With Trump pulling all the strings from controlling the military and police force, to stacking the courts and effectively censoring the media, he's setting up an autocracy.
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Two nights ago I watched police clearing out Layfayette Park with tear gas and batons so that president Trump could have a photo-op with a Bible that he didn’t own in front of a church he didn’t set foot in. This came minutes after announcing he would be taking the first steps towards martial law, and only hours after threatening state governors with the same if they didn’t crack down and institute mass incarcerations. I’m told he watched the police clearing out the park via a video feed, and that he and his staff loved it.
Trump wants to be a “Law and Order” president. Every one of his instincts tells him to brutalize, oppress, and bully protesters to bend them to his will using increasingly heavy-handed tactics and the military. It’s his first, last, and only plan: there’s zero intention of addressing the root causes, especially since the president and his base don’t believe racism is a significant problem.
Every one of those instincts is dead wrong, and will only make things worse. I’ve watched a country under martial law tear itself apart in real time, while the military acting as a police force tried to prevent it by cracking down harder and harder without success. I’m a veteran of the Iraq Theater of Operations from 2004-2006, and one of my jobs was counter-insurgency analysis. These experiences are telling me this moment is dangerous in ways most people don’t yet fully understand.
Over 50 years of studies about civil unrest show that de-escalation keeps both police and protesters safer. The Trump administration is instead urging governors to “dominate” the protesters; otherwise he will invoke the Insurrection Act and send in the military as a law enforcement entity, otherwise known as martial law. Many people are deeply uncomfortable with this.
I was in-theater when military doctrine was being developed to modernize how we think about counter-insurgency, in what is now known as the Joint Publication 3-24. The military recognizes that policing is a mission they are ill-suited for and should avoid if they can help it: they lack the training, equipment, procedures, temperament, and rules of engagement to do it effectively. Most members of the military do not have access to non-lethal rounds.
You can’t restore a durable peace by simply stomping protesters flat, especially when there’s far more of them than there are of you. If you engage in heavy-handed tactics, you only create more people sympathetic to those opposed to the government. What we are seeing after the murder of George Floyd reminds me of the Iraqi reaction after American Blackwater mercenaries, accountable to no one, freaked out on convoy duty and killed 17 civilians and wounded 20 more. Iraqis wanted accountability, justice, and guarantees it would never happen again, while knowing they were nearly powerless to have any of these demands met.
Key components of long-term solutions to unrest or insurgencies are to build community links, significantly address and fix the grievances of the population, restore government services, and reduce corruption. In short, you are trying to help re-establish the legitimacy of the government. These are things we should have been doing, and by the time you see it boil over it is way too late.
The Trump Administration and the GOP are not seen as legitimate by African Americans, and a growing number of other demographics. Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have drinkable water, while infant and maternal mortality in the U.S. for minorities is higher than anywhere else in the developed world. COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black people, while the White House has bungled the response. The courts have been stacked with Trump appointees, and elections rigged through gerrymandering and voter suppression of people of color in particular. The president got fewer votes than his opponent in 2016, and the ruling party in the Senate represents less than 44 percent of the population. At the same time, police are increasingly perceived by African Americans and people under 30 as violent, corrupt, unaccountable, and aligned with the Trump Administration.
I am also told by sources that the White House is also considering using the government to throttle internet access and cellular networks in affected areas to hinder protesters from organizing. This would potentially slow the protests down, but the level of national anger, and economic devastation, would skyrocket. Though the legalities of this are unclear, we are already well into uncharted constitutional territory.
Between martial law and limiting internet access, such rash and ill-considered acts would buy Trump a few moments to breathe (as if everything about this administration so far wasn’t rash and ill-considered). But it would be like that moment of fresh air in a backdraft right before being consumed in an inferno.
All of this is happening at the same time as the worst pandemic since 1918, the worst economic crisis since 1933, and the worst civil unrest since 1968. In many ways, the fundamentals of 2020 are far more dire than in 1968: worse economy, far more people dead in a very short period of time, and a deeply unpopular administration whose perceived legitimacy is running on empty.
COVID-19 can easily come roaring back, and we’re likely only a scant six months from millions of people being homeless. We’re only a few weeks from a Supreme Court (that Republicans stole) issuing decisions allowing the deportation of 700,000 Dreamers and stripping LGBT people of most of their federal protections.
If things seem bad now, COVID-19, the economy, and the Supreme Court are forming a bucket brigade of gasoline for the fire.
At the same time, Trump is playing the role of president only for his base. He’s gambling that people will pick him like they picked Nixon in 1968 as a “Law and Order” president. He’s betting he can win an electoral college victory while carrying less than half of the vote again, by playing to people who would gleefully watch troops fire on Black and brown protesters, cheer Dreamers being deported, and revel in the queers finally being fair game again.
Except he’s wrong.
