Border Policing and the War on Terror Fuel Trump’s Authoritarian Agenda

“The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.” So declared Donald Trump in late May. Commentators quickly noted the U.S. has no such legal designation that would apply to all those groups and individuals which constitute antifa, an extremely broad swath of anti-fascist resistance. Still, it would not be the first or last time Trump invoked the language of counterterrorism to justify repressing dissent.

Trump and others, including Democratic politicians, have curated choice phrases to describe Black Lives Matter protesters. Within one recent 24-hour period, Trump announced his secret federal police would “clean out” the “anarchists and agitators” protesting in Portland; Joe Biden, while preferring that local law enforcement perform the task, agreed that “anarchists should be prosecuted.”

“Outside agitators,” “antifa,” “anarchists” and especially “terrorists” — these terms recast domestic dissidents as foreign threats against whom the “homeland” must be defended. In this way, they deploy the logic of the “war on terror” and of borders — a rhetorical trend sharply pronounced amid the domestic upheaval of 2020, but not new. The policing of national borders has played a key role in emboldening and empowering Trump specifically, and promoting the deepening fascistization of the U.S. state generally. Given the growing threat of far right authoritarianism, residents of the U.S. might reasonably wonder whether border policing itself does significantly less to keep us safe than it does to place us in grave political danger.

Understanding how we have arrived at this point requires broadening our scope beyond Trump’s own venality and obsession with domination, and looking to the structural factors that produce such a commander-in-chief. Anti-Black racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant xenophobia targeted at individuals within U.S. borders has played a large role, as have the Republican Party’s moral bankruptcy and Trump’s own cult of personality. But as for the precise mechanisms Trump uses to wield unaccountable power, these largely stem from authority assumed by the executive branch over the course of two decades via the bipartisan war on terror and its influence on the United States’s relationship to its borders. If concentration camps and families torn apart at the U.S.’s southern border do not by themselves make the case for opening our borders, Trump’s manipulation of border policy toward increasingly authoritarian ends should put this demand on the table.

Reports from Portland and elsewhere offer harrowing accounts of protesters snatched off the street by anonymous agents who don’t disclose their identity, aims or reasons for the abductions. The U.S. public has been rightly horrified and yet, such abductions are not entirely new. In the years following 9/11, the war on terror was invoked — largely successfully — to justify raids, arrests, and civil rights abuses against Arab and Muslim people. Legal scholar Shirin Sinnar found this treatment to be frequently grounded in an arcane legal distinction between “international” and “domestic” forms of terror. Muslims are disproportionately branded “international terrorists” and thus subject to harsher treatment, while even in exactly similar circumstances, non-Muslim whites are designated “domestic terrorists,” considered less threatening, and treated more gently. Given this backdrop, it is not so surprising that those “anonymous agents” in Portland turned out to be border police operating under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In attempting, absurdly, to tie U.S.-based anarchists to “foreign powers,” DHS extends its legacy of exploiting this legal distinction in order to strip U.S. citizens of constitutional protections.

Headlines in more recent years have focused on the treatment of predominantly Latinx asylum-seekers at the United States’s southern border, itself an outcome of longstanding intensified targeting of Latinx people for detention and deportation, and justified as a “necessary” counterterror measure. While George W. Bush’s administration set much of the legal apparatus of the war in terror into place, it was Obama’s presidency that rehabilitated and entrenched measures that had grown deeply unpopular by the end of Bush’s tenure. Notoriously, Obama deported more people from the U.S. over the course of his eight years in office than had any president before him — or after him, as not even Trump has matched his deportation rate.

From early on, Obama’s administration eschewed legal reckoning with Bush’s legacy of civil and human rights abuses committed, ostensibly, in defense of the “homeland.” This decision not to hold the accused war criminals of Bush’s regime accountable left many in positions of power, giving them the opportunity to regroup and reconstitute themselves under Obama’s presidency and, later, Trump’s. Incredibly, Obama’s reconciliation with Bush’s legacy is so profound that Obama very recently claimed, “My predecessor, who I disagreed with on a whole host of issues, still had a basic regard for the rule of law…. We cared about human rights.”

In that case, it would be hard to find much fault with Trump’s recent consultation with John Yoo, an author of the infamous “torture memos” justifying what seemed to many at the time to be Bush’s quite obvious disregard for human rights and the rule of law. Trump seems in numerous respects hellbent on undoing Obama’s legacy. Yet, in looking back to the Bush administration as a precursor for his authoritarian and rather flexible interpretations of the bounds of executive power, Trump upholds and extends a legacy entrenched by eight years of Democratic rule.

Border police were not the first resort for suppressing the Black Lives Matter protests. Municipal police departments made the initial forceful responses in Minneapolis, New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The sight of heavily militarized police officers brutalizing demonstrators tended to backfire, further driving home the urgency of Black Lives Matter organizers and their demands to defund and abolish the police.

Frustrated with local police departments’ inability to put down the protests, and embattled by Democratic politicians who seized on the movement as an opportunity to build their own credibility as leaders of an anti-Trump resistance, Trump turned to other agencies. In D.C., he used police from agencies including the National Guard, Secret Service, U.S. Park Service and Federal Bureau of Prisons, along with local D.C. and Arlington police, to clear out a peaceful protest at Lafayette Park for a photo op in front of St. John’s Church. This, too, backfired when Defense Secretary Mark Esper broke ranks, insisting that when it comes to domestic law enforcement, the military “should only be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations.” Trump has proved incapable of uniting the ruling class around him — a more skilled statesman with similarly authoritarian aims might not be so impeded.

The U.S. is packed with reactionary civilian and military police agencies but even so, Trump has found few sufficiently indifferent to the rule of law to serve him unquestioningly. In DHS — especially its so-called “robocops of U.S. border patrol,” the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) — Trump has found compliant, reliable forces, agents unencumbered by qualms regarding the limits of their jurisdiction or the rights of the people they target.

Civil libertarians have warned for years about the border’s encroachment into the U.S. interior. A 100-mile “Border Enforcement Zone” constitutes what some have called a “Constitution-Free Zone,” within which live two of every three U.S. residents. That zone includes Portland, where BORTAC laid siege to a domestic population which responded as though to an occupying foreign army. In Arizona, BORTAC has attacked humanitarian No More Deaths medical camps, destroying life-saving medical supplies, water and shelters, and seizing migrants seeking humanitarian aid.

It is no accident that Trump uses border police against protests. He has discovered what the left is still learning: Islamophobia, the oppression of Black people, the erosion of civil liberties, the inhumane treatment of undocumented immigrants, and the war on terror are intrinsically interconnected and will advance or be beaten back together. The PATRIOT Act, the war on terror’s legislative centerpiece, is itself anticipated by California’s 1988 Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, which as scholar-activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore noted in Golden Gulag, curtailed civil liberties and filled prisons under the pretext of the racist “war on drugs.” (Stuart Schrader recently observed that illiberal counterterror is “the American creed.”)

In the 11 years since George W. Bush left office, the U.S. has evaded reckoning with the still-raging war on terror at home and abroad, even while its logics, apparatus and outrages against humanity all continue. Trump can be ousted, but equally reactionary and more dastardly effective future regimes remain all but inevitable unless an independent, grassroots and militant mass movement uproots the underlying factors that produce this authoritarian trend in executive power. We must painstakingly rebuild widespread opposition to the racist war on terror and finally end it. Otherwise, we will remain firmly on this trajectory, with ever more monstrous forms of far right authoritarianism lying up ahead.