Donald Trump is famously incurious about the most important issues facing our country and the world, unable even to grasp the seriousness of—or do anything constructive to address—a pandemic that has ravaged our country, destroyed our economy, and taken the lives of more than 145,000 of our people. But there is one thing of which Trump is a devoted and loyal student: the styles and methods of fascist and authoritarian leaders. He has effectively adopted this model as his method of politics and his method of governing. Now, as he fights for his political life, he is poised to take the country into the final phase of every authoritarian government: the military police state. Unless our political institutions — particularly the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives — take drastic steps to stop him, this will not end well for our democracy.
After weeks of police violence against protestors in Portland, Oregon, federal judges issued injunctions ordering the Portland police to stop using excessive force and violating constitutional rights. Trump seized on the relative calm that followed, by directing into Portland untrained federal paramilitary officials who, following practices Trump first implemented in the nation’s capital more than a month ago, have been driving unmarked vans, wearing military camouflage, and detaining protestors "without either arresting them or stating the basis for an arrest," according to a lawsuit filed by the Oregon Attorney General. Despite the recent court order against such conduct by the local police, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, these quasi military federal officials have threatened, intimidated and used unlawful violence against journalists and observers and have used "tear gas, impact projectiles, and physical force" against protestors and journalists alike. And even after a similar court injunction issued against the federal government Thursday night, reports are already emerging of violations of that order.
The Trump administration has acknowledged that these actions have been carried out by members of the U.S. Marshals Service and Homeland Security, but these heavily armed officials refuse to identify themselves, leaving protestors and others to guess whether they are victims of official government misconduct or of vigilante kidnappers. Trump and his hand-picked "Acting" (meaning not properly confirmed by the Senate) secretary of Homeland Security have threatened a "surge" of similar unlawful action against other cities around the country. Whether you live in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, or any other American city, this could be coming to you soon.
Trump has long used private and public violence, along with racism, as a political tool—urging violence against his political opponents, praising white supremacists, encouraging the police to be "rough" on suspects, and recently calling peaceful protestors "thugs" and threatening, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." Trump's loyalists at Homeland Security are now saying "they expect the unrest to escalate at least through the November election"—a convenient expectation for a president seeking to use violent clashes with protestors as a political weapon in his reelection campaign.
Trump's use of these federal agencies to turn our country into a police state is not only unconstitutional. It is straight out of the playbook of the fascist leaders he admires and emulates, and it poses an existential threat to our democracy—especially as we approach a national vote on whether he remains in office. While the lawsuits challenging the misconduct are important, Trump has repeatedly proven himself willing and able to delay and evade accountability from the judiciary. And with the majority of the Senate hopelessly beholden to Trump, the one branch of the federal government with the power to fight back is the Democratically-controlled House of Representatives. In the face of this serious threat, the House needs to use whatever tools it has to restrain a lawless president. That should start with immediate emergency investigations into Trump’s misuse of these federal agencies and withholding funding from the agencies involved until Trump withdraws them from our cities.