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Trump’s “Law and Order” Rhetoric Is a Rallying Cry for State Violence

Trump is establishing the conditions for a fascist state rooted in white supremacy.

President Trump speaks during a press conference in the James S. Brady Briefing Room of the White House on September 4, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

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Many politicians, media pundits and commentators, along with the mainstream cultural apparatuses, are decrying property destruction produced by protesters in the face of unrelenting police assaults on unarmed Black people. Their critical focus has been not only on the broken windows, burning cars and alleged “looting” of stores, but also on the so-called violent tendencies of the “left” and anarchists who serve as stand-ins for the thousands of peaceful protesters who have taken to the streets.

Violence in this right-wing logic is equated with the destruction of property while at the same time it ignores “the pain and/or bodily injury” inflicted on human beings, especially those not deemed worthy of civil liberties and human rights. Nobody should justify assaults that lead to needless human suffering and the destruction of neighborhood property, especially in impoverished cities. Nor should violence be used as a rhetorical device to include property damage. Violence is a term that should be limited to assaults, injuries and harm waged against human beings, not property. When talking about violence, it is crucial to make a distinction between the destruction of property and violence against persons.

Right-wing extremists are not only considered terrorists by the FBI but also rank among the most dangerous threats to the U.S. According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, most terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994 were conducted by right-wing groups. Moreover, the Center noted that, “Right-wing extremists perpetrated two-thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020.” Unfortunately, when the focus of violence is strictly applied by politicians and the media to protesters, the assaults, murders and aggression produced by right-wing groups disappear from public view or get defended as a public service. For instance, the right-wing youth, Kyle Rittenhouse, who was arrested for the murder of two demonstrators and the wounding of another in Kenosha is being hailed by some, such as Tucker Carlson, in the conservative media echo chamber as a “law and order” warrior acting against the lawlessness of the left. President Trump has not only refused to condemn Rittenhouse’s actions, along with the violence waged by white supremacists, he has also defended him, stating that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. As Greg Sargent observes, “that makes Trump not the law-and-order candidate, but rather the candidate of arbitrary violence, lawless abuses of power and civil breakdown.”

Trump is not alone in his denial of systemic racism. Attorney General William Barr, Trump’s Roy Cohn, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer both denied the existence of systemic racism in the United States, and once again repeated his belief that whatever violence and abuse Blacks suffer at the hands of the police is due to their own criminality. As the Associated Press notes, Barr has argued “that there is a ‘false narrative’ that the country is in an ‘epidemic’ of unarmed Black people being killed by white police officers.”

Furthermore, focusing on the alleged violence and looting associated with groups demonstrating against police violence and institutional racism often sets up a false equivalency. It suggests that there is no difference between the power and brutality of state violence and the incidental violence produced by people often demonstrating against police brutality and institutional racism. The violence produced at times by oppressed groups is often the outgrowth of the despairing circumstances in which people find themselves, especially those who are desperate to retain their dignity, civil rights and a modicum of security. Many oppressed groups find it almost impossible to put up with the massive injustices and assaults on their dignity, ability to survive, and the anxiety of having to live in a constant state of fear and terror. Why shouldn’t they revolt and take out their frustrations in a literal display of direct action and in some cases looting? Is it really that hard to understand? The different contexts that produce violence, and the accelerated scale and order of it as part of a network of capitalist institutional violence is what should be focused on, not the minuscule acts of aggression committed by protesters. Racist violence, police brutality and state aggression are in the bones and soul of the United States.

Yet, when car windows are smashed, goods are seized, fences are torn down and buildings are burned, the elite and right-wing press are quick to label all protesters as outside agitators who destroy their own neighborhoods, and invite further police violence. Or, they remain silent when Trump, as he did at the Republican National Convention, labels all protesters as “anarchists, agitators and criminals” — code for Black people. These protests are not viewed as moments of direct action rooted in revealing the racial character of oppression, egregious economic deprivations and ongoing life-threatening incidents of state violence. On the contrary, the arguments that focus on the violence in such demonstrations divert any analysis from addressing a fascist politics that embraces white supremacy, economic inequality, the rise of the punishing state, and a range of injustices that threaten both human life and the planet itself. Nor do such analyses focus on the role of white, right-wing militia groups and white supremacists in instigating violence in many of these demonstrations.

When the elite press does at times acknowledge that Trump enables violence through the incendiary incitement of racist fears while engaging in endless acts of lawlessness, they offer little analysis to how such tactics are central to the workings of fascist regimes. Instead, they either focus on Trump’s lawless actions as a wide effort to broaden his appeal or they call upon Joe Biden to respond to the charge that he and a host of Democratic governors are responsible for the violence in some cities.

