The confluence of a ferociously deadly pandemic, mass unemployment, the police murder of George Floyd and surging authoritarianism is plunging the United States into chaos.
More than 100,000 Americans have died and over 40 million have been rendered jobless by the coronavirus crisis. The virus of racism runs far deeper, an endemic feature of American society for which there is no quarantine, no single vaccine.
The Trump administration’s fascistic response to the protests over Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police threatens to divert attention from a long-deferred conversation about systemic racism to the president’s militaristic response. But these issues are thoroughly intertwined. As actor George Takei commented, “Trump is holding a knee on the neck of American Democracy, and the GOP is the three cops just watching it happen while protecting him.”
Before our eyes, we are witnessing the unraveling of a nation’s myths of itself. What began as a vicious and racist police murder of George Floyd has now erupted into society-wide upheaval over unaccountable policing, racism, and an increasingly authoritarian Trump administration.
On Monday, June 1, we saw another police slaying of a black man: Louisville, Kentucky police shot and killed David McAtee, a beloved business owner who was protesting the police killing of Breonna Taylor. Later that day, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer fired the city’s police chief. On Tuesday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance fired cops who brutally yanked an African-American college couple from their car and struck them with a taser gun. In cities across the country, police departments have violently suppressed peaceful protesters, egged on by the president.
Yet none of this police brutality appears to be enough for Trump, who blasted governors for being “weak,” insisting they must “dominate” protesters who are rising up to decry police violence. In a June 1 speech, Trump threatened a federal military crackdown on dissent: “If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are 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.”
In his call with governors that same day, Trump said the protests are “like a movement, and it’s a movement that if you don’t put it down, it’ll get worse and worse, this is like Occupy Wall Street.” To put down this nationwide movement of millions calling for an end to police racism and brutality, Trump is promising to invoke the Insurrection Act of 1807 to override Posse Comitatus Act restrictions on using the military for domestic law enforcement.
Trump and his Secretary of Defense Mark Esper insist on “dominating” what they call “the battlespace” and crushing dissent. This essentially amounts to an act of war on American civilians, says Ray Mabus, Navy secretary under former President Barack Obama: “When his secretary of defense says that they have to ‘dominate the battlespace’ it means equating Americans to an enemy and waging war on your own citizens.”
The ACLU posits that Trump may have violated international law by having protesters tear-gassed to make way for his photo-op: “This appears to be grossly unjustified use of a chemical weapon on protesters and raises serious human rights concerns under international law.”
After decades of creeping omens and warning signs, under Trump, it appears that fascism has arrived in America. When a president threatens a military crackdown on peaceful protesters, that’s unmistakable fascism — precisely the kind that politicians in both U.S. parties have decried as “authoritarianism” in other countries (particularly when they are socialist or communist-led). When police and National Guard tanks roll through a Minneapolis neighborhood, with police screaming at residents to “get inside now,” and threatening to “light ‘em up,” firing paintballs at people standing on their front stoop, that’s fascism. When a president claims he has “absolute power,” and routinely attacks media and journalists — a key pillar of democracy — as “fake,” that’s fascism.
Fascism is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary as “a system of government characterized by rigid one-party dictatorship, forcible suppression of opposition, private economic enterprise under centralized governmental control, belligerent nationalism, racism, and militarism.”
By this popular definition, we are about two-thirds of the way to this un-promised land of political repression. Today’s melding of heightened presidential powers (expanded significantly under Obama), monopolistic levels of corporate power, a heavily militarized and unaccountable police state, and Trump’s authoritarian lurch together imperil the “American experiment.”
This fascist turn may be diluted by popular anti-fascist action, and the remaining shreds of U.S. democracy — but it is now insinuating itself firmly into the state. America’s police state has grown dramatically over the past 50 years since the Nixon administration’s expansion of militarized policing. Surveillance, intimidation and brutality against dissent have been increasingly prominent since the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s.
For black and brown people, racism-fueled policing has been here all along — “stamped from the beginning,” as author and scholar Ibram X. Kendi puts it in his bestselling book of that title. Now, many white Americans are getting an acrid taste of this toxic deadly force.
In a 2014 interview, renowned scholar Angela Davis noted, “There is an unbroken line of police violence in the US that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery.”
Not lost in this moment is the profound irony of Trump backing the gun-wielding, mostly white “liberate” gatherings, which saw attendees thumbing their noses at shelter-in-place rules aimed at stemming the deadly pandemic. Just a month ago, police gently abided these armed assemblies that violated public health orders, and Trump and other right-wingers celebrated their First and Second Amendment rights.
Now, when diverse unarmed folks assemble peacefully to demand an end to racism and police brutality, these rights seem to have evaporated. As Bill Madden tweeted, “In case you missed it, fascism has arrived in America: Trump ordered the police to tear gas, and shoot with rubber bullets peaceful protesters near the White House — so he could have a photo-op holding a bible.”
Trump’s assault on civil liberties is startling even to veterans of presidential authoritarianism such as Carl Bernstein, co-author of “All the President’s Men,” who remarked: “We have now watched an armed attack, instigated by the president of the United States, on peaceful, law-abiding demonstrators exercising their Constitutional rights. All of Trump’s actions and words have etched today as a grim moment in American history.”
In 2009, writer Gore Vidal predicted the rise of American authoritarianism, observing the country was, already then, “rotting away at a funereal pace. We’ll have a military dictatorship fairly soon.” That “soon” now appears to be upon us.
This incremental coup is not complete, of course, and there is time to bring it to a halt. The answer is strategic resistance, such as we are seeing with the spread of mass demonstrations across all 50 states. Even as Trump clamps down with more police militarism, people are rising up and resisting.
This resistance is not only essential — it is an expression of what America is supposed to be about. As Trump and the police state crush the myth of “American exceptionalism,” the surging anti-racist movements offer an opportunity to rectify the obscenely unequal and unjust realities of American life.