Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Casting Peaceful Protestors as Terrorists is the Key to Trump's Authoritarian Gamble

The U.S. has seen months of sustained protests against racism and police brutality, in response Trump is using militarized police dressed in camouflage combat fatigues to intimidate people in Portland. He is also threatening to do the same in many other Democrat run cities. Trump justifies his brazen political theater by casting peaceful protestors--American citizens--as terrorists and enemy combatants.

These protestors are being thrown into unmarked vehicles by heavily armed, unidentified paramilitary-style officers that look a lot like the secret police we see in authoritarian regimes. Many of these secret police are from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), specifically the Customs and Border Protection agency.

The key to Trump's strategy is mischaracterization and dehumanization of protestors. While the majority of protestors are peaceful a handful are inciting violence. However, while Trump claims they are violent anarchists several reports indicate that many are actually white supremacists masquerading as BLM supporters. Examples include a recent report by law enforcement in Virginia. It also appears to be the case for some of the initial violence after George Floyd was murdered by police at the end of May. Minneapolis police have identified a suspect whom they believe helped initiate the riots in the city following Floyd's killing. This man is associated with a white supremacist organization known as the "Aryan Cowboys".

Since the start of the protests both Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey have indicated that violent outside agitators and white supremacists are taking advantage of heightened racial tensions. On May 30 Frey tweeted: "We are now confronting white supremacists, members of organized crime, out of state instigators, and possibly even foreign actors to destroy and destabilize our city and our region."

Many of the federal agents in Trump's secret police are from the DHS division established after 9/11 primarily to deal with terrorism. Trying to cast peaceful protestors as terrorists is a key part of Trump's strategy. This is red meat for Trump's base. However, according to an analysis by Angela Dewan, calling protesters who disagree with him terrorists, puts Trump "in the company of the world's autocrats".  Calling dissenters terrorists is the kind of thing we commonly see in authoritarian regimes like the Philippines, Egypt, Turkey, China and Russia.

Trump is clearly trying to cast himself as a strongman. He uses the repressive tactics of despots to vilify those with opposing views. Trump is trying to blur the long standing separation between the military and law enforcement. This deployment of Federal police to American cities, "poses a serious threat to both the American people and our democracy" Benjamin Haas says. He also said, "Anonymous security forcing citizens into cars is [the] mark of dictatorship".

This not only reveals Trump's draconian inclinations, it is also ineffective. As Haas points out, "studies suggest that militarized law enforcement is unhelpful for police and bad for community safety". Haas concludes that Trump is more like a foreign authoritarian than a U.S. president.

Multiple investigations are underway into allegations of impropriety from federal law enforcement. Democratic lawmakers sent a letter to the Justice and Homeland Security departments comparing Trump's use of federal police to the behavior of authoritarian governments. As stated in the letter:
"These tactics include deploying federal agents without identifying insignia in an apparent effort to evade transparency and accountability, snatching people off the street with no apparent reason for apprehension, and using potentially deadly munitions to harm peaceful protesters. These actions are out of control. They are more reflective of tactics of a government led by a dictator, not from the government of our constitutional democratic republic," they wrote, adding they were "chillingly reminiscent of autocratic governments that 'disappear' critics and opponents."
Trump has said he is prepared to send as many as 75,000 federal agents to Democrat run cities. Whether or not his use of police against his adversaries will work remains to be seen. The key to Trump's strategy is convincing people that these protestors are both unreasonable and violent. Trump must also be seen to be containing the violence and not exacerbating it.

According to a study on state repression tactics by Luis Schiumerini, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, branding protestors as terrorists is consistent with what his research has revealed about authoritarian regimes. However, as Schiumerini points out for such governments to benefit from this tactic they must succeed in depicting protestors in a negative fashion.

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