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Keep the Troops at the Protests

Karl W. Smith

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s self-described “law-and-order” strategy to quell protests, as well as the disastrous decision Monday evening to clear out a peaceful demonstration across from the White House so the president could stage a photo op, have raised questions around the world about his judgment and policy. The actual policing strategy used on Tuesday night in Washington, however, was so successful it could serve as a model for suppressing violence while encouraging free expression.

In a phone conference with governors on Monday, Trump lectured them on the need to “dominate” and threatened to deploy the U.S. military to keep order. Predictably, the advice was taken as an endorsement of an authoritarian crackdown, a perception further amplified by the tragic assault on protesters and members of the media during Trump’s speech later that evening.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday that he did not support using active-duty troops to enforce the law in the states. Still, there is a strong case for augmenting local police with the National Guard.

This is what happened Tuesday evening in Washington, where I live. I saw the Humvees roll by my window. It’s an open question whether the strategy — codenamed Operation Themis — is sustainable, but there are reasons to be optimistic.

First, the sheer size of the force, augmented by those Humvees, is intimidating to would-be looters but may be comforting to protesters. A recent poll shows that most Americans, even those who don’t support the president, are supportive of military assistance to the police.

Even those who are not supportive of a military role may still want to go out and express their displeasure with the president. In this context, a safe environment is crucial. If more people think the environment is safe, then maybe more will come out to protest. And a large, well-organized protest, along with a military presence, could serve to discourage looters. The mood on the streets would not be chaos and confusion, but order and attention.

The military backup may also reduce fear among police that they could be overrun. They might then be less likely to strike out at legitimate protesters or escalate tensions. None of this is to excuse the brutality that has occurred over the last several days — it is simply an acknowledgement of its dynamics and an attempt to defuse them.

There is another dynamic to consider: The military is not the target of the protesters’ ire. As such, it may be better able to serve as a third-party intermediary. The military presence could also undercut the narrative that the police and the protesters are on opposite sides, and increase the possible emergence of nobler impulses. (Lest you doubt that they exist, there are videos showing both sides disciplining those among their ranks who get out of line.)

On Tuesday night in Washington, all of these factors came together to produce the best of both worlds: a huge peaceful protest with very little violence or destruction. If the pattern holds, governors may want to move past their justifiable horror at what happened in Washington two nights ago and consider what lessons they might learn from what happened here last night.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Karl W. Smith, a former assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina and founder of the blog Modeled Behavior, is vice president for federal policy at the Tax Foundation.

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