American Authoritarianism Runs Deeper Than Trump

In response to the nationwide protests, Donald Trump seems ready to take the United States to a place many have been fearing since his election. Escaping from it means recognizing that he didn’t get us there alone.

Law enforcement officers stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as demonstrators protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee / Getty

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, puzzled observers have often wondered: How is it that the Democratic Party, which regularly accuses Trump of being a dangerous authoritarian plotting a dictatorial takeover, nevertheless works again and again to extend and enhance his spying powers? The past week of protests and riots sparked by the seemingly never-ending contagion of racist police violence should offer a clue.

The shock and mental injury that understandably came with Trump’s victory led many to look abroad to explain what they still find incomprehensible. It was Russian villainy, went the refrain, responsible not just for the wannabe strongman in the White House, but for all manner of “divisive” disruptions to peace and order in American life, from anti-fracking activism to, yes, protests against police brutality.

Now, the world has been stunned by the inexhaustible flood of videos and images of this brutality that’s streamed into our retinas via social media, laying bare the far more disturbing truth: the authoritarian instinct in the United States is vaster and deeper than just the man in the White House, running top to bottom, liberal to conservative.

So ubiquitous have the scenes of gratuitous police violence been these past few days that it seems almost redundant to list them at all. We’ve seen police around the country shove, kick, and even drive vehicles into unarmed, peaceful, and sometimes elderly protesters. We’ve heard reports of them attacking nurses at medical tents. We’ve watched them needlessly pepper spray individuals and whole crowds, even small children, and tase and drag people from their cars . We’ve seen the gruesome aftermath of their casual use of rubber and wooden bullets on their fellow citizens, including a pregnant woman. And we’ve witnessed them continuing to use the very tactics that sparked all this in the first place, pressing their knees on the necks of those they arrested in the same manner they used to snuff out George Floyd’s life eight days ago. And all this while hiding their badge numbers, lest there be even a shred of a possibility they face some accountability.

Yet stomach-churning as it is, this kind of brutalization of protesters is nothing new. For many, most shocking has been the police’s flagrant and deliberate targeting of journalists. Many were first disturbed by footage of a CNN crew being arrested live on air for no reason, even as they clearly showed officers their press badges, something the Minnesota State Patrol later felt the need to issue an easily disprovable lie about. If police were willing to do something that outrageous on camera, some wondered, what were they willing to do when they thought no one was watching?

The answer came swiftly as a spate of footage and reports documented police teargassing, macing, arresting, assaulting, and almost casually firing rubber bullets and other projectiles at journalists around the country. Bellingcat has documented at least fifty instances of police attacks on the press over the course of the protests, while US Press Freedom Tracker has identified more than one hundred violations, and at least five arrests on May 31 alone, often in instances where police were made fully aware of the reporters’ credentials.

Minnesota police have permanently blinded at least one reporter, Linda Tirado, apparently vindicating fears that their brazen on-air arrest augured much worse to come. Given that she doesn’t work for a corporate news outlet, it’s unlikely she’ll receive the same groveling apology CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker got from Minnesota governor Tim Walz.

Capitalism With Military Characteristics

Meanwhile, it increasingly looks like this wave of civil unrest has become the occasion for the civil liberties nightmare scenario many have rightly been fearing ever since the pandemic took hold.

At the head of this, of course, stands the president of the United States, who has gone out of his way to further inflame the situation. As police and protesters clashed in Minnesota, Trump now infamously quoted a racist police chief’s words that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” before claiming the military was “ready, willing, and able” to deploy against protesters, threatening to unleash their “unlimited power” on American streets. He then goaded the protesters who had gathered outside the White House.

At Trump’s request, military units were placed on high alert, ready to deploy if Walz, who ordered the state’s first-ever full mobilization of the National Guard, requested it. While the governor ultimately didn’t take that step, he boasted that he been coordinating with defense secretary Mark Esper and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, trying to make use of military and NSA intelligence.

