While the coronavirus pandemic crystalized Donald Trump’s ignorance and incompetence, we may look back at his response to the current civil unrest as the moment when his longtime flirtation with authoritarianism hardened into something more sinister. On Monday morning, in a call with governors, Trump, who one participant later described as sounding “unhinged,” called protesters “terrorists,” suggested they should be locked up for at least a decade to silence them, encouraged the use of force against American citizens, and promised to unleash the military if local law enforcement wasn’t up to the job. Later, in short remarks delivered from the Rose Garden, he doubled down. After briefly name-checking peaceful protesters, Trump alleged, falsely, that the nation was in the grip of organizers of terror – professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, Antifa, and others – who deserved lengthy prison sentences. He promised to dispatch the U.S. military if governors did not deploy the National Guard in their states. In Washington, D.C., where Trump does not have to wait for a governor to act, he deployed thousands of heavily armed military personnel. To cap off his militarized reaction to both peaceful protests and acts of civil disobedience, Trump said he put Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley “in charge” of the administration’s response.
These may be the actions of a man fearful of looking weak to the world, but they are also redolent of how authoritarian regimes in countries the world over have responded to protest movements. America is exceptional in many ways, but the truth is that we have more in common with some of these countries than we’d like to admit. Like many of them, our country is riven – not by sect or tribe – but by race and, increasingly, political affiliation. Like many of them, our government has failed to forge an inclusive compact with its entire citizenry, in this case leaving black Americans marginalized and without the same access to justice that the rest of us take for granted. The protests and civil unrest that have rocked over 100 American cities since a white police officer choked the life out of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week are occurring as black Americans continue to die in higher numbers from COVID-19. While the protests have largely been peaceful, a small number of individuals have resorted to violence or looting – whether because they are angry or opportunistic. The same is true of law enforcement – many officers have upheld their oaths to serve and protect, but a troubling number of reports have emerged of police officers assaulting peaceful protesters.
In many countries around the world, it would be distressing, but not surprising to see the government use the specter of terrorism to villainize and encourage the use of force to squash these protest movements. In their experience, we can recognize what Trump and his advisers are doing. Indeed, blaming anarchists, the “Radical Left,” and ANTIFA for organizing the unrest, and playing up violent acts committed by a small minority is right out of the authoritarian playbook.
First, it shifts focus away from the governance failures that led to civil unrest and assigns blame to a boogeyman. This step alone is critical for Trump. He is not to blame for the systemic racism that has existed in America since the country was founded, but addressing it is among the last things he would ever want to do. For starters, he himself is a racist, as writers for The Atlantic have documented in an essay entitled “An Oral History of Trump’s Bigotry.”
Perhaps more importantly, Trump rode to power by instrumentalizing racial anxieties among segments of the white population. Attempting to solve the problems fueling the protest movement would not only be difficult, but also bad for Trump’s base. So would reckoning with the facts that the minority of individuals involved in violence appear to come from the far-right as well as the far-left, and that many of those instigating violence appear to be affiliated with white supremacist and other anti-government movements.
Pinning blame exclusively on radical leftist elements for organizing violence and hijacking the protests provides a simpler solution, and one that aligns with the conspiratorial worldview he and many of his most committed supporters have long embraced. Homing in on the minority of individuals who have engaged in looting, vandalism, or random acts of violence similarly tracks with the “carnage” Trump repeatedly pointed to during this 2016 presidential campaign.
Second, it is intended to discredit not only the protest movement itself, but also the political opposition. Trump is trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in the polls, and pursuing various gambits to discredit him. One of these is to paint Biden, specifically, and the Democratic Party, in general, as in thrall to the “Radical Left” and ANTIFA. The Trump campaign’s website accuses Biden’s team of financially supporting some of the groups Trump claims are orchestrating the violence, and criticizes Biden for not taking a stronger stand against “Antifa thugs.” Trump also dings Biden for failing to condemn the violent acts and destruction taking place, despite the fact that the former vice president has done so publicly.
