At What Point Does It Become Fascism?
It’s time to honestly face the fact that we are currently living in a fascist country where the government and its favored agents are no longer are restrained by law and can only be stopped by a mass movement of citizens. Like all modern autocracies, we still have the trappings of a functioning democracy. Elections are held, but in increasingly difficult conditions especially for those in opposition; courts still function, but do little to stop state lawlessness, at least in the short-term; there is an opposition party in Congress but its powers are denied and routinely ignored by the government; the government continually puts out easily disproven lies to illustrate that it is unconcerned with truth, only power and propaganda; and the police, military, and now an effectively secret police are employed both legally and illegally to attack those who protest against the government. The level of absolute lawlessness we have seen from the government and its agents over the last two weeks is frightening and breathtaking.
At the local level, police across the country are constantly engaged in violence against legal and peaceful protests. As Alex Thomas tweeted, “every time I refresh my timeline, it’s a new video of a cop beating the hell out of peaceful protesters”. From the “kettling” in New York, to the use of batons as a baseball bat on peacful protestors with their hands up in LA, to the abusive tazing of peaceful vehicle occupants in Atlanta, to pushing a 70 year old man onto the pavement and then casually walking on by him as he bleeds from his ears in Buffalo, every day brings us a slew of new police atrocities, and probably hundreds more that are not caught on video. These attacks come not only with the blessings of certain mayors but also importantly from rogue cops and rogue police forces acting against their leaders’ orders and wishes. They are the result of our country’s legacy of racism, the militarization of the police in both equipment and hiring especially since 9/11, and even the infiltration of police by white nationalists, overt racists, and Islamaphobes. There is also prior evidence that police have coordinated activities with far-right groups.
Sadly, police brutality against minorities has been a constant for our country’s entire history. What’s new today is not just the ability of cell phones to capture this brutality but also the brazenness of the police to engage in it, openly encouraged by Trump and his administration. The result is that a majority of white Americans now feel that the protests are legitimate which is why, as the brutality continues daily, the protests also get bigger every day. And as the protests increase, the government becomes more and more autocratic.
In New York City, a judge has suspended the writ of habeas corpus at the request of the NYPD. The suspension is in direct violation of Article 1, Section 4 of the New York State Constitution which states “The privilege of a writ or order of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless, in case of rebellion or invasion, the public safety requires it”. As @nycsouthpaw asks, “are we having a rebellion or an invasion?”, or is it simply the protests the police department opposes. The ruling, which relied on the dual crises of the pandemic and the protests, only provided a legal justification to what the NYPD was already doing, detaining protestors without a hearing for more than 24 hours. Protestors in NYC are also reporting that, after being detained, they are being questioned by both the NYPD and the FBI about their political beliefs with specific focus on their views about anti-fascism.
The FBI’s interrogation of protestors’ anti-fascism views seemed designed to provide some basis for the effort of both Trump and Barr to declare Antifa a domestic terror organization. The White House lamely attempted to bolster that effort by posting a collection of videos on the White House twitter account that the administration claimed showed “Antifa and professional anarchists are invading our communities, staging bricks and weapons to instigate violence. These are acts of domestic terror”. The clips had already been debunked as false but that did not stop the administration from using them as propaganda. That propaganda effort has been relatively successful with his base, with armed vigilantes across Idaho and elsewhere mobilized against an Antifa invasion that existed only in rumor and propaganda. Attorney General Barr continued to rail against Antifa even as his DOJ was indicting three members of the “boogaloo” movement, whose goal is to start a race war, for planning to incite violence at a Black Lives Matter protest in Las Vegas.
While the fact that Antifa is a loosely organized, purely domestic group means they can not legally be designated a terror organization, the Trump administration’s rhetoric around Antifa is purely designed to build support for using the military to suppress legal protests and perhaps lay the groundwork for the invocation of the Insurrection Act of 1807. That invocation was more than rhetorical as over 1,600 troops had already been deployed outside of Washington, DC in preparation for use against the protestors in that city. It was given extra force by the sight of the Secretary of Defense, Mike Esper, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, walking with Trump for his photo op after National Guard and Park Police had disbanded legal protestors with tear gas and stun grenades.