“The wars that we fought to protect our nation, the war on terrorism, all of that over the last seventy-two hours, these people have brought more destruction and more terror to Minnesota than anybody in our history,” Walz said. “That’s who we’re up against.”

Other cities experiencing their own unrest took extraordinary steps to limit freedom of movement. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot closed down streets, raised bridges, suspended public transportation, and imposed an indefinite curfew, giving such little notice that protesters ended up trapped. Twenty-five cities in sixteen different states had imposed their own curfews, including several parts of Los Angeles County that banned people from any public spaces starting at 1 pm — a far more restrictive measure than anything contemplated under the pandemic lockdowns. The National Guard has been deployed in a dozen states. There are now more than seventeen thousand National Guard members activated to tackle the protesters, equal to the number of troops who are deployed to do the same thing in the wars that never ended in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Meanwhile, various right-wingers — never ones to let a good opportunity for state violence pass — have followed Trump’s lead and called for protesters to be ruthlessly put down. Esper urged governors to “dominate the battlespace” so as to “get back to the right normal.” Senator Tom Cotton recommended sending “the 101st Airborne” against protesters, later adding several more military units, demanding “no quarter” for those on the streets — meaning that they should be killed, not captured. Needless to say, a sitting senator calling for the murder of his fellow citizens is an ugly omen.

Building off Trump’s vow to declare Antifa — a label bestowed by the Right on a wide variety of groups that aren’t necessarily connected to the small and loosely organized movement — a terrorist organization, several right-wingers called for violent state repression. “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?” asked Florida representative Matt Gaetz. “We did it with Al-Qaeda terrorists, now it’s time to do it with Antifa,” tweeted Noah Pollak, a foreign policy writer, over a photo of Guantanamo Bay.

All of this culminated in Monday night’s extraordinary scenes in the capital. Trump — scared of losing, eager to look “strong,” and upset by media coverage of his hiding in a White House bunker days earlier — threatened to send the military to cities and states to “dominate the streets” and put down what he called “domestic acts of terror.” As he spoke, and before Washington, DC’s curfew had even kicked in, riot-gear-clad authorities on Trump’s order attacked a group of peaceful protesters assembled in Lafayette Square, pelting them with tear gas and other projectiles and assaulting anyone in their way, including clergy and, of course, journalists, clearing the patio of a nearby church that had been used to give protesters supplies like water and hand sanitizer. With the way clear of danger, Trump walked to the church and awkwardly held up a Bible in front of cameras as sirens wailed in the background.

It was hard not to think of last year’s coup in Bolivia, backed by virtually the entire political establishment in the United States. That, too, was preceded by rioting by police and other right-wing forces, with Christian rightists triumphantly brandishing Bibles as they celebrated the country’s overturning of democracy.

Authoritarianism Runs Deep

This terrifying sequence of events has produced two sadly predictable responses: that this rampant brutality and squelching of basic civil liberties is something new and exceptional, and that it’s all because of Trump.

Members of the mainstream press reacted with incredulity at the sight of the CNN crew being arrested for no reason. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” CNN’s John Berman said.

“It is common in autocratic countries for journalists to be swept up in arrests during protests and riots, but rare in the United States, where news gathering is protected by the First Amendment,” wrote the New York Times in response.

In fact, it’s common in the United States, too. Just not necessarily if you work for CNN or the Times.

It was at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, with its police-enforced “free speech zones,” that police attacked and ultimately arrested more than 1,800 journalists, protesters, legal observers, and even onlookers, leading to a record $18 million settlement from the city a decade later. In 2014, dozens of journalists were arrested and charged during protests against racist police murders. Two years later, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman was arrested and charged with rioting for reporting on the pipeline protests at Standing Rock, where protesters were met with the same brutal, indiscriminate violence from authorities we’re now seeing all over the country.

