When the United States is involved in armed hostilities, the power of the president increases. From Abraham Lincoln suspending the writ of habeas corpus to Franklin D. Roosevelt signing executive order 9066 to Harry S. Truman trying to control the U.S. steel industry, the clouds of war have granted presidents amplified powers and strengths. Operating as commander-in-chief, the president has considerable discretion in how to guarantee a successful resolution to the conflict and protect the nation. It also doesn’t hurt that a “rally-round-the-flag effect” boosts the popularity of presidents at the outset of armed conflict, giving them even great powers at the bully pulpit.
Basically, it’s not a trivial matter when an incumbent president talks about things in terms of warfare or “military operations.” When a situation is militarized, it is likely to fall under the direct control of the president in his role as commander-in-chief. This is why Donald Trump’s characterization of increased border security and immigration deportation as a “military operation” should not be brushed off as a mere slip of the tongue. It’s a big deal.
Trump’s recent use of the term “military operation,” brushed off by the White House as merely an adjective referring to disciplined professionalism, comes on the heels of rumors that the president was considering the use of the National Guard to conduct deportations. Although White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has insisted that the rumors of National Guard mobilization were “100 percent false,” it is worrisome that militarization of the border and immigration security has gone viral twice in less than one month.
Coupled with the controversial proposal of a border wall, militarizing customs and immigration enforcement will further enrage liberals and erode diplomatic relations with Mexico (and most of Latin America). But conservatives may take a strong stance in defense of Trump’s ambitions, conscious or subconscious, to militarize the border. The ongoing Drug War in Mexico has caused spillover violence in the United States. Conservatives have highlighted violence by drug cartels, human traffickers, and illegal immigrants as a rationale for increasing strict immigration enforcement and border security.
Statistics of border violence make it hard for liberals to argue that a strong federal presence along the U.S.-Mexico border is not needed. Indeed, there have long been concerns of drug violence flooding northward as Mexico’s government struggles. In recent years, analysts have suggested that Mexico might actually become a failed state, descending into relative lawlessness. The violence of the Drug War is undisputed, but liberals and conservatives in the U.S. prefer vastly different approaches to solving it.
Liberals want to decriminalize drug possession and treat drug addiction as a disease rather than a crime, preferring a medical approach rather than a military one. They argue that America’s demand for drugs creates the supply of such drugs from Latin America. Making the drugs illegal allegedly generates the violence. If you let drugs come out of the shadows, liberals insist, you will get rid of most of the violence.
Conservatives want to stop drugs at the source, effectively halting the supply from reaching the demand. They argue that legalizing drugs will only increase Americans’ use of them, generating more economic and social woes. By engaging in strict enforcement of drug laws, conservatives believe, they are preventing the violence caused by social decay.
Regardless of your take on the issue, the debate over whether or not immigration and customs enforcement should be militarized is clear-cut: Militarization is the wrong option. Allowing the military to help with a duty that has originated with a civilian agency creates two problems. First, militarization increases presidential power unilaterally. Is the violence spawned by the Drug War and illegal immigrants such that it justifies the president using his power as commander-in-chief? No. Donald Trump has already indicated that he is ready to slide down the slippery slope to authoritarianism by threatening to “send in the Feds!” to quell street violence in Chicago.
The president did not elaborate on what he meant by “Feds,” which is alarming given his vague use of “military operation” regarding border and immigration enforcement. Trump’s imprecise language is troubling given that he has been criticized by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served under both a Republican and Democratic president, as woefully uninformed and immature. It does make you wonder if Trump truly views the world like a 1980s action movie a la Red Dawn.
Allowing Trump to “defend” America by behaving like a made-for-cable-TV president and constantly helicoptering in soldiers to hot spots, especially for things like gang violence or illegal immigration, is a gross misuse of his commander-in-chief powers and is an enormous step down the path to fascism.
A second problem generated by Trump militarizing the duties of civilian agencies is that it permanently weakens those agencies. Quickly, federal civilian employees will come to be seen as replaceable by soldiers. Instead of working side by side with military personnel, federal agents and employees will come to be supplanted by them. Over the course of four (or eight) years, federal agencies will see their roles erode to militarization.
And as the military takes over more and more tasks formerly performed by civilian agencies, the president’s power as commander-in-chief, more absolute than his power as chief executive, will be enhanced even further. When the military is doing 75 percent of federal law enforcement and constantly patrolling both borders, will we still call Donald Trump “president”…or something else?