Esper had previously commented about how to handle the protests in a call with governors, saying, “I think the sooner that you mass and dominate the battlespace, the quicker this dissipates and we can get back to the right normal. We need to dominate the battlespace”. White House spokesman Hogan Gidley declared that “all options are on the table” when dealing with the protestors, a phrase that harkened back to the potential use of nuclear weapons. GOP Senator Tom Cotton tweeted that the military should give “no quarter” in quelling the protests, not only openly advocating for the military to attack US citizens but also to commit a war crime in doing so. He followed that up with an opinion piece in the same vein in the New York Times which misleadingly quotes the Constitution in a fraudulent legal justification for sending the military into the states to eliminate legal dissent.
While Trump has seemingly backed away from this threat for the moment, he continues with the false accusations against Antifa. But the looming threat of military intervention was a powerful force in its own right. That threat was used to encourage the National Guard to be especially aggressive in dealing with the protests, with the Pentagon demanding a “persistent presence” which resulted a number of low-flying helicopter maneuvers over protestors reminiscent of combat zones but, incredibly, using medical helicopters to do so. According to the NY Times, “Military officials said that the National Guard’s aggressive approach to crowd control was prompted by a pointed threat from the Pentagon: If the Guard was unable to handle the situation, then active-duty military units, such as a rapid-reaction unit of the 82nd Airborne Division, would be sent into the city”.
Of course, the National Guard’s presence in Washington DC was already of questionable legality. The local DC government had only asked for help from the DC National Guard. But, as usual, Trump has requested that other states also send their Guard to DC not only to create a show of immense military force but also as a litmus test for Republican governors. And those governors have responded. The problem is that their presence in DC is probably illegal without a specific request from the local DC government. The DC Attorney General has pressed the administration for the legal basis for the presence of other states’ National Guard but “has received very little information about the legal basis for these entities’ presence”. In addition, the Trump administration has even floated the idea of using an obscure legal provision that gives the President the option of taking over the DC police in emergency situations. The federal government is also unilaterally expanding the security perimeter around the White House, creating a sort of Baghdad-like “green zone” for the President. Taken together, all these actions are effectively undermining local control in the federal district and, ironically, strengthening its case for statehood.
AG Barr, who initially admitted to giving the order to clear the legal protests for the President’s photo op, is now running an army of effectively secret police inside DC, presumably largely made up of police forces from various federal agencies. Garrett Graffe has described theses forces which number around 3,000 as “a federal army of occupation”. They amount to a secret police because most of them display no identification and some are actively hiding what federal affiliation they have. When asked, officers have responded they have been told to say they are “federal” officers or “Justice Department assets”. It is unclear whether these self-declared “assets” have any real police or riot training. More importantly, there is no way to know whether they are actually paid contractors or perhaps right-wing paramilitaries thinking they are defending their Dear Leader. As Senator Chris Murphy notes, “This basically invites right wing militias to take up position in American cities. With no identification there is nothing to distinguish between real and fake law enforcement”. In addition, it is unclear under what legal authority is commanding these federal forces. As Justin Leavitt asks, “Still looking for an explanation of Barr’s legal authority to command armed personnel from at least 4 different federal agencies in the first place, photo op walk or not”.
Barr’s activation of federal police against the protestors is not just limited to Washington DC. In New York, ICE police forcibly detained a US citizen of Puerto Rican descent while he was marching peacefully with other protestors. After holding the man without justification many minutes, he was released. ICE admitted that the arrest was not immigration related, but claimed that the officers thought the man was carrying a gun. He was not. As an attorney with the Immigrant Defense Project says, “It’s just really concerning to see ICE out on the street, grabbing somebody who’s peacefully protesting before the curfew, who was doing absolutely nothing wrong. The use of force also seems very troubling and the fact that he’s a man of Puerto Rican descent is really concerning because it raises questions about racial profiling”.
Barr has also taken questionably legal steps to surveil the protests. Reconnaissance aircraft, which Senator Murphy says are “normally used for war zones/disasters/narcotics”, have been used to gather intelligence on the protestors in DC. Barr has also authorized the DEA to “conduct covert surveillance and protect against threats to public safety”. Here again, the legal authority for the DEA to conduct surveillance on protestors legally exercising their First Amendment rights seems questionable. That legal issue may be why DHS issued a memo indicating, without evidence, that “drug trafficking organizations [are] using these protests as façades”. A shipment of masks created by Black Lives Matter that was being sent to its groups around the country to protect protestors from COVID-19 was seized by law enforcement before subsequently being released for distribution. As @emptywheel notes, the seizure “says SOMEONE is surveilling BLM’s comms closely enough to anticipate the shipment, suggesting that FBI never stopped targeting BLM”.