As a political strategy, this is not unimportant, but it does not get to the heart of the predatory and egregious state violence at work in the United States, which, incidentally, helped create the conditions that got Trump elected to the presidency. For instance, no dots are drawn connecting Trump’s camouflaged troops gassing and grabbing protesters off the street, encouraging the police to rough up suspects, refusing to condemn police officers who kill unarmed people of color, and his retweeting of a supportive message regarding Kyle Rittenhouse’s “fatal shooting of two protesters and the wounding of a volunteer medic.”

Trump is doing more than amplifying white fears, enabling right-wing violence, using racist appeals to sway white suburban voters and terrorizing peaceful protesters — he is establishing the conditions for a fascist state.

State violence comes in many forms and extends from the criminalization of social problems and the horrors of the carceral state to the militarization of the police and the increasing violence waged against undocumented immigrants, poor youth of color, and anyone who is not white and viewed as expendable, if not disposable.

Consider agents of the state suffocating, with impunity, a Black man, Eric Garner, on the streets of New York in full view of bystanders. Consider police officers shooting 12-year-old Tamir Rice while he was holding a toy gun; consider the police kicking in the door and killing Breonna Taylor while she slept in her bed; consider a cop putting his knee on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes until the last breath passed from his body. Consider a government that separates children from their parents and puts them in cages. Consider that waging violence against Black men and women did not end with slavery and Jim Crow, but continues into the present era, especially under Trump, whose call for “law and order” functions as “an enabling tool for providing an open season on killing Black men.” Moreover, “law and order” as a defining principle of Trump’s mode of governance is best defined by the White House’s ties to criminals, such as the eight associates of Trump arrested or convicted of crimes, including Steve Bannon, Roger Stone and Michael Cohen.

The property destruction committed by protesters shrinks in importance compared to this relentless racist state violence. This is in addition to the state violence that results in thousands of children who die in the U.S. every day because of poverty and the elderly who are thrown into nursing homes that have become the new funeral parlors. Consider the more than 192,000 needless deaths in the U.S. as a result of Trump’s shameless disdain for public health, science and human life. The COVID-19 disaster was not simply a crisis of health and economics, but also a political crisis. All of which is on full display in Trump’s failure to produce a national plan to deal with the spreading virus. The Trump administration has blood on its hands because of its failure to act. There is also his relentless efforts to promote Wall Street profits while shamelessly focusing on economic growth to increase his political ratings and ensure his reelection.

Another failure rested on Trump’s use of conspiracy theories rather than science to sacrifice investing in public health in order to revive the economy, all of which was supported by his Vichy Republican allies and his base. What are we to make of Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee stating at the Republican National Convention that, “if the Democrats had their way, they would keep you locked in your house until you became dependent on the government forever. That sounds a lot like Communist China to me.” This is hard to make up and reads like a narrative that is a mix of elements from The Truman Show and A Nightmare on Elm Street, all of which is appropriated by Trump and his lemmings to deny the reality of the pandemic itself. In this story, the pandemic crisis and Trump’s failed response is just a fictitious plot hatched by advocates of socialism.

State violence enshrines the economy while stating without apology that the elderly, the sick, and those with fragile health and serious conditions should sacrifice themselves on the altar of neoliberal capitalism. Looting becomes a rhetorical tool of the right wing to discredit organized protests against systemic police violence and institutionalized racism. As Robin D. G. Kelley notes, looting is now applied to people stealing from stores in the midst of an uprising rather than viewed as a way to make visible how “Indigenous land was … seized, the value of Black–owned homes … suppressed, Black wages suppressed, [and] how the massive transfer of wealth to the financial elite functions as a form of looting.”

Fascism — with its deep roots in American history and its unadulterated support for destructive forms of economic production, mass inequality, racial sorting, patriarchal masculinity, cultural contamination, its weaponization of identity and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a small class of financial elite — has become normalized. This is violence on a grand scale, shaped by the language, rituals, and invocations of war and machineries of terminal exclusion and death. Historical and social amnesia are on full display in Trump’s America, reinforced by some academics who decry any mention of fascism in the contemporary context, making them more complicit than informative. Fascism is not merely a relic of the past. Nor can its re-emergence in a different form be dismissed as a kind of ideological paranoia, especially since Trump and his supporters embrace fascist rhetoric such as “America First,” and enable fascist tendencies such as “glorifying violence and disregarding the rule of law, democratic processes, and civil liberties.” As Sarah Churchwell observes:

American fascist energies today are different from 1930s European fascism, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fascist, it means they’re not European and it’s not the 1930s…. Vestiges of interwar fascism have been dredged up, dressed up, and repurposed for modern times. Colored shirts might not sell anymore, but colored hats are doing great…. Reading about the inchoate American fascist movements of the 1930s during the Trump administration feels less prophetic than proleptic, a time-lapse montage of a para-fascist order slowly willing itself into existence over the course of nearly a century.… When the president … sends troops to the national capital to act as a private army, armed paramilitary groups occupy state capitols, laws are passed to deny the citizenship and rights of specific groups, and birthright citizenship as guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment is attacked. When nationwide protests in response to racial injustice become the pretext for mooting martial law, we are watching an American fascist order pulling itself together.

