This one's from the heart. I planned to write a completely different post today on the electoral impact of Donald Trump's aggressive advances repelling women across the board. But after reading comments from a post I wrote Friday about the two chief prosecutors in Philadelphia and Baltimore pledging to criminally prosecute federal agents who make unlawful arrests in their city, I scrapped my original plan.
The comments section took me by surprise. While some readers applauded the op-ed written by State attorney for Baltimore City Marilyn Mosby and Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner, others dismissed their preemptive shot across the bow as wishful thinking. Who would arrest the federal agents, they wondered, especially when there's been reports of some local police cooperating with Trump's secret militia? Isn't it just grandstanding to threaten criminal prosecution of Trump's goons?
These are reasonable questions in these crazy times. Sure, these prosecutors may not gain the cooperation of their local police departments, but they certainly have the legal authority to execute arrest warrants. Mosby and Krasner clearly believe Trump’s federal agents are committing prosecutable crimes in Portland, and also believe they have the authority to prosecute such crimes if committed in their jurisdictions. Beyond the arrests, the two prosecutors even gamed out the politics of arresting now, investigating, and then prosecuting in a post-Trump world that is—theoretically—free from interference by Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr. But I don't want to dive into a rabbit hole of process details right now as much as I want to focus on the big picture of what's happening here, and how critical it is for us to resist it in every way possible.
Donald Trump and Attorney General Barr are using paramilitary forces to infiltrate cities without local cooperation and wreaking havoc on them. If you haven't totally paid attention, The New York Times put out a great 7-minute primer video on Friday detailing Trump's federal invasion of Portland. Trump and Barr also announced this week that they're sending more federal forces with a supposedly slightly altered mission to Albuquerque, Chicago, and Kansas City—again, without invitation and with zero coordination with local leaders (Kansas City's mayor found about the deployment on Twitter!). Trump also has a wishlist of other cities he hopes to invade—New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Detroit, and Oakland are all among the cities he's named.
Trump and Barr clearly have multiple motivations here. They want to stoke unrest, they want to produce images of chaos in large metropolitan areas, they want to scare people (particularly white "Suburban Housewives"—otherwise known as women), and they surely want to influence and even interfere with the upcoming elections.
The mission of making war on his perceived enemies, the "radical left," also clearly animates Trump. He's been explicit. “The cities, unfortunately, that are in trouble are all run by Democrats," Trump said Wednesday in announcing the "surge," as if left-leaning cities are war zones where his troops are beating back terrorists. "You have radical left Democrats running cities like Chicago and so many others … Unfortunately, that’s the way it is."
But the "surge" is also about the only thing that's bringing Trump pleasure right now. He's in retreat on the coronavirus because he botched the national response so badly, he's in retreat on a new round of relief funding as he drops demands he once said were non-negotiable, and his approval ratings on everything from the pandemic to the economy have been plummeting. His presidency is effectively in free fall. But the Washington Post reports he has been "deeply involved" in the feds' Portland occupation, getting dispatches several times a day from acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf, a new favorite of Trump's. Sometimes, he dials up Wolf for "real-time updates" on events from the "front."
In Trump's twisted brain, he is really at war with enemy combatants (i.e. liberals). And if he's at war, America's at war, and liberal cities must be infiltrated and brought to heel. "I'm going to do something. That I can tell you," Trump said this week. "We're not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats."
This is fascism in the making—Trump's totalitarian dream, or “president for life” as he calls it, coming to fruition.
Trump's use of ICE and Custom and Border Patrol agents in Portland is no accident, according to Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny. The CPB agents and ICE special units that have been deployed to Portland are not trained in crowd control—they're trained in lawless zones at the border, and they're accustomed to violence and use of force. As Snyder told MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Friday, "violence starts at the border line" and then these agents bring those same tactics back to the city. These agents are also groomed to “otherize” their targets, and that remains true whether they are working the border or deployed in American cities.
“This is a classic way that violence happens in authoritarian regimes, whether it’s Franco’s Spain or whether it’s the Russian Empire,” Snyder told The New York Times' Michelle Goldberg. “The people who are getting used to committing violence on the border are then brought in to commit violence against people in the interior.”
But while it's imperative to understand what Trump and his toadies are really doing here, what's more important is to understand that we have agency. There are ways to fight back, and that's exactly what the citizens of Portland are doing and exactly what the top prosecutors of Baltimore and Philadelphia are doing by utilizing the authority with which they have been empowered.
As American-Russian journalist Masha Gessen told MSNBC Friday, "a lot of power is performance." But that works both ways, Trump will only be perceived as powerful if he is left to play out his fascist fantasies unchecked. "Fascism takes hold over time," Gessen explained, it doesn't just suddenly appear. The burning of the German parliament building, the Reichstag, four weeks after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as the country's Chancellor took place in 1933, Gessen noted. That was five years before Germany annexed Austria, six years before it invaded Poland, and eight years before it invaded the Soviet Union.
Gessen's point, in short, is that a show of resistance must bubble up from the people in order to quash the evolution of fascism. That resistance is also a crucial show of performative power. Americans aren't just going to stand by while Trump declares war on the roughly two-thirds of the population who happen reside in U.S. cities.
And that's the stand the citizens of Portland are making. Yes, in some ways, the Black Lives Matter message of the original protests in the city has regrettably been overshadowed by the show of resistance to federal occupation of the city. But once Trump sicced his militia forces on the city, a blurring of the BLM message was almost inevitable.
Still, what is happening in Portland both inspirational and instructive. While the BLM protests had begun to dwindle to several hundred people, the arrival of Trump's secret police to harass and unlawfully arrest activists without probable cause has brought out protesters numbering in the thousands.
The Wall of Moms who showed up to protect the protesters are literally putting their bodies on the line to safeguard First Amendment rights. They were followed by a Wall of leafblower-toting Dads, repelling the tear gas fired at the crowds by the feds. And on Friday night, a new Wall of Vets showed up, to provide cover to the Wall of Moms.
Here is the "radical" peaceful assembly of protesters they are all protecting.
Last weekend, Trump dodged giving a direct answer on whether he would leave office if he lost the election in November.
"I have to see. Look, you—I have to see," he told Fox News' Chris Wallace. "No, I'm not going to just say 'yes.' I'm not going to say 'no.' And I didn't last time, either."
Effectively, Trump’s waiting to see what he can get away with. The republic, if we can keep it, must do two things. One is to deliver an electoral rout in November, leaving no question that voters have thoroughly rejected Trump and all the spineless Republicans who enabled him to tear this country apart at the seams. But the second is to deliver a sizable show of resistance to his authoritarian policies in every possible way.
Gessen explained it like this: "Whether the Secret Service or other uniformed services escort Donald Trump out of office after he refuses to recognize an electoral loss—god willing it's a loss—will depend on whether they perceive the people are on their side or his side."
Again, power is performative. It's up to all us to show up at the voting booth, on the streets, or in our capacity as elected officials and resoundingly reject Trump's fascist regime. We have the numbers, and some 100 days out from the election, it's time to dig deep and harness our collective power to rid the nation of this tyrannical scourge.