This past week it became very obvious that a flailing Donald Trump is trying to save his prospects for re-election with a domestic variation on the time-honored Wag the Dog strategy.
Thomas Friedman writes in the Times:
(I)n a desperate effort to salvage his campaign, Trump turned to the Middle East Dictator’s Official Handbook and found just what he was looking for, the chapter titled, ‘What to Do When Your People Turn Against You?’
Answer: Turn them against each other and then present yourself as the only source of law and order.
Unable to control the pandemic, or to convince the American people that it’s totally cool that 150,000 of us have died, or that countries from Rwanda to Uruguay to Vietnam have handled it far better than we have, Trump has resorted to trying to scare the Dockers off his panicky supporters with a fictional portrait of radical leftists rioting in the streets, a situation only our “law and order” president (you know, the one who’s an as-yet-unindicted co-conspirator in a raft of felonies) can fix.
Is anyone surprised? Only a little. From the very beginning we worried that Trump, faced with the inevitable scandal, would gin up a foreign war to create this kind of distraction. Instead he is doing something arguably worse, in turning armed paramilitary force on US citizens.
As usual, he always finds a way to be even more horrible than we imagined.
Let’s dispense with the obvious part. The idea of anonymous federal agents in full camouflage battle rattle snatching US citizens off the streets and throwing them in unmarked vans to be interrogated in homegrown black sites is about as un-American as it gets.
But that is the whole point. Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic:
(T)he purpose of these troops is not to bring peace to Portland. The purpose is to transmit a message.
Americans should find this tactic familiar, because we’ve seen it before. When the Trump administration cruelly separated children from their families at the southern border, that was, among other things, a performance designed to show the public just how much the president dislikes immigrants from Mexico and Honduras.
The attack on demonstrators in Portland is like that: a performance designed to show just how much Trump dislikes “liberal” Americans, “urban” Americans, “Democrat” Americans. To put it differently (and to echo my colleague Adam Serwer): The chaos in Portland is not an accident. The chaos is the point.
Seen in that light, it all makes perfect sense. For an administration whose goal is simply to give its base a collective hard-on, what could be better than teargassing a liberal mayor? (“They knocked the hell out of him,” Trump bragged to Fox News. “That was the end of him.”)
Get ready for November, everybody!
And the vice-signaling is absolutely working, with that base. Conservative America thrilled to the sound of acting (of course) Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf telling Fox, “I don’t need invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job. We’re going to do that, whether they like us there or not.” The irony of this stance coming from the alleged party of small government and states’ rights is unmissable, as noted in a savvy comment from Facebook (h/t David Friend and Pedro Henriques da Silva):
To be clear: the official position of the Republican Party is now that the federal government has total authority to come into your town to kidnap, detain, and injure any American citizen with no warrant, no cause, and no accountability and there’s nothing that residents or local and state officials can do about it. It’s literally the opposite of everything they’ve supposedly said were their principles for decades.
Don’t bother fuming over this hypocrisy: it’s long ago become clear that we’re light-years beyond such considerations. Being a hypocrite requires having principles to betray in the first place. Right wing America’s only principle is the advancement of tribal power.
To that end, the Republican politicians and the neo-Confederate media shrieking heads who ordinarily style themselves staunch opponents of federal overreach are somehow all onboard with the invasion of Portland (aka Operation Pinetree Freedom—just a suggestion), hysterically hyping Trump’s image of American Carnage: The Sequel.
(Quick question. Even if I’m a Klan-friendly redhatted mouthbreather, why should I vote—again—for the guy who in his inauguration speech promised to reverse that very carnage, and now proclaims it worse than ever? #MAGA2.0 #KAG #WTF)
As if to further make Applebaum’s point, DHS official and homophobic, climate change-denying, xenophobic right wing nutjob Ken Cuccinelli openly bragged to NPR about what the administration was doing, going on and on about restoring order. (Also, graffiti: a dog whistle if ever there was one, and definitely something that demands heavily armed wannabe-SWAT teams.)
I’d like to pause here for a moment to note that, in an administration that has made non-Senate-confirmed “acting” officials the norm, Cuccinelli doesn’t even rate that. His official title is “Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security.”