Consider how fascist politics thrives on ignorance by destroying public and higher education, substituting in their place the toxic propaganda of conservative-run news organizations such as those under the influence of the Rupert Murdoch empire and internet cesspools dominated by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Language and images in these disimagination machines dehumanize people of color, treating them as objects of contempt, and produce a toxic mix of ideologies that dissolve politics into a pathology. Such disimagination machines normalize racist violence and ignoble acts too monstrous to be believed. Note how fascist politics under Trump delights in enacting repression by connecting civil death and the suppression of voting. Note how the logic of fascism enacts social death through the mass incarceration of people of color while waging a war against youth of color. In the current historical moment, fascism wraps itself in American symbols and makes mass education synonymous with pedagogies of repression. In this instance, the cultural apparatuses of knowledge production are reduced to a combination of all-encompassing surveillance systems, feral disimagination machines such as Fox News, and an endless covering up of Trump’s failure to address crucial social problems.

Moreover, the distinctive features of fascist modes of governance have become commonplace in Trump’s America. Writing in Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line, Paul Gilroy notes these signal features, which include “the use of prisons, the spectacularization of death, the debasement of courts, and the wholesale deformation of the public sphere [all of which] have also become commonplace features of contemporary life.”

One sordid example of a feral mix of misinformation and ignorance is obvious in Trump’s suggestion that people treat themselves if they have the virus by injecting bleach, or his peddling drugs and treatments as miracle cures, though they have been proven either unsafe or ineffectual. The conservative media remain either silent or support these lies, even when such statements become criminal in their potential to put human life at risk. When ignorance fails, Trump unleashes state violence and militarized forces on protesters and claims he will appoint himself as the president in 2020 regardless of the outcome of the election. As The Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin points out, “Trump celebrates violence, encourages police misconduct, honors Whites indicted for brandishing guns at marchers and tear-gassed peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square. Senior adviser Kellyanne Conway let on that the administration believes that the more violence happens in the streets, the better chance Trump has of being reelected.”

State violence is not an abstraction, but a visceral reality. It kills people, ruins their lives, takes away their loved ones, and does so by waging war against those populations that are considered nonwhite and disposable. Fascist language dehumanizes but systemic police violence takes human lives with impunity. Arrogant in its power, and unaccountable for its defense of bigotry, racism and hatred, fascist language thrives on lawlessness and fans the flames of violence. According to this discourse, only whites have a legitimate claim to the public sphere, everyday life and citizenship. Racist violence becomes a project of dehumanization and disposability and a warning to those marked for terminal exclusion. For instance, Jacob Blake is paralyzed from the waist down after being shot seven times by a white police officer. He was shot because of the color of his skin and the long legacy of racist dehumanization that normalizes his presence and life as unknowable, excess, unworthy of either dignity or justice.

In Trump’s world and the suffocating ideological space inhabited by his white supremacist supporters, the brutal harm inflicted on Black people becomes a potent source of white supremacist pleasure and promises what Paul Gilroy describes as “a partial rehabilitation of fascist ideas and principles.”

This is the violence of state capitalism, fiscal austerity, privatization, an unchecked punishing state, and the white supremacist embrace of racial cleansing parading as “law and order.” This is what fascism looks like under Trump. As Elizabeth Hinton observes, Trump’s embrace of “law and order” politics is a continuation of “a long tradition of seeking to manage the material consequences of socioeconomic problems with more police, more surveillance, and more incarceration.”

Law and order as a rallying cry is language in the service of violence, militarization and fascist politics. It is code not for order but for justifying lawlessness. This is a language that celebrates the racist legacy of slavery and the Confederacy, adulates neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, and threatens protesters with “vicious dogs.” This is the vocabulary of white domination that crystallizes in the defense of violence committed by Trump supporters who drive their cars into groups of Black Lives Matter supporters, fire paintballs and pepper spray at them, and defend the appalling brutality committed by the police against Black people. This is rhetoric that traffics in pain, suffering and the depravity of racist terrorism, while displaying an unabashed contempt for Black people.

