From Portside <[email protected]>
Subject A Trump Second Term: Tyranny by Another Name
Date May 23, 2020 3:00 AM
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[In a second Trump term basic legal structures will be pulverized
and a fundamentally lawless regime will set about maintaining itself
in power, while pretending to democratic norms]
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Van Gosse
May 14, 2020
Organizing Upgrade
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_ In a second Trump term basic legal structures will be pulverized
and a fundamentally lawless regime will set about maintaining itself
in power, while pretending to democratic norms _

Viktor Mihály Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary; Jair Messias
Bolsonaro, President of Brazil; Narendra Damodardas Modi, Prime
Minister of India,


The United States is fast approaching a tipping point. Consider the

* A coordinated mobilization
[[link removed]] of
armed militias threatens elected officials in Democratic states, with
open White House backing;
* The most powerful member of the national legislature interferes
in judicial appointments
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gain his party permanent dominance over this branch of government;
* A top official who has admitted his guilt in a major breach of
national security is released from prosecution
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the nation’s chief judicial officer.

These attacks on democratic norms should have rung every alarm we
have. But more than three years of Trump’s transgressions have
numbed much of the progressive base. The steps outlined above document
a clear and present danger: _whatever `democracy’ we have acquired,
through enormous struggle, is now on the line._


For good reason, many people will snort at the notion that the U.S.
has ever lived up to the core premises of liberal democracy: the rule
of law applied equally to all citizens; majority rule through free and
fair elections. As the author of “Why the United States is Not a
True Democracy, Parts 1 and 2,”
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disagree! Majorities do not rule in this country. Basic citizenship
rights, whether the right to vote or to be secure in one’s own
person, are routinely violated by local and state governments.

But it could get much worse if Trump wins again. In a second Trump
administration, with Republicans controlling the Senate and the
federal court system, it is more than possible that the U.S. will move
sharply towards _illiberal democracy_.

“Illiberal Democracy” is not a play on words. It is the
self-description for a new model of authoritarian governance sweeping
large parts of the world, from India (soon to be first in the world in
population) to Brazil, Turkey, Russia, and a brace of central and
eastern European states (Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary).

In an illiberal democracy, a temporary electoral majority uses its
grip on power to subvert the main institutions of the state and civil
society: the independent media; the judiciary; the police. All the
while, a façade of electoral democracy is maintained, with
multi-party elections, a parliament that meets and debates, and some
toleration of dissent. But the essence of democratic rule is regularly

In each of these cases, the winning party has polarized popular
sentiment via appeals to xenophobic, nativist, religious, and
ethno-racial phobias. Muslims are the target in India, Roma in
Hungary, Jews and LGBT people in Poland, the indigenous in Brazil,
Kurds in Turkey, a full rainbow of “foreign,” mostly non-white
peoples in the U.S. and Russia.

Here are a few examples.

In _India_, Narendra Modi’s BJP government has incited pogroms
against Muslims, stripped citizenship from millions of non-Hindus, and
intimidated the press into sycophantic adoration, all while winning

In _Turkey_, Recip Erdogan’s AKP regime dominates the judicial
system and routinely jails journalists, while Erdogan and his family
own 90% of the media outlets.

In _Brazil_, Jair Bolsonaro presides over a “death squad
democracy,” giving a green light to groups that murder indigenous
and Afro-descended Brazilians in rural areas, while urban police and
militias kill at will in _favelas_.

In _Russia_, Vladimir Putin’s government controls all the
electronic media, disappears critical journalists at home,
assassinates opponents abroad, and changes the constitution as Putin
sees fit, to maintain his grip on power.

In _Hungary_, the Fidesz Party controlling parliament has granted
Prime Minister Victor Orban unlimited authority to rule by decree.

In _Poland_, Jaroslaw Kaczynski ‘s Law and Justice Party has
systematically attacked the entire judicial system, using the state
media to harass any judge who disagrees.


Pundits, scholars, and activists have sketched many bad things
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could happen if Trump wins in November. But most of those scenarios
presume the basic legal structures of the U.S. state continue to
function, even if under Republican rule they are temporarily skewed.

My presumption is different. I think those structures will be
pulverized and a fundamentally lawless regime will set about
maintaining itself in power, while pretending to democratic norms. 
Indeed, this assault on democracy is already happening. So far it is
aimed mainly at people who are not Trump loyalists who hold some
power: the Governor of Michigan or longtime officials in the so-called
“Deep State,” meaning the federal civil service. (The organized
left is not yet significant enough to be high-priority targets on
Trump’s to-do list, perhaps one reason some progressives do not
fully understand the threat he poses).

