Over the past month, a series of investigative reports have detailed the extraordinary way in which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has come to see journalists and political protesters as domestic enemies. At least two journalists covering the Portland protests were, apparently, targeted by DHS officers, who wrote “intelligence reports” on their activities, and compiled on them the sorts of dossiers more frequently used against overseas terrorists.
Meanwhile, Customs and Border Protection-operated Predator drones, and helicopters and planes operated by an array of other agencies, have been used to spy on Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis and other cities in the wake of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others. And, this past week, The Nation magazine reported that the Trump administration was using DHS’s Tactical Terrorism Response Teams to monitor anti-fascist activists, as well as a left-wing podcast host, for supposedly coordinating with foreign governments to attack the United States. Once U.S. citizens are designated as agents of foreign powers, the legal doors are opened to warrantless spying on their actions.
In response, many writers have expressed shock and horror at such “un-American” activities being unleashed by those in positions of power. But, while they surely merit both shock and horror, they shouldn’t merit surprise. Trump’s latest methods, while certainly crude and dangerous, are actually as American as apple pie.
We have a tendency to whitewash our own past, to assign, with hindsight, a nobility of intent that doesn’t truly reflect the goals and the practices of past holders of power. In fact, there is a long and ugly history of U.S. government security agencies labeling any and all dissenters as terrorists.
To take just a few examples: In the fearful days following September 11, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies monitored antiwar groups, human rights organizations and other progressive, nonviolent entities. The ACLU reported on the “Orwellian scope” of the FBI’s domestic surveillance program in this post-9/11 environment.
And, of course, using legal memos written by Department of Justice attorney John Yoo as cover, the Bush administration embraced a wholesale torture program against suspected terrorists that utilized waterboarding, attack dogs, sexual humiliation, beatings, mock executions and other methods banned by the Geneva Conventions. (Yoo has, this summer, reentered the national conversation by providing Trump with legal advice on how he can use the Supreme Court’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ruling as a rationale to craft a series of broad-brush executive orders that, in the areas of immigration, health care and even financial responses to the COVID crisis, would allow Trump to basically rule by diktat).
In the 1990s, as the U.S. consolidated its post-Cold War dominance, groups protesting the World Trade Organization (WTO) were met with the full might of the state. In 1999, anti-WTO protesters were gassed, clubbed and arrested en masse in Seattle. Afterward, the FBI and local law enforcement agencies set up Joint Terrorism Task Forces to monitor left-wing protesters.
But it’s not only in the recent past that the state has resorted to violence and high-tech monitoring in its efforts to squash protest. Pick pretty much any time of social upheaval in the United States and one encounters a stunning, almost automatic, resort to state violence.
One need only think of COINTELPRO in the late 1960s, in which an array of state agencies were sicced on the anti-Vietnam War movement. Or the way the FBI and local police departments in Chicago and elsewhere worked to sabotage the Black Panthers and to kill off its leaders. Or, slightly earlier, the FBI efforts to slime Martin Luther King Jr. Or, in the 1950s, McCarthyism’s marshalling of the full might of the federal government and of Congress to attack communists, civil rights groups, and an array of political progressives.
I remember, as a child visiting my grandparents in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s, talking with older men and women in their social circle who, a generation earlier, had had their careers as musicians and Hollywood artists destroyed by anti-communist witch-hunters. Their fury, their sense of betrayal, remained incandescent. I remember one man in particular, Sam Albert, a debonair musician with a Clark Gable mustache, who had been hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee to be interrogated about his political beliefs, and had then been drummed out of his job. More than 30 years later, deep into his old age, he was still unable to talk about McCarthy without yelling in fury.
Going back further, during the heyday of trade union organizing, in the early decades of the 20th century, the police, squads of Pinkerton detectives, and even federal troops often served as virtual private militias protecting the interests of big business. On occasion, sheriffs’ officers would beat and even kill farmworkers who tried to organize in California and elsewhere — including sharecroppers in the Deep South — during the 1930s. On other occasions, police, sheriffs and National Guard forces were deployed to counter striking miners, railway workers and others, oftentimes with lethal consequences.
During the Red Scares that followed the Russian Revolution, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer authorized raids that netted hundreds of so-called Reds, many of whom were, with no due process, unceremoniously deported to the Soviet Union. A little over a decade later, during the Great Depression, tens of thousands of starving World War I veterans and their families mobilized for a huge march on (and occupation of parts of) Washington, D.C., to demand the federal government pay them promised bonuses for their military service in Europe. At President Hoover’s behest, they were met by massive military force — battalions of soldiers, some of them in tanks, sweeping the streets and ultimately burning down the encampments of the so-called Bonus Army.
In the 19th century, the Texas Rangers served largely as a paramilitary force for unleashing racist violence in the contested borderlands between a newly enlarged U.S. and a newly shrunken Mexico. And, of course, many police forces are the institutional descendants of posses formed to track down and kidnap people escaping slavery.
As Trump veers ever closer to authoritarian, dictatorial rule, it’s important not only to point to the uniquely demagogic and tyrannical qualities of Trumpism — of which there are many — but also to look for the ways in which there is continuity on display. Condemning Trump’s hideous embrace of state-sanctioned violence, intimidation and spying techniques against protesters and journalists alike as somehow “un-American” obscures more than it reveals.
When, for example, the Trumpified DHS hacks into journalists’ social media or ferrets around their private financial records, or looks for ways to label Black Lives Matter protesters as terrorists, it is following in the footsteps of Hoover’s FBI in the 1960s or Palmer’s goon squads in the post-World War I years.
When the Trump era ends, as surely it one day will, there must be a national reckoning. The scale of Trump’s malfeasance, and the ramping up of quasi-military law enforcement activities that are — and have always been — inimical to democracy will have to be publicly confronted. Without such a reckoning, there will be no way to lance the political boil that Trump represents.
What these last months have laid bare isn’t that Trump’s national security agenda is anomalous; but, rather, that the system of control embodied by DHS, by Customs and Border Protection, by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the various other agencies, has evolved to the point where it now primarily serves to aid and abet authoritarianism. These ugly times have provided us a warning: that the military-industrial state, the national security infrastructure that Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about 60 years ago, is now in full bloom. Trump didn’t cause that bloom to come out of nowhere; rather, his presidency is, at least in part, the end consequence, the coming to a head, of decades of fetishization of state-sanctioned violence and brutality.
Unless we now embark upon a fundamental reckoning with these forces that have been allowed to fester and then to grow largely unchecked within the U.S. body politic over the decades (and, indeed, over the centuries), the very threads of democracy will, at ever-greater speed, come unraveled.