The Posse Comitatus law makes it illegal for U.S. troops to operate within U.S. borders
It was a grim period in U.S. history. In the wake of the Civil War, America engaged in a process of restructuring southern society to correct many of the wrongs associated with slavery. Called Reconstruction, it was generally reviled by southerners who resented the elevation of African-Americans and northerners — referred to as “carpet-baggers” because of how they carried their possessions — into positions of power.
In effect, the period constituted an occupation of the rebellious states by the north. Union armies were stationed throughout the region, enforcing laws aimed at undoing the legacy of slavery. The coercive nature of the Union military presence resulted in growing resentment among the occupied, resulting in the formation of the KKK and other seditious groups. The surge of lynchings were an effort by the once-ascendant white southerners to keep the former slaves “in their place” despite the protection they received from the military.
Like any military occupation, however, Reconstruction was expensive — think Afghanistan or Iraq. Eventually, as always happens, the American people tired of having to foot the bill of this endeavor, and they elected leaders who vowed to end it. The presidential election of 1876 was one of the most contentious in history. The Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes was a staunch abolitionist who was seriously wounded fighting for the Union in the Civil War. He actually lost the popular vote to the Democrat, but was awarded the Presidency by the electoral college. Sound familiar?
The Democrats were so outraged by this result that they threatened another Constitutional crisis, something America had no stomach for after the Civil War. To resolve the issue, the Republicans agreed to end Reconstruction — the one demand the Democrats cared about above all others — in return for Democratic acquiescence. Remember that back then, the Democratic party was a party of southern apologists.
To ensure that the unionists couldn’t back out of this deal and reimpose their occupation, the anti-Reconstruction Congress passed and forced upon the weakened President Hayes a bill called the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878. Named for the power county sheriffs have to temporarily deputize regular citizens, the law clearly states that the U.S. Army shall not be used to enforce laws within the United States. Since then, the law has been updated to also cover the Air Force, and although it does not explicitly cover the Navy, it has been generally interpreted to also cover the Marines.
Thus, this law explicitly bars U.S. soldiers from acting as domestic law enforcement personnel — in other words, exactly what Trump wants them to do on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although it was originally passed in a questionable manner, the Act has some merit. One way that democracies fail and turn to autocracy is for the nation’s military operating within its own borders to seize control in a coup. The fact that our military is barred from such operations is actually an institutional protection for our democracy. Then again, maybe that’s part of the reason Trump wants them to operate within America. That may be giving him too much credit, though. If the American military were to take over the government in a coup, I don’t think Trump would be their pick for a leader.
Fortunately, I don’t think there’s much to worry about in this department. Although soldiers tend to have relatively conservative views, they also take their oath to the Constitution seriously. They understand their role is to serve the civilian government, not to replace it. Indeed, I so strongly believe that our military would not support something that undermines our democracy, I think they are one of its bulwarks.
This view is buoyed by a recent opinion poll among service members that found support for Trump at only 43.8%, with 43.1% disapproving of him. What’s more is that their opinion of him has only been getting worse with time. Thus, his approval rate among active duty military is similar to that among the general public. His disapproval rating is lower, but I would argue that this difference could be attributable to the general respect for civilian authority that is central to the military.
It is ironic indeed that as liberals we find ourselves cheering institutions that at one time we feared, like the FBI. We should similarly appreciate the loyalty and commitment of our military who are well aware that Trump is using them illegally for his political purposes, and they don’t like it.
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