In a second Trump Administration, I see this assault on democracy
proceeding in four stages:

First, pack the judiciary. Second, plant loyalists in all
decision-making posts in the larger state apparatus. Third, green
light paramilitary violence. Fourth, seize control of the state’s
monopoly on legitimate coercion via the police.

Keep in mind that implementing this progression does not require the
popularly understood signs that a dictator has taken over: tanks in
the streets and thousands jailed overnight. Trump likely would let
the _New York Times_ continue publishing, and the formal mechanisms
of parliamentary representation would continue. Old-guard Democrats
would remain in Congress and state houses, because their impotent
voices would legitimize rule by a Republican Party committed to
staying in power by any means necessary.

The attack on the democratic gains of the 1960s – in particular,
voting rights for African Americans – began long before Trump.
Republicans recognized decades ago that changing demographics would
make it less and less likely that a party anchored in overt white
supremacy could win many victories in a genuine one-person, one-vote
system. GOP gains in voter suppression are part of the reason Trump
was able to win in 2016. Since his inauguration, attacks on voting
rights have increased, and a second Trump term promises much worse.


Nearly everyone alive today grew up believing that the federal
judiciary would either extend rights, or at least guarantee them
against erosion.  Even as the Burger, Rehnquist, and now Roberts
Supreme Courts turned ever more rightward, the precedents set by the
Warren Court in 1953-1969 were presumed to hold, in part because new
rights were occasionally added, as specific gay and lesbian rights
were in _Lawrence v. Texas_
[[link removed]] (2003) and _Obergefell v.
Hodges_ [[link removed]] (2015).  The 1980s
and after rulings that enabled racialized mass incarceration largely
escaped notice, so that by the time Michelle Alexander’s _The New
Jim Crow_ appeared in 2011, the damage was already done.

_Shelby v. Holder_ [[link removed]] in 2013,
which ruled key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act unconstitutional,
and the 2019 _Rucho v. Common Cause_
[[link removed]] ruling that “Partisan
gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of
the federal courts” were massive setbacks. The Court’s April 2020
refusal to block Wisconsin Republicans’ attempted mass
disfranchisement clarifies that we are in the middle of a judicial

We now have a Court like those which permitted Jim Crow’s apparatus
of repression, violence, and disfranchisement from the 1870s to the
1940s. In that era, the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantees of equal
protection and due process explicitly did not apply to the states. As
long as poll taxes and literacy tests were nominally nonracial, they
were permitted; similarly, in the 21st century, we can expect that
“voter identification” laws, purges of voter rolls, and
gerrymanders will be permitted under almost any circumstance.

In a second Trump administration, the Supreme Court, already under
right-wing control, will be further undermined by threatened
impeachment and forced retirement of the remaining liberal justices.
That judicial purge will be extended to the entire federal bench, as
signaled by Mitch McConnell personally pressuring judges
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retire so Trump can replace them. We should expect a scenario in which
there is no possibility of judicial review or restraint, and the
remaining independent judges are subjected to public and private

That we have to consider this possibility suggests how far the process
of “illiberalization” has already moved. If Trump wins and
McConnell consolidates his take-over of the federal bench, we move
very far back to a world of constant quasi-legal repression–grand
jury indictments, tax and fraud prosecutions, weaponizing the IRS
against political groups and individual activists, a barrage of
injunctions to block protests, strikes, and any effort by local and
state governments to resist Trump.


Since he was elected, Trump has steadily undermined structures of
government that benefit ordinary people, whether the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the
National Labor Relations Board, the Departments of Housing and Urban
Development, Education, and Labor, the National Park Service, or the
Environmental Protection Agency. All the above have been corrupted for
narrow partisan purposes.

The current attempts to destroy the Postal Service and politicize the
United States Census, two of the success stories of American
governance since the 1790s, are the most perverse illustrations of
this larger attack.

Trump’s special targets, however, are those parts of the government
that regulate and enforce laws domestically and abide by norms and
agreements internationally. He has moved to turn the FBI, the Justice
Department, the State Department, and the entire intelligence
apparatus from institutions accountable to Congress (and hence on some
issues forced to respond to popular pressure) into enforcers of his
personal agenda. Even the military, formerly sacrosanct, has been
humiliated by his overturning the court martials of war criminals like
the SEAL “Eddie” Gallagher.

