This has been one of those whiplash weeks where so many particularly monstrous words have emanated from Donald Trump’s mouth and Twitter-fingers that it becomes almost dizzying.
Where to focus my outrage? Should I be most concerned about the fact that the supposed “leader of the free world” stumbled through a series of non-answers when asked about the growing threat of white nationalism in the wake of the grotesque massacre of scores of Muslims in New Zealand? Or the fact that last weekend, instead of tweeting sympathy to the victims of that massacre, Trump chose instead to tweet out insults and lies about a dead senator? Or the fact that he threatened to sic the Federal Communications Commission onto a comedy show he didn’t like, while at the same time stepping into the editorial fray to urge Fox News to stand behind two particularly noxious commentators whom he does like?
All these are bad, but none is as bloody awful as his musings on unleashing paramilitary violence if things go too wrong for him in the political arena. In his trademark “I didn’t say it” way, Trump talked in a March 13 Breitbart interview about how he had the police, the military and the biker gangs in his corner — and how wonderful it was that they weren’t violent … for now; the clear nudge, nudge, wink, wink, subtext being that all he would have to do is give a signal, and his armed proxies would go after his enemies. A few days later, white nationalist Rep. Steve King, one of Trump’s closest ideological soulmates on Capitol Hill, forwarded to his followers a cartoon about the possibility of a modern-day U.S. civil war, and how gun-toting conservatives would have a field day shooting down wishy-washy liberals who couldn’t even work out what public bathrooms they wanted to use.
None of this stuff is remotely funny, and it has no place in a functioning democracy. Of course, many U.S. politicians in the past have called out the hard-hat brigade when it suited them; segregationist Southern governors during the civil rights struggle routinely stoked white mob violence in an effort to block reforms. In 1968, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley unleashed the police against anti-war protesters with the intent of busting open as many heads as possible. In the Tammany Hall days, machine politicians weren’t averse to making unholy alliances with street gangs. More recently, demagogues from Louisiana politician Huey Long to Red Scare architect Joe McCarthy have all-too-well understood the power of the crowd and the potency of the threat of political violence in an already combustible situation.
But for the most part, presidents have tended to stay away from such a dark and dangerous path. They have done so not necessarily because of moral scruples, but out of an awareness of the ferocious (and ultimately uncontainable) forces that can be unleashed when a person with the power and reach of the president of the United States abandons all pretext of democratic governance; of respect for the rule of law; and of an understanding that the game of politics has to be bound by a set of rules or else it will degenerate into strong-man rule, and, eventually, the unfathomable horror of civil conflict.
Trump has, since he first announced his candidacy back in 2015, shown little patience for the limits, the nuance and the necessity of compromise that constitutional governance necessitates. He has, from the get-go, shown himself temperamentally to be an autocrat, a man with dictatorial ambitions who is far more comfortable in the presence of rulers such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, than democratic leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Over the last two years, the Trump regime — and it is far more a regime than an administration — has bent the GOP firmly to his will on this.
Were Trump’s outrageous comments about biker gangs and military intervention in domestic politics just the random utterances of an egocentric authoritarian, things would be grim enough. But over the last two years, various GOP organizations around the country have invited white supremacist groups including the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys to either provide “security” at their rallies or to “spice up” their events with speakers who advocate violence. All of these groups are paramilitaries-in-the-making; all are — or at least were before being brought into the mainstream by Trumpite Republicans — on the far margins of the political process, their worldview more closely aligned with fascist visions of society than with what passed as GOP mainstream beliefs in the pre-Trump era.
Over these last few years, the GOP has increasingly come to resemble a political party whose raison d’étre is simply to nurture the cult of the personality around Trump rather than to contribute anything genuinely resembling ideas into the political discourse; a political party willing to embrace the most violent and thuggish elements for partisan advantage. The scale of this degeneration was on display last month, when Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz publicly threatened congressional witness and former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, and then blithely claimed he was just contributing to “the marketplace of ideas.”
Let’s be real. Publicly blackmailing a witness is no more about “the marketplace of ideas” than a mobster’s threat to make someone “sleep with the fishes” if they cooperate with the police. Using the presidential bully pulpit to goad an already angry and wrathful “base” to consider violence against political opponents is, again, no more simply part of the democratic rough and tumble, the contest for hearts and minds, than would be the burning of a cross on the lawn of a perceived enemy.
Unfortunately, history is littered with examples of power-hungry rulers turning to paramilitary violence when it was politically expedient. The Sturmabteilung (SA) were the backbone of early Nazi power in Germany. Their sadistic foot soldiers were unleashed against Jews, trade unionists, communists, LGBTQ folks, independent journalists, artists, academics and so on. In Latin America, paramilitaries were instrumental in the dirty wars that decimated a generation of progressives. Elsewhere, paramilitaries have been turned to in recent times by leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as by genocidal leaders such as those in Rwanda and in the Balkan states in the early 1990s.
In his powerful essay, “In Defense of the Word,” written during a decade when most of Latin America had fallen to dictators backed up by paramilitary forces, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano wrote that the combination of authoritarian leaders and armed militias had paved the way for “the development of methods of torture, techniques for assassinating people and ideas, for the cultivation of silence, the extension of impotence, and the sowing of fear.”
We think we are different; we are, after all, Americans, and in the U.S., we say to ourselves with a healthy dose of hubris, that we don’t do things that way. But how different are we really? How thin is our veneer? How vulnerable are we to the siren calls of political violence issued from the biggest dais on Earth and amplified by the instruments of social media?
Trump and his acolytes are now truly playing with fire. The more Trump’s legal woes mount up, the more he seems willing to embrace his own Götterdämmerung vision, a willingness to create maximum chaos simply to insulate himself from justice.
In an essay titled “Fascism in Latin America,” Galeano observed that, “In the slaughterhouses of human flesh, the hangmen hummed patriotic songs.” Trump, with his musings about the army, the police, the biker gangs, his literal hugging of the flag at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and his repeated conflation of dissent with treason, is humming loud and clear these days.