And people already seem to have forgotten the J20 case that kicked off the Trump presidency, in which police rounded up two hundred people protesting on inauguration day in Washington, DC, including numerous journalists, and charged them with felony rioting simply for being in the vicinity of property damage, even if they themselves hadn’t committed any of it. The prosecutor in that case, who had a lengthy history of misconduct, attempted to railroad the defendants and was ultimately sanctioned by the judge for leaving out exculpatory evidence, leading to an ongoing lawsuit against the city and its police force.

Indeed, repression of first amendment rights by authorities — whether police, judges, or any others — is stunningly common at the local level, and just as arbitrary and tyrannical as what we’re seeing now. As I wrote two and a half years ago, while fear of a homegrown American dictatorship often imagines a seizure of power at the top, it’s more likely to come from “the everyday authoritarian attitudes of, say, a neighborhood police officer, a local politician, even members of a suburban school board” and others who “hold private property rights supreme above all others, harbor quiet contempt for any form of public rebellion, and fetishize the importance of law and order.”

This reality has been on full display this past week. Between the government response to these protests and Trump’s reckless assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani at the start of the year, it’s hard not to feel like the longtime warnings of civil libertarians are finally coming true.

Supporting Characters

Then there’s the overemphasis on Trump, typical of the last four years, in which prominent liberals and others have attempted to pin decades of bipartisan outrages on his election to the presidency.

“The world around us, in which the streets of every major American city are filled with protesters, is the result of Trump granting the wishes of the most retrograde police officers,” Jonathan Chait wrote in reaction to the protests.

Or as Andy Lassner, producer of the Ellen DeGeneres Show, put it in a since-deleted viral tweet: “This is the America Putin hoped for when he backed Trump.”

This is all pernicious nonsense. Minneapolis, where this all began, is a liberal city run by a Democratic mayor, Jacob Frey, with a city council where Democrats control twelve of thirteen seats — the other is held by a Green Party member. A solid blue state, Democrats control its state house and the governor, Walz — who boasted of working with the military and the NSA to take on what he claimed was “domestic terrorism” and “international destabilization,” and accused the protests of being simply about “attacking civil society” — is a Democrat. Both he and Frey falsely claimed most of the protesters were from out of state, something they were forced to walk back, but not before commentators like MSNBC’s Joy Reid jumped on it to cast the protests as a sinister tale of “infiltration and deliberate mayhem.”

Chicago, too, is a Democratic stronghold run by a supposedly liberal mayor. So is Washington, DC, the site of Monday night’s Trump-driven police attack on protesters. So are cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon. You’ll find the same thing in many of the protest hot spots. Democratic-controlled and Republican-controlled states and cities alike didn’t need Trump to tell them to “dominate” protesters, because they were already doing it, no matter how much shock and outrage they feign to the press about his comments. Outside of the capital, the violence protesters are facing is overwhelmingly at the hands of state and local governments. Yet looking at the media coverage, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is somehow all Trump.

Politicians, mostly Democratic ones, have become very adept at using the language of social justice, no longer mincing their words when it comes to condemning racism, and drawing from an impressive catalogue of eloquent phrases to show they really feel the struggle of being black in America. Ask them what specifically they’ll do to stop police violence, however, and they’ll give you a parade of pre-memorized lines about systemic racism and its history, but nothing concrete that actually answers the question. Just listen to billionaire Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker respond to a question about what he’ll do to stop police murders in his own state, and see if you can spot an actual answer:

These are legitimate grievances . . . what happened to George Floyd unfortunately isn’t unique. We all know of incidents — and thank God there was a camera there when George Floyd was murdered. This doesn’t happen often enough — Ahmaud Arbery. It doesn’t happen often enough that we get to actually see the racism being carried out and the police exceeding their authority. Look, it shouldn’t be a death sentence in America to be black. Black families today and every day of these protests have been grieving. In fact, black families have been grieving for 400 years in this country because of the institutional racism. So throughout my term, and I’ve been in office for about a year and a half now, I’ve tried to address that with investments in communities that have been left out and left behind, by calling for police accountability and making sure that we’re addressing the underlying issues of racism across our state.