Barr’s response to the protests has used the existing structure of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). Barr told governors “It [the JTTF] already integrates your state and local people. It’s intelligence driven. We want to lean forward and charge … anyone who violates a federal law in connection with this rioting. We need to have people in control of the streets so we can go out and work with law enforcement…identify these people in the crowd, pull them out and prosecute them”. This approach to the protests as terrorism includes Barr’s evidence-free belief that Antifa and outside agitators are responsible for the protests. As one prosecutor stated, “He attributes all the violent, destructive activity in the protests to ‘left-wing antifa’ elements. He has no evidence to back that up whatsoever”. As one senior law enforcement official laments, Barr’s approach is “a political ploy to make being anti-Trump look like terrorism”.
It’s not just protestors that are being targeted by the government. The press has become especially vulnerable to violence and even arrest by the police. In many of these cases, police specifically targeted the press. According to the US Press Freedom Tracker, there have been nearly 280 incidents involving press freedom in the less than two weeks of protests. Over 45 journalists have been arrested and nearly 150 have been assaulted either physically or with tear gas, pepper spray, or rubber bullets. At least one journalist has been seriously injured by police, probably losing the sight in her left eye. In New York City, the police have stopped issuing press passes entirely, apparently in response to the coverage they were receiving. Reporters Without Borders just released its report on press freedom for the year 2018 and the US was listed as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists for the first time. It is certain we will be on that list again in 2020. These attacks are happening with the background of four years of attacks on the media by the President, describing the press as the “enemy of the people”. It appears that many in the police and his far-right supporters have taken that to heart.
Correlated with the attack on the press is the attack on truth. Trump and members of his administration lie with frequency and often knowing their lies will be easily disproven. The obvious lies are an expression of power and propaganda, nothing more. As Scott Lemieux writes, “One characteristic of authoritarian regimes is the tendency to unleash violence on peaceful protestors. Another is to tell lies that don’t even try to sound plausible”. Secretary Esper tried to lie about his and General Milley’s regrettable decision to walk with Trump for his photo op, claiming “I thought I was going to do two things. To see some damage and to talk to the troops”. Hours later, Esper walked that lie back, admitting, “I did know that following the president’s remarks on Monday evening that many of us were going to join President Trump and review the damage in Lafayette Park and at St John’s Episcopal Church”. Similarly, AG Barr initially seemed to take full responsibility for the decision to clear the legal protests so Trump could get his photo op. Now, days later, he too has walked away from that position, now saying, “I’m not involved in giving tactical commands like that. I was frustrated and I was also worried that as the crowd grew, it was going to be harder and harder to do. So my attitude was get it done, but I didn’t say, ‘Go do it’.”
In addition, the Park Police initially lied about their use of tear gas when clearing the protestors for Trumps photo op when there was clear video and first-hand reporting that showed they had. The Park Police claimed they only “employed smoke canisters and pepper balls”. That explanation turned out to be merely semantics, attempting to make a distinction between pepper balls that shoot irritating powder and CS and CN gas, all of which are considered “tear gas”. It also does not explain the cannisters of CS, CN, and skat shells that were found and documented at the scene.
The result is that no one now takes responsibility for the decisions to remove the legal protestors or for using tear gas against them in order to make way for Trump’s photo op. Nor will any administration official be held accountable by the other branches of government. Barr has avoided testifying before the House since the Mueller report. Esper and Milley have also just refused to appear before the House next week. It is a remarkable time when the both the Secretary of Defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff refuse to testify before the representatives of the people.
Amidst all this chaos, the administration’s normal criminal activity continues apace, also unperturbed by oversight. Marc Short, the Vice President’s chief of staff, is participating in the government’s response to the pandemic which includes decisions about companies in which Short still holds significant shares of stocks. A Treasury official responsible for the pandemic bailout has unsurprisingly seen his family’s investment firm reverse its losses and profit handsomely based on decisions he controls. The new State Department Inspector General is still keeping his regular job in the department, meaning he is now overseeing himself. The Secret Service is finally being sued to release their expenditures at Trump properties, having ignored the legal requirement to report the cost of protecting the President every six months since Trump’s inauguration. Finally, in what would be a devastating scandal for any other President, especially one who rants continually about mythical voter fraud, Trump attempted to illegally register to vote in Florida by using an out of state address.