Somewhere, The Artist Formerly Known as Prince is speaking with his lawyer.
ALPHA MALE, BETA TEST, GAMMA RAY
This is all a deliberate distraction, of course—from the pandemic, from the economy, from Black Lives Matter, and more—and the very fact that we’re talking about it proves that it’s working to some extent. But at the same time it’s a grievous violation of fundamental democratic principles in its own right, indicative of the direction Trump wants to take this country, and how far he will go to try to stay in power.
Anne Applebaum again:
Welcome to the world of performative authoritarianism, a form of politics that reached new heights of sophistication in Russia over the past decade and has now arrived in the United States. Unlike 20th-century authoritarianism, this 21st-century, postmodern influence campaign does not require the creation of a total police state. Nor does it require complete control of information, or mass arrests. It can be carried out, instead, with a few media outlets and a few carefully targeted arrests.
On that front, Portland is also an example of Trump employing yet another authoritarian trick, as Masha Gessen noted after the Lafayette Square debacle: testing the waters to see what he can get away with, in hopes of moving the Overton window hard to the right. In that sense, “performative authoritarianism” is merely the beta stage of the real thing.
Thankfully, there has been decent pushback to the White House’s actions, even as it tries to expand the invasion to Chicago, New York, Detroit, and elsewhere. (All cities with Democratic mayors. Quelle surprise.) Notably, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that he would have local law enforcement arrest federal agents who tried to detain peaceful protestors in the City of Brotherly Love. In an eloquent written statement, Krasner said:
My dad volunteered and served in World War II to fight fascism, like most of my uncles, so we would not have an American president brutalizing and kidnapping Americans for exercising their constitutional rights and trying to make America a better place, which is what patriots do.
Memo to the West Wing: don’t fuck with a city that used to have an operating courtroom and jail inside Veterans Stadium during Eagles games.
It’s also instructive who comprises Trump’s anonymous private army. Since the US military made it clear after the St. John’s Church episode that it’s not game for supporting a coup (we think), Trump has turned to another page from the Dictator’s Playbook and deployed instead a Praetorian Guard consisting (we think) largely of Customs and Border Patrol agents, a group loyal to him rather than the US Constitution.
It’s a deeply worrying, but historically familiar pattern. The Times’s Michelle Goldberg quotes Yale historian Timothy Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century:
Be wary of paramilitaries. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.” In 2017, the idea of unidentified agents in camouflage snatching leftists off the streets without warrants might have seemed like a febrile Resistance fantasy. Now it’s happening.
But much of the mainstream media, as always, has helped Trump along. The Washington Post played right into the White House’s narrative, validating his lies with a front page headline reading, “Facing unrest on American streets, Trump turns Homeland Security powers inward.”
That headline should have read, “Trump Employs Violence to Distract from his Scandals.”
But here’s the thing about protests in the streets that makes them so powerful: Not only do they tell the authoritarian that he’s unpopular, they tell his allies that he is unpopular.
Mitch McConnell, take note.
THANK YOU MASKED MAN!
The radical left-wing uprising that Trump wants his white suburban followers to fear is a figment of his imagination and an insult to the American tradition of lawful protest. As Nick Kristof reports, the only chaos and anarchy in Portland is created by the violent federal agents themselves. Friends of mine who live there report the same thing. That Trump sends goons geared up like Imperial Stormtroopers to fight a battalion of mothers, tie-dyed hippies, and a naked Millennial speaks to the cowardice of a police state and its reactionary followers in general. What kind of self-respecting federal agent needs a nightstick, a gas mask, body armor and flash-bang grenades to face down protestors who look like the parking lot at a Phish show?
(Check out also this immovable, mountain-like kid in a Naval Academy sweatshirt, and watch to the end for his double barreled middle finger salute to the Man.)
Thus far Trump’s more Nixon-than-Nixon ploy is failing, outside of his rabid base who will already believe or do anything he demands, even—gasp!—wear a mask if he says so. The sort of violent street theater being mounted by this administration in Portland is too hamhanded, too obviously un-American, too transparently desperate to fool most of sentient America.
