would renew America’s spirit.
Bush’s argument depended on the very thing that made it fail—his refusal to limit the enemy to the Al Qaeda organization that perpetrated the attacks. Wishing to cast the United States as the liberator of mankind, Bush defined the enemy variously as terror, tyranny, and evil. The result was to render the United States under permanent assault and require it to wage permanent war. Nor did President Barack Obama solve the problem by substituting Bush’s grandiose nouns for the lower-key “violent extremism.” That, too, was an ineradicable feature of the world, and Obama’s Administration acted accordingly. Even after killing Osama bin Laden, the United States under Obama expanded its officially acknowledged warfighting to seven countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. (The war on terror’s actual scope is wider; researchers at Brown University counted fourteen countries in which U.S. troops saw combat to fight terrorism in 2017 and 2018.)
Many Americans looked at the actions of their government and wondered who the enemy really was. Bush and Obama maintained that America was not fighting Islam, only select malefactors who hijacked the true faith. Yet why was the United States invading, occupying, or bombing much of the Muslim world? And if the enemy lay across the greater Middle East, then who were “we”? In the twentieth century, American leaders advanced a plausible claim that they were acting to prevent the Axis powers and then Soviet-backed Communism from achieving world domination. But Al Qaeda and other terrorist adversaries were different; they threatened lives but were too weak to hold territory beyond their own region. This time, if any power was seeking to dominate the world by force, the most obvious candidate was the United States, the sole superpower, which opted to extend its globe-spanning armaments after the Soviet Union collapsed. Its leaders said almost as much. “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright declared, in 1998. “We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.”
Albright summed up the bipartisan consensus: the United States had the right and responsibility to determine the fate of the world. The world, in turn, consisted of either threats or wards. They waited upon America to defeat them or lead them.
Actual people turned out to have other ideas. The United States faced a crossroads from 2005 onward, once Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, and others refused to follow America’s script and instead resisted violently. Leaders and intellectuals in the United States had to explain what had gone awry. They might have decided that the United States had acted aggressively—that it was wrong to invade and occupy countries, that those on the receiving end understandably struck back. But they did not. President Obama called the invasion of Iraq a “dumb war” but not an illegal war of aggression, as the United States would have judged it had any other power launched it. Part of the country was left to conclude that the United States was not too domineering but, rather, too meek, too willing to trust that Muslims in particular and foreigners in general would gladly receive the gift of freedom that America bestowed. To win the war, to restore its rightful place of mastery, America would have to get tough.
This kind of war could not be confined outside the United States proper. The same categories of people whom the United States continually killed—whether construed as Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, brown, or colored—were also inside America, as citizens and immigrants. The foreign enemy could easily morph into the enemy within.
Endless war began to come home on America’s southern border. In “The End of the Myth,” the historian Greg Grandin describes two surges of anti-immigrant vigilantism. The first came with the launch of the Minuteman Project, in 2005, the year a majority of Americans turned against the Iraq War. Founded by Jim Gilchrist, a Vietnam veteran, the Minuteman network claimed to seek an end to illegal immigration coming from Mexico. Volunteers in Long Island, Kansas City, and San Clemente patrolled their communities to catch undocumented immigrants and either turn them over to law enforcement or harass them directly. The vigilantes located the border, as one leader put it, “all over America.”
A second infusion occurred during Obama’s second term, as young service members returned from battle and Central American migration swelled. For some, the country’s foreign threats melded together; the head of the group Arizona Border Recon claimed to spot “Somalis and Middle Eastern guys with beards and everything else” among the border crossers. Trump rode nativist militancy to the White House. Throughout his 2016 campaign, he jumbled “radical Islamic terrorism” and Central American migrants into a single spectre of nonwhite threat. Two years later, as President, he warned that a caravan of migrants arriving from Central America constituted an “invasion of our country.” Trump declared a national emergency and ordered the U.S. military to the border. “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” Trump tweeted.
From the beginning of his right-wing ascent, Trump also connected African-Americans to the foreign threat. By promulgating the lie that Obama was foreign-born, Trump implied that America’s first Black President was subverting the nation. As soon as this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests began, the President and his allies treated any violence not merely as lawbreaking but as an attack on the country as grave as an outside invasion. Four days after police killed George Floyd, Trump warned that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a word-for-word echo of segregationists. Then he had peaceful protesters tear-gassed in Washington’s Lafayette Square so that he could cross the street, flanked by Defense Secretary Mark Esper and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be photographed holding a Bible outside St. John’s Episcopal Church. The military, dispatched to the southern border two years before, took up positions in the nation’s capital.
In case the theatrics did not speak for themselves, the Administration did plenty of talking. “Most of you are weak,” Trump told state leaders, egging them on to deploy the National Guard. Esper urged them to “dominate the battlespace,” by which he meant U.S. cities. The vocabulary of the war on terror exploded into domestic life. Trump referred to Portland’s racial-justice protesters as a “beehive of terrorists” as he threatened to send in the National Guard to smoke them out. The protesters “hate our country,” Trump said. He called the whole situation “worse than Afghanistan.” It’s a phrase he often applies to cities with large Black populations, including Chicago, which also received what the President characterized as a “surge” of federal security forces.
Having come to power exploiting the fears spawned by perpetual war abroad, Trump is defining the enemy of his war at home just as expansively. “To stop the political violence,” he said in Kenosha, “we must also confront the radical ideology that includes this violence.” For Trump, this allegedly radical ideology pushes “the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist.” The implication is that anyone who objects to police brutality or racism is abetting insurrectionist violence. Either you are with Trump, in other words, or you are with the terrorists.
If he loses the election in November, will he step aside in deference to those he claims would destroy the country? Will his supporters? This summer the United States entered into a condition of “incipient insurgency,” in the estimation of David Kilcullen, a former adviser to the Army. The vast majority of protests associated with Black Lives Matter have been completely peaceful, but twenty violent groups, both left and right, have entered the fray, in addition to individual attackers and routine shootings by police. In the name of law and order, the President has stoked one side of the violence, encouraging toughness by police and militias and waving away the lethal conduct of Trump supporters like Kyle Rittenhouse.
The Republican National Convention made clear that Trump is no longer running against the establishment. This time around, he is running a militant campaign against the half of the country that rejects his rule and is certain to vote against him in November. “If the Democrat Party wants to stand with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters, and flag burners, that is up to them,” Trump declared in his seventy-minute address. He has since suggested that protesters are well funded, organized, and part of a coup to take him down. The Department of Homeland Security indicates otherwise; it reportedly projects that white supremacists, not left-wing radicals, will remain the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the United States in the next year. At what point might America’s cold civil war become hot? Has it already?