“Law and Order” isn’t going to sell now. Neither is brutalizing immigrants or rubbing LGBT people’s noses in their powerlessness against discrimination. Nor is inaction against the impending economic collapse coming for the millions out of work, with relief funding bills dead on arrival in both the Senate and on the president’s desk. In 1968, Nixon wasn’t the incumbent. He could claim that it was all the other party’s fault.
As much Trump says, “I don’t take any responsibility at all,” he owns all of this, and public sentiment is shifting that way.
As a transgender American, I woke up on November 9th, 2016 knowing we were in deep trouble. I’ve spent most every day since then angry, depressed, and scared. I knew what was coming for us: namely, a federal government run by the religious right which would stop at nothing to Make America Great Again, in part by making it have far fewer transgender people. Black people have known just how dangerous and awful this country can be to minorities for four hundred years.
Nice, moderate, middle-class white people are suddenly waking up to the fact that yes, this is really incredibly dangerous to everyone who isn’t part of Trump’s base. They are realizing that our democracy is nowhere near as strong as they thought, and that the last guardrails are coming down after the Supreme Court essentially strips Congress of any ability to regulate the executive branch.
The public is finally waking up to the fact that we are hurtling over the cliff and descending into authoritarianism. Experts such as Anne Applebaum, Masha Gessen, and Amy Siskind all warned Americans years ago that this was an existential threat to our democracy and that the GOP and Trump looked to be intent on de-democratizing the U.S. We were laughed at by the right and told to stop hyperventilating. Politicians on the left refused to acknowledge this for fear of being labeled alarmist, or mocked, even while scholars noted the parallels between Hungary’s fall into illiberal democracy and the path the U.S. is on.
But, here we are.
Two hundred MPs from Fort Bragg have been sent to Washington D.C., and units from the 82nd Airborne Division have been put on four-hour standby to deploy to Minneapolis. Cities across the U.S. are in flames. People are jobless, scared, and angry. They feel powerless against an unaccountable police force, and a government that either believes these multiple crises don’t actually exist, or is completely unresponsive to them. Indeed, 74 percent of Trump voters believe that discrimination against whites is at least as big a problem in America as discrimination against Blacks.
One of the most important things that can be done to restore order in the long run is to address the grievances of the people.
It won’t happen under a Trump Administration.
There is zero chance that the Trump administration will take this first and most important step: admitting that there is a problem with racism and police accountability in America. If it were possible for a negative chance to exist, it would describe the odds of his administration actually doing something about it, like passing legislation limiting qualified immunity for police. As a result, the situation might temporarily be tamped down with force, but it will eventually boil over again even harder. The conditions that caused this in the first place will fester and worsen, even as qualified immunity for police expands even further in courts dominated by Trump appointees.
He’s also hinted that Second Amendment rights are threatened by the protests. This is beyond dangerous: it could start something far, far worse. We have seen people with unknown intentions showing up at protests with assault rifles. Hours after Trump’s speech a man drew one on protesters in California.
America is a country with 60 million more guns than people. So far, civilians with firearms have not been a major factor at these protests in 2020. If that were to change, and there were federal troops involved, or even just police with military gear, we’re looking at the potential for a massacre that dwarfs Lexington or Kent State.
I’m afraid for our country. I’ve spent nearly 30 years of my life protecting this country and its people, in one way or another. I’ve also studied how regimes collapse into authoritarianism or revolution. I don’t know where this ends, because it is going off the rails in so many ways at once. Martial law? Massacres? Postponing or cancelling the November 2020 general election? Trump refusing to leave the White House even if he loses both the popular vote and the Electoral College? The Supreme Court that he packed letting him stay there because he’s declared martial law and a state of emergency? A modern storming of the Bastille? Blue states deciding they’re better off no longer participating in this mess?
All of these outcomes are both awful, and non-trivial in their probability. If they do happen, there is little to nothing anyone outside the White House can do about it. This is all in the hands of Trump and his inner circle. Unfortunately, all of their instincts are wrong, and he’s not listening to the grown-ups in the room anymore. People like Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and Kelly are long gone.
In their place are nihilistic Tea Partiers like McCarthy, end-times obsessed Christians such as Pence, Pompeo, and Barr, and racists who welcome this mess as an opportunity like Stephen Miller.
I dread thinking about every one of these possibilities. They all would signal the end of America as we know it. I’m not alone in this line of thought: current and former U.S. intelligence officials are dismayed at how what the U.S. is doing is typical of what happens to autocratic regimes right before they collapse. Yet we are accelerating into worse and worse situations because the Trump Administration only knows how to stomp on the gas pedal. Racism, police violence, COVID-19, spiraling poverty, and the destruction of civil rights at the Supreme Court aren’t going to get better.
The divides in our nation will only grow deeper as a result, and they were already at near-1856 levels.
This does not end well.
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