July 21, 2020

Look at President Donald J. Trump playing “Baby Pinochet”

As of this writing, secret police are cruising the streets of at least one American city, hustling citizens engaged in First Amendment-protected acts of protest off the streets in unmarked cars, where they are detained without charges in federal buildings.

Stated so plainly, is it really alarmist to accuse our president of playing at Pinochet?

It is tempting to use the rhetoric of fairness. After all, President Donald J. Trump, unlike Gen. Augusto Pinochet, is not disappearing his political opponents by the tens of thousands.

And this is, after all, America, where there’s a long, illuminating tradition of civil society, habeas corpus, checks and balances, and the Bill of Rights, all specifically designed to prevent such abuses of power.

Yet there is an equally long shadow cast by the American capacity and instinct for brutality and impunity — from Jim Crow to lynch mobs; from the Red Scares to McCarthyism; from the murder of Fred Hampton to the M.O.V.E. bombing in Philadelphia; and so on, and so on.

In that regard, our president has proven himself far too willing to ape the rhetoric of the fascistic authoritarian and the fear-baiting, outrage-stirring demagogue — and to use the powers of his office in a manner that incrementally ups the fascistic ante.

President Donald J. Trump’s secret police are apparently from Customs and Border Protection, or maybe the Federal Protective Service, or both.

President Donald J. Trump says he wants to send these paramilitary forces to Chicago, Oakland, and elsewhere, against the wishes of local authorities, and most certainly to the building alarm and anger of everyday citizens still fresh from massive, coast-to-coast protests against another long American tradition — that of murderous institutional and societal racism.

The potential for deeper abuse increases with each such deployment; President Donald J. Trump’s willingness to harness such dark historical forces for his political advantage is contemptible and criminal.

And, given any confusion or contested results in the forthcoming November election, we will most certainly see widespread civil unrest. Would this be an opportunity for further deployments of President Donald J. Trump’s secret police?

[EDIT, September 1, 2021: Despite Mike Lindell’s post-Jan. 6 hopes for “martial law,” it seems some degree of constraint remained within the Trump administration, or close-enough outside it, sufficient to prevent the resurrection of Operation Condor on American soil.]

Yet with this comes an escalation of grassroots demands for accountability and redress, and the empowerment of countervailing civil-society forces and actors through an energized political process.

This fills me with hope — that we are in fact witnessing the death throes of American authoritarianism, and the demagoguery, race-baiting, and fascistic impulses that enable it.

What I fear is the terrible toll in life, love and all good hopes that the dying serpent will take — and has already taken — as it lashes about on the floor, spewing venom in its hideous convulsions.

I don’t think, given the strength of civil society, our civil institutions, and the burgeoning power of protest and civil disobedience, that President Donald J. Trump is ultimately capable of becoming an actual Pinochet.

But goddamn, it seems he is all too willing to play the part.