The same goes for Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, who railed against Trump on All in With Chris Hayes last night, before seamlessly pivoting to defending the heinous conduct of her police during these protests. Democratic politicians have been getting away with all manner of travesties for years now by simply pointing at Trump, and they’re not going to stop now. When they feed you lines about nebulous “institutional racism,” ask them, “Which institution?”

The squashing of dissent is a bipartisan tradition. Repression by police and other authorities happened regularly under Barack Obama, who oversaw such violence in numerous cities protesting police violence and Wall Street greed. He closed his presidency with the violent government assault on Standing Rock protesters, one that saw intense local and federal collaboration. As Alex S. Vitale has pointed out at the Guardian, the liberal police reforms Obama championed — from more police diversity and implicit bias training to body cameras and police-community dialogues — mattered little, given that the Minneapolis police department implemented them all, and they still choked out dozens of mostly black people with neck restraints until they got to George Floyd.

Chait blames the past week on Trump, because he rescinded Obama’s restrictions on police requesting military equipment. This is wishful thinking of the most desperate kind. Even Obama’s underlings who helped draw those up insist it was “an incredibly limited list” and that “Obama never banned the acquisition of needed military equipment by state and local law enforcement.” Indeed, at the time, numerous experts openly said the measure would have little to no effect and called it a “publicity stunt,” something confirmed by an In These Times investigation one year later, which found the Pentagon actually transferred $76 million more in equipment to local police departments the year after the measure was announced.

The idea that simply removing Trump and replacing him with a Democrat is going to meaningfully change any of this is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that. Not only does it leave untouched the real, bipartisan origins of American authoritarianism, it allows well-meaning liberals to lull themselves into a false sense of security — particularly perilous when the man set to replace Trump is Joe Biden.

Dress Rehearsal

How has a party that’s insisted for nearly four years that Trump is a dictator nevertheless continually handed him more power to spy? Because as this week’s Democrat-led, highly militarized assault on protesters and journalists shows, the political elite is fundamentally in agreement about what the threat is.

Though many powerful liberals are now comfortably fluent in the language of racial justice, they still prioritize values like unity and order over truth and justice. We’ve seen this firsthand in the liberal panic over the Kremlin’s overblown role in “sowing discord” within the United States in years past, supposedly inflaming racial tensions by amplifying news about police murders and other forms of racism on social media — as if the ubiquitous media coverage they received needed any amplifying.

The implications of this line of thinking were both offensive and alarming: that African Americans needed a foreign power to spur them into outrage over racial injustice, and that the “discord” that erupted from this outrage — in the form of protests and other mass action — was dangerous and undesirable. This mindset never went away, as we saw this week with how quickly commentators accepted the idea that “outside actors” were to blame for nationwide protests, or the assertions by both conservatives like Marco Rubio and former Obama officials like Susan Rice that it was really “the Russians” behind it all. This conspiratorial, fearful mentality was finally made manifest in the violent repression we’ve witnessed for the past week.

We are in an uneasy place in history right now. Whether it’s climate change, wealth inequality, or demilitarizing the police, the United States faces too many problems to count, problems that simply won’t be solved without a mass movement fostering the kind of “political revolution” we once heard so much about. The forces arrayed against us don’t intend to let that happen, and if their control over the political, economic, and media institutions doesn’t suffice, it’s become abundantly clear they’re more than willing to treat their fellow citizens as enemy combatants and go to war. Today, it’s a Republican president carrying out their will, but there are clearly more than enough Democrats champing at the bit to do the same.

These protests will subside at some point, and things might return to some form of normalcy. There’s a good chance the bad man in the White House will go. And there may even be some reforms to police departments. But between the pandemic, impending climate disaster, and a shattered, criminally unjust economy, the decades ahead will be tumultuous. If the authoritarian outlook that has seeped into every level of American political life isn’t dismantled, we may well look back on these events as a dress rehearsal for something even nastier.