Richard Nixon once attempted to move at least part way in this
direction with his efforts to gain personal control of the FBI and
CIA. But the terrain was different then, and he was beaten back. It
was FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt who acted as the Deep Throat
informer to blow up Nixon’s plans.

If Trump games the November election, the FBI will become Trump’s
personal police, with the President acting as the new J. Edgar Hoover
who led the Bureau from 1924 to 1972. Any individual or organization
will be fair game for infiltration, disruption, suppression, and
blackmail at the behest of the White House. Trump’s enemies in the
Democratic Party, the press, and the state apparatus will likely be
first-priority targets. More and more people will disappear from
public life in a campaign of vengeance that will make Nixon’s
“enemies list” look small-scale. Once they have been knocked down,
any kind of grassroots opposition by progressives will be next in


The next possibility, signaling a descent into the tactics
historically associated with fascism, would be outright political
violence condoned from the top and hailed by his base. We have not
seen that kind of politics since the routine floggings and killings of
Black and white Republicans by Democrats during Reconstruction.  The
Bundys’ occupation of federal lands, the Nazi gangs marching through
Charlottesville, and the mass gun-rights rallies at state capitols
just before COVID-19 hit, featuring men in body armor with automatic
weapons, are now escalating into armed parades in streets and
legislative chambers.

We need to take these escalations seriously. Every day I get emails
from websites like
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“traitors.” Trump began his rise to power by suggesting that his
opponent should be “locked up.” Last year he regularly stoked
crowds chanting “Send Her Back!” against Representative Ilhan Omar
and the Squad, and last month he urged mobs to “liberate” their
states.  How long before zealots act on that language, and give
traitors what they deserve?


Brutally violent, repressive policing, aimed directly at people of
color and political dissenters, is a deep-rooted feature of U.S.
society. But the systemic impact of that coercion has been curtailed
by the dispersed structure of our policing system.
A _national_ paramilitary police force directed from the White House
would be genuinely new, and extraordinarily dangerous.

This potential was signaled in February when Trump sent what is
essentially a military unit, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC)
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into sanctuary cities to work with ICE. Beyond that, what do you think
will happen if ICE or FBI agents start arresting his most outspoken
opponents? Would the New York or Chicago police departments disarm
federal officers rounding up leftwing Black and Latino city council
members and Members of Congress?

In this previously unimaginable scenario, Trump would appeal to the
“thin blue line” to come to his aid, and armed men in uniform
would answer his call in the Blue states, while Red state governors
and legislatures respond enthusiastically. At that point, it will not
matter that there is no constitutional authority for a president
seizing control of local police.


We must stop hoping that the millions of Republicans who supported
Trump’s opponents in 2016, and believe themselves to be law-abiding
people, will object to an ever-more authoritarian government. Of
course, not every Republican is a hater or a permanent enemy. But
their class interest and racial blinders—functionally the same
thing—precludes any rocking of the boat. They have gained greatly
under him, and the consequences of admitting his increasing despotism,
in terms of personal ruin and moral responsibility, would be very

Here is the parallel from our history of authoritarian governments.
For three-quarters of a century, the overwhelming majority of southern
whites defended the Jim Crow system as natural and fitting. They
ignored the racial terror deployed against their black neighbors, just
as today’s Republicans avow how much they wish the President would
stop tweeting, or not say such terrible things, or tone it down. They
“don’t agree with everything he does,” but they will vote for
him anyway. With a few exceptions like Mitt Romney and the Lincoln
Project [[link removed]], they insist the Emperor is
wearing fine new clothes even though his gross old torso is naked in
plain sight.

Given the real possibility of Trump winning again via votes suppressed
and votes bought, just enough to take the Electoral College, we face a
stark necessity. The majority must mass together to defeat Trump and
crush Trumpism. We cannot stay where we are, we will move forward or
we will move back. Democracy, all that we have fought for and not-yet
achieved, is on the line.

_Van Gosse is a Professor of History at Franklin & Marshall. After
writing about the New Left "movement of movements" for some years, he
now studies black politics between the Revolution and the Civil War.
He has been active in peace and solidarity work since the 1980s
(CISPES, Peace Action, United for Peace and Justice) and helped found
Historians Against the War, now H-PAD, in 2003._

_Thanks to the author for sending this to xxxxxx._

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