At around 6:00 p.m. on the evening of June 1, Donald Trump stood before a podium on the White House lawn and announced to the nation that he was prepared to use military force to quiet the demonstrations and riots that have swept the cities of the nation in the wake of last week’s murder of George Floyd by four policemen in Minneapolis.
“I am mobilizing all available federal resources, civilian and military, to stop the rioting and looting, to end the destruction and arson, and to protect the rights of law-abiding Americans,“ Trump declared, while police fired tear gas against protesters demonstrating outside the White House. “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them,” Trump continued, referring to himself as “your president of law and order and an ally of all peaceful protesters.”
Just hours before, Trump dressed down many governors during a conference call in which he insisted that they get “tough” with disorderly protesters. “Most of you are weak,” he asserted. “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time, they’re gonna run over you, you’re gonna look like a bunch of jerks.”
Yesterday’s bellicose and threatening remarks followed a week in which Trump has been consistently escalating his rhetorical denunciations of the protests and of the state and local public officials who have allowed the protests to continue, i.e., have refused to bloody the streets in order to make them stop. It is of course worth noting that there has been blood, and tear gas, and a lot of police use of excessive force against demonstrators and journalists.
The protests — responding to a recent pattern of police violence against black people, and laying bare the historically deep wounds of racism and racist violence — have clearly begun to spin out of control, as peaceful demonstrations across the country have frequently morphed into violence against property and people, sometimes clearly abetted by provocateurs. This poses a real challenge to public officials, even and perhaps especially Democratic officials — like the governor and attorney general of Minnesota and the mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul — who are urging their citizens to keep their protests peaceful before large sections of cities go up in flames, so that justice can be prosecuted through legal means and serious political reforms can be considered.
Trump is doing something else entirely: He is instrumentalizing the crisis to mobilize his own angry (and frightened) base and demonizing his so-called “radical Left” opponents. And he is shifting attention away from his manifest failure to deal with the coronavirus, as he bolsters his own “credibility” among his supporters — including all too many police officers — as a “strong” leader. His threat to override state and local governments, and to deploy U.S. military forces in U.S. cities, represents the ultimate use of the presidential “bully pulpit” to bully and to intimidate. And make no mistake, his announced mobilization of federal troops, whether or not they are actually deployed, is an act of violent intimidation.
Would Trump actually deploy the troops to suppress unruly demonstrations, clear the streets, and “restore order”?
We do not know.
But we do know that we have been asking questions such as these, repeatedly, for the last four years. And as Trump, emboldened by his Senate acquittal in the impeachment trial, has reeled from one authoritarian act to another, it has become increasingly clear that he is determined to push the Constitution to the breaking point. And his threat to override state and local governments — in effect, to depose these public officials and to institute a kind of martial law — is one more move in a much broader and more sustained attack on political opposition and especially on those state and municipal governments that represent a check on his own power. As Ronald Brownstein declared last month in the Atlantic, for years Trump has been escalating a political war against “blue America.”
This past February, the administration deployed “armed tactical forces“ of ICE across nine sanctuary cities: Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, Boston, New Orleans, and Newark, N.J. While the immediate purpose was to detain and deport undocumented immigrants, the broader political purpose was clearly to supplant local law enforcement authority. In late April, Trump threatened to withhold federal coronavirus aid to sanctuary cities. Trump has made no bones about his willingness to test the limits of constitutional authority in his effort to institute his white nationalist conception of “American greatness,” something made vividly clear in February 2019, when he declared a “national emergency” in order to impound Congressionally-authorized Pentagon funds and use them, without legislative authority, to construct his Southern border wall.
But the most blatant recent example of Trump’s “war against blue America” is his very public support for the armed protestors who assembled in front of mainly Democratically-controlled statehouses to resist state-imposed public health measures to contain COVID-19 and to seek “liberation” from “tyrannical” Democratic governors. Trump’s incendiary Tweets — most notably “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” — were an effort to delegitimize gubernatorial authority. They were also an incitement to violence.
There is a difference between last night’s announcement and those April Tweets. While in April he was inciting paramilitary, militia-type groups to resist state-level public authority, last night he was invoking the overwhelming military force of the federal government to supersede state-level authority and to suppress forms of civil resistance to injustice. In both cases, the targets were the same: liberals, leftists, and progressives standing in the way of his cruel and authoritarian vision of America. And in both cases, the means were the same: the threat of violence and the ever-present possibility of its exercise. Such a coalescence of an angry, resentful, and armed mob and an authoritarian leader wielding the violent power of the state and commanding the support of substantial elements of the police is a hallmark of fascism.
Are we there yet? Has the recent explosion of protest, some of it violent, furnished Trump with the “Reichstag moment” that critics have long feared? There is no doubt that Trump will do everything in his power to exploit the current crisis to remain in power. As John Judis put it a few days ago, “violent protests could be a gift to Trump.” Yesterday’s announcement is an ominous sign. Back in February, James Miller ran a piece in Public Seminar entitled “America’s Weimar Moment.” While I shared his basic assessment of Trump, I was skeptical that the situation had yet approached Weimar-level crisis. But a lot has happened between then and now. Trump’s continued erratic authoritarianism was perhaps predictable — the firings of inspectors generals, the purges of the administration, the use of the Justice Department to reward friends and harm enemies. Trump’s responses to the unpredictable — the coronavirus public health crisis, and the economic depression and social dislocation that accompanied it, and then the viral explosion of public protest and civil unrest of recent days — make it so that every day the Weimar analogy seems more frighteningly apt.
What can we do, politically, to prepare for it, to protect ourselves from it, and to lay the foundations for a decisive political defeat of Trump and Trumpism in November?
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.