Resolute Square

Trump Threatens Civil War

Amee Vanderpool warns: Former President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to use the Insurrection Act, a law that gives the president wide-ranging powers to use the military as domestic law enforcement, on his first day of office in 2024 to quash any public protests against him.
Published:November 30, 2023

Published with the generous permission of Amee Vanderpool. For more of Amee's work, visit her Shero newsletter.

By Amee Vanderpool

Donald Trump claimed that he was prevented from using the military to quell violence in primarily Democratic cities and states during his presidency while speaking at a campaign rally in Iowa earlier this year. The front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination called New York City and Chicago “crime dens,” and he told his audience, “The next time, I’m not waiting.” 

Trump elaborated on his intention to use the Insurrection Act against anyone who might oppose him saying, “We don’t have to wait any longer — the next time, I’m not waiting.” The Insurrection Act is a law that gives the president nearly unchecked powers to use the military as a domestic police force, and Donald Trump has now repeatedly promised to use it on his first day in office so that he could quash any public protests against him. 

The Insurrection Act allows sitting presidents to call on their reserve or active-duty military units to respond to unrest in the states, and this executive authority is not one that is reviewable by the courts. One of its few guardrails merely requires the president to request that the participants disperse.

The original text of the act, which has been amended several times since it was first passed, reads as follows:

An Act authorizing the employment of the land and naval forces of the United States, in cases of insurrections
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in all cases of insurrection, or obstruction to the laws, either of the United States, or of any individual state or territory, where it is lawful for the President of the United States to call forth the militia for the purpose of suppressing such insurrection, or of causing the laws to be duly executed, it shall be lawful for him to employ, for the same purposes, such part of the land or naval force of the United States, as shall be judged necessary, having first observed all the pre-requisites of the law in that respect. APPROVED, March 3, 1807.

Security forces block the road from protesters on June 2, 2020 in Washington DC. (Photo by Yasin Ozturk/via Getty Images)

The act was last invoked in 1992 to quell the Los Angeles riots after the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Rodney King, a black man, and before that in 1989 during widespread looting in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, after Hurricane Hugo. In 2006, the act was amended to expand the instances in which the president may invoke the law in response to criticism of the federal government's actions during Hurricane Katrina.

The 2006 amendment to the act now authorizes "the President to employ the armed forces during a natural disaster or terrorist attack." There is very little stopping a sitting president from invoking the Insurrection Act; only that they"must first issue a proclamation ordering the insurgents to disperse within a limited time.” (10 USC § 334.4). If the situation in question does not resolve itself, the president may issue an executive order to send in troops.” 

Police officers wearing riot gear push back demonstrators shooting tear gas next to St. John's Episcopal Church outside of the White House, June 1, 2020, in Washington DC, to clear the area for a photo op for Trump. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana/via Getty Images)

Experts also claim that there is no need for a state to actually request the presence of federal military forces within their state in order to invoke the act. “The principal constraint on the president’s use of the Insurrection Act is basically political, that presidents don’t want to be the guy who sent tanks rolling down Main Street,” said Joseph Nunn, a national security expert with the Brennan Center for Justice. “There’s not much really in the law to stay the president’s hand.”
Nunn, who has suggested steps to restrict the invocation of the law, said military personnel cannot be ordered to break the law. “Members of the military are legally obliged to disobey an unlawful order. At the same time, that is a lot to ask of the military because they are also obliged to obey orders,” Nunn said. “And the punishment for disobeying an order that turns out to be lawful is your career is over, and you may well be going to jail for a very long time. The stakes for them are extraordinarily high.”

Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official who wrote an anonymous op-ed describing a "resistance" in the Trump administration, has claimed that Former President Trump was likely seeking to provoke an insurrection on January 6, 2021, so he could invoke the Insurrection Act and impose martial law to strengthen his grip on power. 

In the tweet above, Taylor explained what he believes to have been the president's ultimate plan on January 6, when a mob of Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol and delayed Joe Biden's certification as president. The House Committee investigating the January 6th riot also held public hearings in June of 2022, where they presented irrefutable evidence of a conspiracy by Donald Trump and various supporters to overturn the 2020 election. Prominent allies of Trump, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), called for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and declare martial law ahead of January 6. 

Stuart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers group, seen in the video below, spoke at a pro-Trump rally on December 12, 2020, where he demanded that then-President Trump invoke the Insurrection Act to overturn the election results, otherwise Trump supporters would have to take to the streets for a “much more bloody war.” Rhodes was sentenced last November to 18 years in prison for his role in a seditious conspiracy to disrupt the electoral count, the stiffest punishment to date stemming from the violent assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Trump has not spelled out precisely how he might use the military during a second term, although he and his advisors have correctly suggested they would have wide latitude to call up military units to exert control. While deploying the military regularly within the country’s borders would be a departure from tradition, the former president already has signaled an aggressive agenda if he wins — from mass deportations to travel bans imposed on certain Muslim-majority countries.

Trump is also currently engaged in several criminal lawsuits, with verdicts that may not be determined until after the 2024 election. The image of him deploying the military in order to retain power in the face of any legal reckoning during a second term is not hard to imagine — we saw it on June 1, 2020, when Trump used tear gas on peaceful protestors outside of the White House. 

Trump has explained several times over the last few years what he intends to do if he is able to take office again. He will use the nation’s own military against them to exert every ounce of power he has left. The idea that he might attempt never to leave office is also not out of the question. If Donald Trump is re-elected, he will do what he has promised and declare an all-out Civil War against half of the country and any activists and journalists that he might see as opposition.