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Are You Really Surprised by Our Authoritarian President?

For many of his mainstream critics, Trump is forever on the verge of finally going too far.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Over a year and a half, or a political eon, ago the focal point of our political discourse was a caravan of migrants trekking through Central America and Mexico in the hopes of winning asylum in the United States. The president, amplified by the conservative press and Republican candidates in the midterm elections, insisted “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” abetted by Democrats would overrun the border and invade the country; journalists reported in vain that the caravan comprised aspirant workers and families fleeing violence and destitution.

And although the right’s febrile conspiracy theories and the rhetoric of invasion inspired a gunman who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, a large faction of the punditry insisted that Democratic candidates hadn’t indulged the president’s paranoid fantasies enough. In a characteristic piece for The Atlantic, David Frum argued that liberals had become “massively discomfited by the caravan,” and that the situation presented Trump with an extraordinary “political opportunity.”

“Here is exactly the kind of issue that excites more conservative Americans,” he wrote, “and empowers him as their blustery, angry champion.”

Two weeks later, conservative Americans and their blustery, angry champion lost the midterm elections in a rout, having lost the support of many suburban voters Trump and Republicans had hoped to frighten with the caravan. The issue promptly vanished from Trump’s rhetoric and the headlines, but not before inspiring a remarkable policy response from the White House. Just over a week before the election, it was announced that over 5,000 active-duty troops would be sent to the border to intercept the caravan. “Our military is being mobilized at the Southern Border,” Trump tweeted on Halloween morning. “We will NOT let these Caravans, which are also made up of some very bad thugs and gang members, into the U.S.” Despite assurances from Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen that asylum-seekers would not be shot by American soldiers, Trump suggested they potentially would, in a press conference five days before voters went to the polls. “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back,” he said. “We’re going to consider it—I told them: Consider it a rifle. When they throw rocks, like they did at the Mexico military and police, I said: Consider it a rifle.”

Ultimately, the vast majority of the caravan’s migrants either simply waited for a chance at asylum once they reached the border after the election or gave up and turned back. Some who tried to cross the border illegally were apprehended or repelled by the Border Patrol and Mexican authorities. The troops kept themselves busy by putting up some barbed wire, an assignment that, in its smallness, obscured the significance of what Trump had done: The president had ordered the internal deployment of thousands of active-duty troops to help his party in an election. The mission cost us over $500 million—a price tag ballooned partially by the fact that 5,200 troops are still there today. Authorization for the mission will end on September 30, nearly two years after it began.

Nary a word was said about this during the president’s impeachment trial; by then the episode had been as thoroughly forgotten and eclipsed by events as the trial itself has been in the months since it occurred. All that happens in our politics now seems to dissolve into the ether, in part because Trump has succeeded in deepening our anterograde amnesia with his gift, honed by television and years of experience as his own best P.R. man, for making familiar moves and rhetoric seem like novelties.

So it was no more a surprise to learn Monday that Trump had ordered military police and federal authorities to violently force peaceful demonstrators against the death of George Floyd out of Lafayette Square for his photo opportunity in front of St. John’s Church—a historic Episcopal church not far from the White House that had suffered a fire during Sunday’s protests—than it was to see the press bewildered by the move. There was nothing bewildering about it. Donald Trump is a dangerous, petty man willing to abuse his authority and deploy violence to satisfy the resentments of a reactionary minority. He’s availed himself of every opportunity to prove this over the last half-decade of American life: Monday was not the first time, and likely not the last time, he has enlisted troops and law enforcement to help him do it.

The photo op itself, quickly edited into a short, swaggering video the White House posted to social media, was classic Trump: a few minutes’ worth of images so surreally pathetic they achieved an odd, unintended resonance. Trump and an entourage of officials—with Vice President Pence conspicuously absent—solemnly marched across the cleared park to St. John’s. There, the president stood before cameras and awkwardly held aloft a Bible of mysterious provenance.

“Is that your Bible?” a reporter asked.

“It’s a Bible,” he replied curtly.

And that was it. The papers have since furnished sundry details on how it all came together. Defense Secretary Mark Esper claimed he’d thought he and the other officials who joined Trump were accompanying him to a vandalized bathroom. Members of the clergy had been among those forced from the church’s premises by the police. Ivanka Trump had reportedly toted the Bible that Trump held from the White House in a $1,500 handbag. “It was just to win the news cycle,” a Trump adviser told The Washington Post.

Of course, they wound up losing it. The stunt brought international criticism and intensified the media’s ire—enough so that some of the president’s critics began saying strange things. There’s certainty all around that America has now well and truly begun its stride toward authoritarianism. And CNN religion commentator Father Edward Beck was among those who asked on Twitter, evidently innocent of the history of all Christendom, whether the Bible had “ever been used in a more disingenuous and exploitative way.” The guilelessness of all this is staggering—it would surprise many of our racial minorities, gay and queer Americans, women who’ve sought abortions, and Muslims, among others, to learn that Donald Trump inaugurated American totalitarianism this week. These are groups intimately familiar with the willingness of our politicians to deploy violence and repression for the sake of empty religious symbolism.

Authoritarianism is what sent demonstrators to Lafayette Square in the first place. A man has been killed by a  state-sponsored thug; across the country, citizens rising to protest are being bludgeoned and gassed by historically unaccountable authorities. What happened Monday was a small step in evolution, not the beginning of a great conversion. To the extent it was the high-water mark of anything, it was perhaps the apotheosis, in political imagery anyway, of conservative social politics—the whole ideological infrastructure summarized and made plain within the space of an hour. No, we’ve been told, the state shouldn’t go out of its way to make the disadvantaged whole or bring law and order to an economy controlled by gamblers, gluttons, and cheats. But it can be brought to bear, with overwhelming brutality, against people conservative Americans deem to be inferior and unworthy of our government’s attention.

The unworthies include and have long included the residents of Washington, D.C., a majority-minority city now functionally under occupation—thanks, in large part, to the efforts of civil rights–era segregationists and their ideological heirs in the contemporary Republican Party, to deny them autonomy. On Tuesday and Wednesday, pictures circulated of riot police from an alphabet soup of federal agencies standing around in the city’s streets doing essentially nothing. Like those troops still stationed at the border, they will spend most of their days making themselves useful as stagehands for the kind of security theater the last Republican administration perfected during the War on Terror. The troops stationed in Washington, though, will see action—taking truncheons to demonstrators and the press as soldiers in a culture war that armored vehicles have carted from the realm of metaphor into physical reality. There are boots on the ground, commanders in camo have reviewed units in the field, and Army helicopters are flying overhead. On Monday night, they hovered low enough to topple trees and send debris hurtling toward pedestrians. The formal name for this tactic, which the military uses to suppress insurgents in combat zones, is “show of force.”