Sunday, September 6, 2020

America’s Coming Coup d’état?

Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah and is the author of, most recently, Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in 'It's a Wonderful Life' and Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon.
 Two days after the conclusion of the Republican National Convention and Don Trump’s interminable 70-minute speech, American fascists took to the streets of Portland, Oregon, to make a show of force against long-committed democratic citizens demonstrating for racial and social justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by police. (A similar scene unfolded in Kenosha, Wisconsin, earlier in the week after police nearly murdered, but did cripple, Jacob Blake.)

The motorized Klan caravan they formed in Portland included hundreds of trucks packed with Trump myrmidons, many of them armed, some with paint guns, others no doubt with the real thing. These white thugs often claim to be acting on behalf of private property, but the property that most concerns them is the property right guaranteed them by the second amendment. They love their guns (which aren’t about freedom), the mere possession and display of which give some kind of meaning to their lives. If they’re men, it provides them with a fleeting moment of empowerment in a world that has long ignored them and shuffled them to the sidelines.

Don Trump has done nothing to address their legitimate grievances in the age of globalization, at least along economic lines, but he has nurtured their impotent rage at a country that no longer reflects a privileged white image back to them. The country will never be what they want it to be, but when they play militia dress up and tote their guns around on the streets to give them a sense of civic importance—and intimidate and terrorize anyone who threatens their revanchist fantasies—they can insinuate themselves into Trump’s Make America Great Again, again narrative.

They feel no real sense of threat from the protests and demonstrations, as is the case with America writ large, even on those intermittent occasions when they turn violent, but Trump is pleased to incite fear and anger because he knows America’s ugly secret, namely, that too many Whites readily seize on the alarm Trump invokes with a profound sense of relief: it gives them permission to do what they want to do anyway, and would have eventually found some excuse to do in the absence of their alleged fear: vote for Don Trump in November.

Dominant media outlets insist on referring to roving bands of heavily armed right-wing, anti-democratic gangsters as counterprotesters. This label unduly stretches the meaning of the term. They take to the streets to confront, engage, intimidate, and routinely attack democratic citizens working for racial and social justice already present. In other words, if these democratic activists were not already there, the right-wing bands would stay at home and find other ways to express their impotence. When they do engage protesters, they do not partake in political activity. How could they? Their beloved leader and his party have no platform. Trump and the GOP stand for nothing. What policies they do pursue—tax cuts for the super rich and deregulation for mega corporations—serve only to aggravate the injuries of the bitter, angry constituents who support them unfailingly.
Don Trump will need their support come November. Whatever happens in the electoral college, Trump is likely to lose the 2020 presidential race by millions of votes, duplicating his 2016 feat. That alone will not be enough to remove him from the White House. If the election is close and vote totals in battleground states are in dispute (and they will be in dispute because Trump has already started effectively disputing them with his multiple mail fraud fabrications), Trump may well refuse to recognize the vote and refuse to leave the White House.

The events in Portland and other cities, then, have taken on added significance. Against the express wishes of local authorities, Don Trump has been dispatching federal forces from a wide range of security agencies to quell democratic demonstrations and attack democratic citizens. Many of these forces were dressed in fatigues without identifying names. They kidnapped citizens off city streets and whisked them away in unmarked vans. They acted like paramilitary thugs from other American dictatorships famous for disappearing citizens who challenged the regime. These were frightening spectacles—and they were meant to be.
These exercises in force should also be considered dress rehearsals for November and beyond. Don Trump has demonstrated that he can call and count on the extralegal support of countless military and police forces who are prepared to do his bidding regardless of the orders they are given or the consequences they produce. (Remember the military and police who assaulted and cleared out citizens in Lafayette Park for a Trump photo-op?) Don Trump is in the process of creating an ad hoc personal militia that gives its loyalty to him and him alone.
Perversely, then, Trump benefits from every police murder of a person of color. Murder leads to democratic protests, in turn enraging right-wing “counterprotesters” whose lives are defined by racial ressentiment and who thus seek and initiate conflict with people they hate. (Think here of Kyle Rittenhouse, a Trump “patriot” who traveled to Kenosha, inspired and celebrated by Trump, specifically to hunt people, especially of color.) This explosive combination results in police overreaction, which is no surprise since they are armed to the teeth and predisposed against democratic citizens enacting their rights of citizenship by demanding justice, including the defunding of police.
Trump, of course, who knows a good opportunity for political theater when he sees it, sends in federal forces, which predictably only makes matters worse, and is precisely Trump’s ambition. Every time he sends federal troops to American cities to exacerbate tensions and capitalize politically on the fallout, every time he tries to impose his version of law and order against a resistant America, he succeeds in creating new military forces loyal and dedicated to him and his cause, which is himself, of course, but also white supremacy.
Come November 3, these armed forces, governmental and otherwise, loyal to Don Trump, will be on America’s streets. By sheer presence alone, they will be trying to throw the election to their dear leader. Should he lose, however, they will be ready to ignore the results as Trump himself claims the process was rigged and refuses to recognize the outcome. The right has all the guns in this country, and they may try to decide the next election by force. Trump’s four-year reign of carefully calculated lawlessness may have conditioned too many to resign themselves to this denouement. And the Roberts Supreme Court, following William Rehnquist’s despicable example in Bush v. Gore, would happily give him whatever legal cover it can.
What are democratic citizens prepared to do in response? The question needs to be asked now because preparations need to be made now. What will resistance to a Trump coup d’état look like? Let it not be forgotten that in 2000 Al Gore and the Democratic Party rolled over, supposedly for the good of the country, when confronted with Republican thuggery and thievery over a contested election. Nothing good came from this act of self-imposed “civic sacrifice” that resulted in eight years of George W. Bush. The consequences with Trump will be far worse. American democracy, always fraught, may cease to be. We all need to get ready.
August 30, 2020



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