All of this is happening with the blessings of the Republican party, which has now become a far-right party driven by white Christian nationalism. A recent study of its approach to minority rights and democratic principles shows the GOP is more extreme than Hungary’s neo-fascist Jobbik party and about on par with Poland’s Law and Justice party. Of course, Hungary and Poland are the two European countries that are now considered more authoritarian than democratic. Trump’s demand for the military to put down the protests around the country and Barr’s orders to clear legal protests for Trump’s photo op drew nothing but crickets from GOP leaders. The parade of GOP Senators refusing to comment was a profile in cowardice. Lisa Murkowski, one of the most moderate and least-beholden-to-Trump Senators, said she agreed with General Mattis’ statement that the right of Americans to peaceably assemble was being violated across the country and demanding that “those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution” be held accountable. Yet, having agreed that the violations strike to the very core of our democracy, Murkowski could only say she was “struggling with” whether she could support Trump. And while the country raged about police brutality and Trump threatened to use the military to suppress legal protests, the Republican Senate was packing the courts with more Federalist Society judges and spending its time investigating the 2016 Russian investigators. Mitt Romney worried that the investigation was “politically motivated” but still voted to go ahead with it.
Meanwhile, the protests against police brutality have brought the Republican party’s racism into full view. In Texas, a dozen county Republican party chairs either posted their own or reposted other’s overtly racist and anti-Semitic material. The Republican party chair in Hillsborough County, Florida wrote, “If you’re a Republican, Conservative, Democrat Trump supporter, etc. – you will be murdered. You will be dragged from your burning home and be beat to death. This is a fact”. A Republican congressional candidate in Georgia is running a Facebook ad that states “Whether its looting hoards from Atlanta, or a tyrannical government in Washington, there are few better Liberty Machines than an AR-15”. A current Trump campaign adviser who formerly worked in the Trump White House and is married to the man who runs CPAC approvingly retweeted a video of a man in Texas chasing away those protesting racism while yelling a racist slur. In Congress, Rand Paul single-handedly filibustered an anti-lynching bill that had bipartisan support, marking the 200th time that an anti-lynching bill has failed in Congress since 1992. As Rich Yeselson summarizes, “When I label the GOP an authoritarian, revanchist, racial nationalist populist party, it’s not national politicians I’m only thinking about.; it’s more the local and state Party, ie, mid level party officials who who accurately reflects the views of 30% of the electorate”.
Yeselson’s 30% (or more) IS the core of the current GOP and Trump still has over 90% support of Republicans. That alone is why the never-Trumpers and principled conservatives who believe they can rebuild the party are dreaming. The liberals in the Democratic party never purged the racists and Dixiecrats simply by fiat. Those people kept on running and winning as Democrats until the Republican party offered them a home, starting with Nixon’s Southern strategy. Today’s core Republicans don’t and won’t have such an opportunity. The never-Trumpers and “real” conservatives are the ones without a home, wandering in the wilderness, and are more likely to find a niche somewhere in a big tent Democratic party or taking on the almost impossible task of forming an electorally sustainable third party.
The more immediate issue is saving our democracy from Trumpism. Racism and police brutality have always been the most visible form of the thread of fascism that has long been part of the American fabric. We have seen unarmed black men regularly killed by police with virtually no accountability. Today we see police riots as they attack peaceful and often legal protests with gas, bullets, and batons. We have the President demanding the military be used to suppress legal protests, a violation of the most basic freedom our Founders fought for. To that end, the President actually positioned troops, making the threat very real, but eventually did not use them. We have the Attorney General running a secret police force and brazenly lying about attacks on legal protestors. The President has called out his paramilitary supporters who have invaded state capitols and prepared for a mythical assault from fictional terrorists. The top military leader and the Secretary of Defense are refusing to testify before the legislative opposition. The police are intentionally targeting journalists, egged on by the President’s rhetoric that the press is the enemy of the people. If all this is not fascism, then what is.
For now, the protestors are winning. But if we know one thing about Trump, it is that he never admits defeat, just tactically retreats and attacks again at a later date. If he wants to use the military against the people, he will find Defense Secretary who will do it. Barr has over 130,000 federal police officers at his disposal and he has already shown his willingness to use them. If this is the level of Trump’s response to being mildly humiliated by protests, imagine what he will do, trapped inside his expanded security zone, when he realizes he is facing the utter humiliation of epic defeat. It will probably take both ballots and feet in the streets to finally dislodge him. Truly dangerous days still lie ahead.