Trump didn’t act as openly tyrannical during last night’s debate as he did during the first one, but for those willing to see the authoritarian nature of Trump’s presidency, the cruelty and bombast were never far from the surface. You could see it when he was asked about the 545 incarcerated migrant children who were torn from their parents and whose parents now cannot be located. Trump blamed the families: “These children are brought here by coyotes and lots of bad people, cartels.” In Trump’s authoritarian imagination, if immigrant children went without food and toothbrushes, and if they cried themselves to sleep amid the traumatic stress of family separation and incarceration at night, their suffering was all their own fault.
Last night Trump preposterously boasted, “No American president since Abraham Lincoln has done what I’ve done for the Black community.” And yet when George Floyd died, sparking a reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump defended the police officers who killed Floyd and the practice of chokeholds, saying, “Toughness is sometimes the most compassionate.”
These statements are not simply nonsense. They are characteristic of the far right, openly racist, authoritarian rhetoric — and action — that has proliferated globally. Trump only makes sense when he is placed alongside the other foreign leaders who are closest to him: most obviously Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and India’s Narendra Modi, but also a group of European far rightist challengers for power: Farage, Le Pen, Salvini.
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The voting base for these leaders are older, white voters. Some are rich, and some are people who own some property, but not much, and fear being sucked down into the lives of those who have less than them. That’s why, in 2016, Trump voters were both wealthier than the average, and more likely to say that life was getting worse for them. What terrified them was the thought that other people — people whom they saw as less deserving — were doing better than they were. Such voters are drawn in by slogans like “Italians first,” “This is our country” and “Make America Great Again,” which push for the perpetuation of white supremacy-driven hierarchies.
What the Trial of the Chicago 7 Tells Us About Trump’s Authoritarianism
One way to think about the debate and what is at stake in the election is to think back fifty years to the Trial of the Chicago 7. That trial has been gaining a new wave of mainstream attention, thanks to the release last week on Netflix of Aaron Sorkin’s lively but depoliticized film of the same name.
Back in 1968, the defendants warned repeatedly of the rise of American authoritarianism, often using the word “fascism.” The harm they suffered was real: the killing of demonstrators, political trials, the election of a president who shared racist and antisemitic conspiracy theories while using clandestine and illegal activities to secure his reelection in 1972. (One of the things missing from Sorkin’s film was the Jewishness of many of the participants.)
In a decade during which the facts of the Holocaust were a matter of increasing public discussion, the trial turned on two questions. Everyone agreed that the U.S. was changing under the impact of the Vietnam War, but was the change so pronounced that the U.S. had become a fascist state?
Sorkin’s film conveys the malice of American institutions in those years, much of which continues to be reflected in today’s United States. It shows the Black Panther Bobby Seale beaten and bound and gagged, as in real life he was. But it hides the two-party origins of this authoritarianism, playing down the way that in 1968 demonstrators were attacked on the orders of a Democratic mayor. Sorkin wants us to believe that the prosecution was the fault of the Republican attorney general, when, in reality, a federal grand jury was convened long before Nixon’s election. The film suggests that authoritarianism can be wholly defeated by voting. The film builds to this as the moral choice; its protagonist Tom Hayden doesn’t tell us who we need to vote for, only to vote.
But for the generation on trial in Chicago, authoritarianism was about more than Nixon. It was seen in the murders of the Black Panthers, in the ever greater numbers of people sent to fight in Vietnam and in the state power that was used against them. They were willing to oppose authoritarianism wherever they found it; that’s why they were marching against the Democratic convention.
Signs of Authoritarianism in the Present Moment
If someone were to list all the processes that are bringing authoritarianism closer in our own times, they would have to include the use of deportation to remove hundreds of thousands of people from U.S. soil, the extension of the wall across the U.S. border with Mexico, the sixfold increase in the numbers of people held in U.S. jails and prisons since 1970, the massive expansion of gun manufacturing and sales with all the risks that poses to protest, and the consensus in favor of increasing the size of the U.S. military machine.
These are policies that are common to both Democrats and Republicans. They create the conditions in which Trump can feel like he is part of the ordinary political game. Sounder Trump’s first four years, 900,000 people have been or will be deported. This figure is extraordinary, and shocking, until you recall that in the first four years of the Obama presidency, the government deported 1.6 million people.
These issues were not hidden during last night’s debate, they were at its front and center. Trump insisted that his immigration policies were in no way different from those of the Obama administration, in which Biden had served as vice president. “They built cages. They said I built cages,” Trump argued, “That was him.”
While The New York Times fact checkers note that the Obama administration “did hold children in the same chain-linked enclosures the Trump administration has used,” Trump’s claims obfuscate an important difference between the two administrations: The Obama administration only very rarely broke up families at the border, whereas the Trump administration adopted a “zero-tolerance” policy that ripped thousands of children from their parents.
It’s easy to imagine how the Chicago 7 might react to the current situation: They would likely analyze the authoritarianism that is part of Trump’s politics as part of U.S. life, part of the two-party system, and something that needs to be fought — whoever is in the White House. A deportation isn’t humanized if the party doing it is dressed in blue.
We can go back to the words Abbie Hoffman actually used to explain his politics to the judge: “We don’t want a job there, in that system. We say to young people, ‘There’s a brilliant future for you in the revolution. Become an enemy of the State. A great future. It will save your soul’.”
Trump is an authoritarian. If successful, his plans for sabotaging the election would be a disaster for the U.S. and for the world. But a consistent anti-authoritarianism requires fighting both Trump’s agenda and the system that stands behind him.