Trump announces a ‘surge’ of stormtroopers

Unwelcome visitors: Federal security forces using tear gas in Portland, Oregon, yesterday. © Getty

Is the US sliding into fascism? President Trump’s plan to send a surge of federal security forces to US cities in a crackdown on crime has been denounced as a threat to civil liberties.

You could be watching a dystopian thriller. Heavily armed men in camouflage uniform and gas masks, with nothing to identify them, line the streets of an American city.

Some fire tear gas at peaceful protesters, before charging them and beating them with batons. Others grab people, apparently at random, and force them into the back of unmarked vehicles, pulling masks over their faces.

But this is not a film – it is Donald Trump’s America. The armed men are federal agents – meaning that they are not answerable to the local authorities – belonging to a new organisation set up three weeks ago.

The Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT) was officially created to stop people attacking “monuments, memorials, statues, and federal facilities” – but seems to be going far beyond that.

Among its victims have been a navy veteran who had his hand broken with a baton while protesting against “Pinochet-type behaviour from our own government”, and a 26-year-old man whose skull was fractured by a rubber bullet.

Trump insists his measures are necessary. The Black Lives Matter protests in Portland have been particularly intense, and marred by looting and arson. “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it,” Trump tweeted. “Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators.”

The PACT says the reason its agents have no identification on their uniforms is to protect them from retaliation. A prominent Trump supporter has argued that bundling people into unmarked cars is “how good policing is done”.

But the local authorities are outraged. “These tactics must stop,” says Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum. “They not only make it impossible for people to assert their First Amendment rights to protest peacefully, they also create a more volatile situation on our streets […]. Every American should be repulsed when they see this happening. If this can happen here in Portland, it can happen anywhere.”

Democratic Congressman Joaquin Castro describes the PACT’s behaviour as “unconstitutional and dangerous and heading towards fascism”. He is particularly concerned that many of its agents are drawn from another force, the US Customs and Border Protection, which has a reputation for violence and racism.

He also argues that, since the agents are unidentifiable, it would be easy for far-right extremists to adopt their uniform and cause additional mayhem.

“This is a classic way that violence happens in authoritarian regimes, whether it’s Franco’s Spain or whether it’s the Russian Empire,” says the historian Timothy Snyder. “The people who are getting used to committing violence on the border are then brought in to commit violence against people in the interior.”

And, in the past few hours, Trump has announced an additional “surge” of hundreds of law enforcement officers into Democratic-run cities including Chicago. “Today, I’m announcing a surge of federal law enforcement into American communities plagued by violent crime,” he said.

Is the US sliding into fascism?

Apprentice thugs

No. Trump is playing a different game. With his canny grasp of the media, he is trying to create TV footage that he thinks will help his re-election campaign. He believes that nightly news video of heavily armed men quelling protestors will enforce his image as the candidate of law and order, while his liberal opponent is identified with the mobs taking control of the streets.

Yes. Intimidating innocent citizens by sending out thugs, who can beat and kidnap them with impunity, is exactly what the Nazis did. Equally alarming, says the historian Anne Applebaum, are those who justify Trump’s actions: “The writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programmes and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public.”

You Decide

  1. Mothers in Portland have been gathering to form a “Wall of Moms” protecting the protesters from the PACT – and sometimes getting gassed themselves. If your mother wanted to do the same, would you support her?
  2. Are there any circumstances under which the right to protest should be suspended?

Activities

  1. Using this story as your source material, draw a political cartoon of Donald Trump.
  2. Imagine that you are the mayor of a city in which the PACT has been deployed against your will. Write a speech protesting against the decision and deliver it to your family. Get them to ask you questions about it.

Some People Say...

“Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy. Indeed, if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.”

Anne Applebaum, American historian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the original fascist movement, which took root in the 1920s and 1930s, was created by the Italian leader Benito Mussolini, with Adolf Hitler in Germany and General Franco in Spain as its other main proponents. The historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat defines fascism as a one-party state led by a charismatic dictator who uses violence against its enemies, and encourages “xenophobic nationalism, racism, class unity rather than class conflict, anti-feminism, and imperialism”.
What do we not know?
Whether Donald Trump is a fascist or simply an authoritarian. For Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the difference is that authoritarians keep “a veneer of democracy”. They allow elections – but rig them – and generally use threats and legal harassment rather than violence. Often, like Turkey’s President Erdoğan, they pretend that their enemies are terrorists. Those who do use violence, like President Putin, tend to target individuals with poisonings and murders.

Word Watch

Dystopian
A dystopia is an imaginary place where everything is as bad as possible. It is the opposite of a utopia.
Batons
Or truncheons; roughly cylindrical clubs made of wood, rubber, plastic, or metal.
Pinochet
Augusto Pinochet was a military dictator who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. He is believed to have executed at least 1,200 people and imprisoned up to 80,000.
Marred
Ruined; spoiled.
Agitators
People who urge others to protest or rebel.
First Amendment
An amendment to the American constitution which guarantees various freedoms, including those of assembly, speech, religion, and the press.
Volatile
Likely to change rapidly and unpredictably, especially for the worse.
Repulsed
Disgusted; sickened.
Franco’s Spain
Francisco Franco was an army officer who started a civil war in Spain by rebelling against the left-wing government in 1936. He ruled the country from 1939 to 1975.
Russian Empire
The satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin described Russia in Tsar Nicholas I’s reign (1825-1855) as “a desert landscape with a jail in the middle of it”. The writer Gleb Uspensky recorded: “To be afraid was the basic rule of life. It throttled people’s ability to think.”
Canny
Showing good judgement, especially in money or business matters.
Quelling
Putting an end to (a rebellion or other disorder), typically by the use of force.

Subjects

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