the national interest

Trump Has Gone Full Authoritarian

Art: Stanley Whitney and Lisson Gallery

A little more than a year ago, President Trump made one of the most terrifying and prophetic statements of his presidency. “You know, the left plays a tougher game; it’s very funny. I actually think that the people on the right are tougher, but they don’t play it tougher,” he told Breitbart. “I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough — until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.”

There are two remarkable things about this statement. One is Trump’s casual conflation of the state security forces (police, military) with extremely unofficial political activists (“Bikers for Trump”). In his mind, they all blur together as a kind of private militia. The second is his view of violence as an extension of politics. The context of his statement was congressional oversight of his administration. The passage immediately following his threat to unleash bloodshed was “But the left plays it cuter and tougher. Like with all the nonsense that they do in Congress … you know, they do things that are nasty.” His mind moves seamlessly between peaceful, constitutional functions and violent repression, observing no demarcation.

Trump may not have been revealing a plan, exactly, but he was certainly revealing a general intention. The political conflict he has never stopped stoking would reach “a certain point.” Trump did not know what it would be. It turned out to be national demonstrations over the police murder of George Floyd and the culture of racism that allowed it, which created an atmosphere that Trump took as a personal humiliation. And now observe his prediction coming true: The response is very, very bad.

Trump’s view of the police as the armed wing of the MAGA movement is reasonably well founded. A 2017 Pew survey asked if this country “needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites.” While 54 percent of white people agreed, only 6 percent of white police officers did. Investigations by government agencies and reporters have found deep links between networks of white police officers and anti-Islamist, pro-Confederate, or openly white-supremacist groups.

Trump has excited and cultivated the white-supremacist far right in ways no previous Republican president dared, and he has nurtured the pervasive sense of violent police impunity now on display in the streets. After the Obama administration built policies to repair the trust between police and urban communities, Trump tore them down contemptuously, restoring the practice of transferring used military equipment to police departments, which Obama had halted, and restricting the consent decrees Obama’s Department of Justice had signed with more than a dozen police departments. Appearing at a Trump rally this past fall, Minneapolis police-union president Bob Kroll gloated, “The first thing President Trump did when he took office was turn that around, got rid of the Holder–Loretta Lynch regime, and decided to start taking — letting the cops do their job, put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.”

The result of Trump’s unwinding of police reform was predictable. So too was the police response to the protests. The irony of meeting protests against police brutality with more brutality seems to be lost on the cops. And while many have shown restraint, empathy, and compassion, it is they, not the violent ones, who seem to be exceptions. The good apples have been overwhelmed by cops applying gratuitous force to peaceful demonstrators and, with suspicious frequency, journalists — or, to use the Trumpian lingo, “enemies of the people.”

Trump has used the same rationale to promote both the general policy of unshackling the police and the specific tactic of roughing up protesters: The law must be strictly enforced. Attorney General William Barr has denounced “district attorneys that style themselves as ‘social justice’ reformers, who spend their time undercutting the police.” Trump has seized upon the violence and looting that has sprung up around the protests to legitimize a broader crackdown.

There is no justification for instigating violence or destroying people’s neighborhoods, but Trump has not exactly devoted his life to the principle of strict legal compliance. Put aside his long history of criminal behavior and associations that alone would forfeit any moral standing he might have. (Trump has personally stolen millions and millions of dollars through what the New York Times described as “outright fraud,” in addition to numerous schemes that have been the subject of litigation, making him a far bigger thief than any looter.) Trump is eager to incite disorder in the streets and defiance of the law on his own behalf.

Just a little over a month ago, in Michigan, armed militias stormed the state capitol in a quasi-insurrection against public-health regulations, menacing the legislature into canceling its session. In the face of this blatant assault on law and order, Trump lectured the state’s governor to placate their demands. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry,” he tweeted. “See them, talk to them, make a deal.” The only deal Trump wants to offer anti-cop protesters is a faceful of pavement.

Trump’s critics often psychoanalyze him from afar as an instinctive authoritarian incapable of grasping any relations except as a zero-sum contest of domination. The protests have brought that tendency to the surface like a scripted crescendo to his presidency. In a phone call with governors, Trump berated them as “weak” and promised, “We will activate Bill Barr and activate him very strongly,” signaling the return of a key accomplice in Trump’s past scandals. He even bellowed, “You have to dominate,” as if he had just stumbled onto his psychiatric diagnosis and was reading it aloud.

Even side character Vladimir Putin returned for an encore. Immediately before the call with governors, Trump spoke with the Russian president. After getting off the line, Trump told the governors that Minneapolis’s feeble response to the protest was “a laughingstock all over the world.” Overseas democracies have expressed sympathy for the protesters and horror at their treatment by police. But those are not the parts of the world whose perspective on handling anti-regime protests Trump values.

One of the features of authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian states is the use of security forces as regime tools. Anti-regime protests are curtailed, undermined, and, should they grow too large and threatening, violently suppressed. Pro-regime protests receive protection. Trump has harbored a belief all along that once he had gained control of the presidency, its security apparatus would be put at his disposal.

The forceful clearing out of a peaceful protest from Lafayette Park demonstrated the methods Trump has long had in mind. The operation was ordered by Barr, whose presence on the scene, reviewing the troops before battle, was its most chilling visual detail. Barr has spent years prosecuting a culture war as a legal war and was now, following the natural progression, waging a literal one. And just as Trump and Barr have bent the rules to protect Trump’s allies, they were bending them the other way to punish his enemies, evicting protesters well in advance of a city curfew.

Suppose this happens in November: the protests centered on a contested election, one whose results have been called into question by a second wave of the coronavirus, clunky ballot counting, or hacked voting equipment. And what if Trump and Barr again seize on sporadic acts of vandalism and violence to depict anti-Trump demonstrators as endemically criminal?

Events have gotten “to a certain point,” as Trump put it, compelling him to bring in the tough people. The unanswered question is, What points might lie beyond?

*This article appears in the June 8, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Trump Has Gone Full Authoritarian