In addition, it mimics those elements of fascism that masculinize and militarize the public sphere, offering a rehabilitation of fascist ideals, ideas and principles. The totalitarian past reemerges not only in a debased civic culture and collapse of civic literacy, but also in Trump’s strategy of using “law and order” to foment racial violence. To borrow from Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Trump’s law and (dis)order message has dispelled any illusions about its commitment to white supremacy and white nationalism, inhabiting a space where “the filth takes off its shirt” and is worn as a badge of honor.

This is state violence normalized through the haze of political theater, entertainment as a fantasy machine, and updated forms of fascist aesthetics that play out in the lies and circuses on display every evening in the mainstream news cycles. This is a form of performative fascism marked by an “extraordinary capacity for denial … the haunting legacy of slavery,” and the self-perpetuating fantasies of American exceptionalism. This is a violence rooted in the historical legacy of lynching, mass murder and eugenicism that appropriates elements of a fascist politics, colonialism and the genocide politics aimed at Indigenous populations.

Violence on this scale is what should be addressed, and it should be analyzed not through the lens of moral righteousness and regressive notions of indignation, but with political insights and convictions coupled with moral outrage and mass demonstrations. Calling out destruction of property while ignoring state violence is not an insight but an act of complicity. State violence in the current moment is tethered to an apocalyptic vision and politics of fear that preaches the suburbs being overtaken my crime (code for the presence of Black people), and the country being destroyed by immigrants, who need to be purged from the dream of citizenship and the institutions that make up the public sphere, which in Trump’s world is an enclave exclusively for whites.

Rather than condemn protesters smashing the windows of Starbucks, it is time to protest the violence of institutional racism, a predatory economic system, and a government controlled by a mix of white supremacists, powerful banks and corrupt corporations, all of whom wage a war against the need for a socialist democracy in which justice and equity inform each other. Ta-Nehisi Coates is right when he states that, “Instead of nonviolence being the ethic demanded of protesters, what if it was the ethic demanded of the state?… If nonviolence is such a beautiful way of living, I think we should imagine that for the state. I think it’s actually worth doing.”

Engaging state violence suggests eliminating a neoliberal capitalist order marked by systemic police violence, environmental degradation, massive inequities in wealth and power, death-dealing racist policies, spiraling impoverishment, and the economic devastation of the working class and people of color. Violence is endemic to capitalism, and systemic racism is its fascist counterpart. Against such violence there is a need for a new political framework accompanied by new social formations capable of dealing with inequality and racism. As David Harvey argues, “We need to make a break for it, and plot the creation of more democratic and socially just forms of [society], animated by a different political economy and a different structure of social relations.” Given the state of the current pandemic, the neoliberal myths that celebrate the market as the template for all social relations, the notion that the only responsibility that is credible is entirely personal, and the normalized assumption that capitalism and democracy are synonymous are in the midst of a legitimation crisis.

What is currently needed to dismantle the violence of the state and neoliberal fascism is a mass movement willing to reinvent the promise of a radical socialist democracy in which people share power and shape the institutions and crucial decisions that affect their lives. As Stanley Aronowitz puts it, the left needs to “find the appropriate forms to enable democratic self-management of key economic, political, and social institutions.” This demands a comprehensive vision and understanding of politics that would integrate different movements into both a broader political formation and a capacious narrative for defining a radical democracy.

The current political, economic, ideological and social crisis can only be grasped as a crisis of totality or social whole — one that encompasses all of the diverse strands that make up the ecological, economic, political, educational and social spheres. In addition, the struggle over state violence must be understood as more than the struggle over economic and political institutions; it is also a struggle over consciousness, agency, desire, values and emancipatory forms of education. Progressives need to reclaim culture as a crucial site of struggle over how people identify themselves, inhabit particular forms of identity, and connect everyday struggles to wider political and economic structures as collective forms of resistance. This suggests understanding and engaging the multiple sites and cultural apparatuses in which education takes place. It also suggests making education itself central to politics. It is crucial to remember that the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical. As the Black Lives Matter movement has made clear, it would be a major mistake for progressives to underestimate the pedagogical dimensions of struggle and collective resistance.

The reality that our lives are linked has been undermined by neoliberal capitalism in order to shift the problems we face away from the violence of capitalism to the realms of the purely personal and private. The logic of the market, with its rampant individualism and ethos of consumerism, are now the organizing principles of governance and everyday life modeled after the logic of war. As such, translating private troubles into systemic considerations becomes difficult and serves to hide the violence that is waged daily by the state on those considered unfit to be included in the discourses of justice, equality and community.

There is no collective struggle without an understanding and embrace of the notions of solidarity and social agency connected to the struggle over social equality, social justice, emancipation and economic equality. Without a shared conception of struggle and justice, all that is left is fascism. That is not a choice we should take for granted.

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