Third, securitizing the crisis creates an excuse for Trump and his close advisors to justify state violence and other tools of repression. The president has been enamored with extrajudicial force for as long as he has been infatuated with authoritarianism. That’s not surprising. The two tend to go hand in hand. Some of this is tough guy posturing by a bully who cowers before powerful men, not to mention intelligent women. And Trump almost certainly believes that a powerful response is necessary to hold onto his base come November. Yet his response is not simply the result of a personal pathology, or amoral political calculation. Trump clearly seeks to arrogate power and unleash the power of the state on his opponents. The protests provided him an opening to do it.
Trump has pledged to designate ANTIFA a domestic terrorist organization. The facts that such a designation is not possible under current U.S. law and that there is insufficient evidence of its involvement in terrorist activity is cold comfort if the threat of designation is sufficient for reinforcing the case for violent repression. Attorney General Bill Barr has indicated he was ready to use Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs), which are regional hubs that bring together FBI agents with state, local and federal law enforcement for counterterrorism purposes—to “identify people in the crowd, pull them out and prosecute them.” JTTFs are not designed for this purpose, and their use in this manner is reminiscent of the ways in which authoritarian regimes often rely on counterterrorism tools to suppress political opposition.
All National Guard members deployed outside of Washington, DC, are under the authorities of state governors. Under certain conditions, Trump could federalize these troops, or deploy active-duty forces. Barr already ordered the violent removal of protesters at St. John’s Episcopal Church a few blocks from the White House in order to enable a photo op for the president. Whether the president might ask military and paramilitary troops to shoot U.S. civilians, and whether these forces might obey, is now something that needs to be considered.
Although Trump has not yet given the military an illegal order to fire upon innocent civilians, it is impossible to listen to his rhetoric urging violence and not worry it might occur. For evidence, look no further than the ways in which law enforcement have treated members of the media covering the protest. Bellingcat — an independent international collective of researchers, investigators, and citizen journalists — collected nearly 100 examples of police targeting journalists with violence over the last few days. This assault on the free press is hardly a surprise after three years of rhetorical attack by the president. If this is how law enforcement is treating journalists who can report on the abuse they suffer, ordinary citizens are at higher risk of abuse.
Trump is not inciting alone this violence alone, either. Not long after he tweeted his baseless plans for terrorist designation, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz took to Twitter with a threat of his own, writing, “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?” Democratic Senator Chris Murphy subsequently called on Twitter to take down Gaetz’s tweet, pointing out that survivors of mass shootings were “lighting up my phone” that it would inspire someone to start shooting into a crowd. Twitter subsequently attached a warning to Gaetz’s tweet, just as the company did with a recent tweet of Trump’s. Another one of the president’s acolytes – Republican Senator Tom Cotton – seemed to encourage the military to engage in extrajudicial executions when he urged that rioters and looters be given “no quarter.” The legal application of the term refers to military forces declining to take prisoners, and killing them instead. It is prohibited in U.S. and international law, something that Cotton as a veteran and Harvard-educated lawyer, would surely know.
America is not in danger of becoming ruled by an authoritarian regime over night, but the slope we are on has gotten a lot more slippery. The conditions that sparked protests – a lack of racial justice and an increasingly militarized environment in the country – persist, and the president has done nothing to ameliorate them. Instead, he has spent his time in office weakening civilian institutions, shredding norms, narrowing the definition of who is an American, encouraging violence or other forms of retribution against Americans who don’t support him, and enabling officials similarly enthralled with authoritarian rule, while members of his party cling to power at the expense of their integrity.
We are now seeing how Trump and those around him who share is authoritarian impulses respond to civil unrest that resulted from genuine grievances. Consider how they will handle the protests that almost certainly will erupt if Trump tries to postpone the election, suppress the vote in Democratic areas, refuses to accept its result if he loses, or are likely to occur if he wins? Even if Biden wins the election, Trump will remain president until January 20, 2021, and therefore capable of inflicting more damage. His actions over the past few days have already caused immense pain to everyday Americans and the American way of life. They set a dangerous precedent. We are on a perilous path.