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The Threat of Authoritarianism in the U.S. is Very Real, and Has Nothing To Do With Trump

Published: December 30, 2020
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Source: Glenn Greenwald

(L-R): Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (Photo by BERTRAND GUAY,TOBIAS SCHWARZ,ANGELA WEISS,MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

Asserting that Donald Trump is a fascist-like dictator threatening the previously sturdy foundations of U.S. democracy has been a virtual requirement over the last four years to obtain entrance to cable news Green Rooms, sinecures as mainstream newspaper columnists, and popularity in faculty lounges. Yet it has proven to be a preposterous farce.

In 2020 alone, Trump had two perfectly crafted opportunities to seize authoritarian power — a global health pandemic and sprawling protests and sustained riots throughout American cities — and yet did virtually nothing to exploit those opportunities. Actual would-be despots such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán quickly seized on the virus to declare martial law, while even prior U.S. presidents, to say nothing of foreign tyrants, have used the pretext of much less civil unrest than what we saw this summer to deploy the military in the streets to pacify their own citizenry.

A similar dynamic prevailed during the sustained protests and riots that erupted after the killing of George Floyd. While conservatives such as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AK), in his controversial New York Times op-ed, urged the mass deployment of the military to quell the protesters, and while Trump threatened to deploy them if governors failed to pacify the riots, Trump failed to order anything more than a few isolated, symbolic gestures such as having troops use tear gas to clear out protesters from Lafayette Park for his now-notorious walk to a church, provoking harsh criticism from the right, including Fox News, for failing to use more aggressive force to restore order.

Virtually every prediction expressed by those who pushed this doomsday narrative of Trump as a rising dictator — usually with great profit for themselves — never materialized. While Trump radically escalated bombing campaigns he inherited from Bush and Obama, he started no new wars. When his policies were declared by courts to be unconstitutional, he either revised them to comport with judicial requirements (as in the case of his “Muslim ban”) or withdrew them (as in the case of diverting Pentagon funds to build his wall). No journalists were jailed for criticizing or reporting negatively on Trump, let alone killed, as was endlessly predicted and sometimes even implied. Bashing Trump was far more likely to yield best-selling books, social media stardom and new contracts as cable news “analysts” than interment in gulags or state reprisals. There were no Proud Boy insurrections or right-wing militias waging civil war in U.S. cities. Boastful and bizarre tweets aside, Trump’s administration was far more a continuation of the U.S. political tradition than a radical departure from it.

The hysterical Trump-as-despot script was all melodrama, a ploy for profits and ratings, and, most of all, a potent instrument to distract from the neoliberal ideology that gave rise to Trump in the first place by causing so much wreckage. Positing Trump as a grand aberration from U.S. politics and as the prime author of America’s woes — rather than what he was: a perfectly predictable extension of U.S politics and a symptom of preexisting pathologies — enabled those who have so much blood and economic destruction on their hands not only to evade responsibility for what they did, but to rehabilitate themselves as the guardians of freedom and prosperity and, ultimately, catapult themselves back into power. As of January 20, that is exactly where they will reside.

The Trump administration was by no means free of authoritarianism: his Justice Department prosecuted journalists’ sources; his White House often refused basic transparency; War on Terror and immigration detentions continued without due process. But that is largely because, as I wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in late 2016, the U.S. Government itself is authoritarian after decades of bipartisan expansion of executive powers justified by a posture of endless war. With rare exception, the lawless and power-abusing acts over the last four years were ones that inhere in the U.S. Government and long preceded Trump, not ones invented by him. To the extent Trump was an authoritarian, he was one in the way that all U.S. presidents have been since the War on Terror began and, more accurately, since the start of the Cold War and advent of the permanent national security state.

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