But “sentient” isn’t the part of America Trump is speaking to…..and it doesn’t mean he will stop. In fact, he’s likely to double down.
The fact that the administration’s unconscionable actions are a measure of Trump’s rising desperation only makes him more dangerous, not less. This was a week, after all, where Chris Wallace took Donald apart on national television—on Fox News, no less—while Trump bragged endlessly that he “aced” an exam designed to tell if a person has brain damage.
Meanwhile, in “How Far Can Trump Go Before His Supporters Meekly Object” news, the President of the United States publicly wished an accused sex trafficker well and the media barely batted an eye. (I was surprised the WaPo didn’t report, “Woke Trump Demonstrates Support for Embattled Woman.”) Trump’s bizarre but not uncharacteristic comment demonstrated, at the very least, a repulsive psychopathic sympathy for sexual predators over their victims, and not for the first time. At worst, it was quite possibly a signal to Ghislaine Maxwell to keep mum about his own implication in those crimes in exchange for some Roger Stone-style executive protection.
So much for Republican outrage over Comet Pizza.
But as I say, reasonable Americans long ago gave up cataloging the hypocrisy of the Republican Party and its supporters. The GOP’s claim to any kind of integrity at all is a bitter joke…..and yet every day new examples of its loathsomeness emerge.
So let’s shift gears and remind ourselves of just one such example, a should-be scandal for the ages that is just one of many that the latest shitshow had temporarily obscured. To wit:
While Trump eagerly deploys loyalist paramilitary goons to beat and gas peaceful American citizens on our own streets, he is a lot less willing to confront Vladimir Putin and protect American soldiers abroad from being murdered.
As of this writing, it has been a full month since the New York Times first broke the story that Russian intelligence services were paying the Taliban bounties on the lives of US troops, and (as Pete Buttigieg pointed out on Twitter) Donald Trump still has not taken any action, apart from decrying it as a hoax.
Where is the outrage from so-called conservatives (NB: they are nothing of the sort), those self-styled patriots who never tire of telling us what great supporters of our troops they are? If they were eager to spend two years and millions of taxpayer dollars investigating alleged misconduct that led to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, why are they so willing to completely ignore this infinitely more egregious behavior from the actual sitting President of the United States?
I’ll tell you why. Because they are immoral swine without a shred of human decency among them.
When I was a boy, an Army brat growing up during and after the Vietnam war, there was no more reviled figure in the US military community than Jane Fonda. If you’re too young to remember, the Internet can tell you all about her July 1972 trip to North Vietnam, where she frolicked with PAVN troops, posed on an anti-aircraft gun of the sort used to shoot down the US pilots being held in brutal captivity not far from the site of that photo op, and made radio broadcasts for the Hanoi government lecturing US airmen on their crimes and imploring them to stop flying.
This was not ordinary, all-American protest toward US policy. The best that can be said about her behavior is that it reflected a cringeworthy and appalling naiveté. The worst that can be said was said a lot in the communities where I grew up.
In any event, Jane Fonda quickly became the most hated woman in America, with millions of conservatives very much at the forefront. She apologized, albeit many years later, but nothing she can say or do will redeem her in the eyes of many.
It’s not for me to judge her or dispense or withhold forgiveness—I’ll leave that to those actually served in Vietnam, like my father. But to this day Jane Fonda remains a deeply hated pariah to the American right.
So where is that conservative outrage over Donald Trump’s far more craven, arguably treasonous subservience to Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation? Right wing America has denied, ignored, and excused his willingness to accept Russian help in the election, his continual water-carrying for Moscow over issues from NATO to Syria to the G-7, his appalling announcement that he takes Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence community, his delivery of top secret intelligence to Lavrov and Kislyak right in the Oval Office, his refusal to harden our electoral system against further Russian interference or even acknowledge its existence, and more. And that bizarre fealty to the a hostile foreign power may well have which reached its apex (or is it its nadir?) with Trump’s inexplicable unwillingness to say boo over the Kremlin’s blood money for American scalps.
When it comes to playing footsie with the enemy, Donald Trump makes Jane Fonda look like Audie Murphy. And yet, from Red America, crickets.
Strike that—not crickets. Applause.
So this is our new normal? Where federal agents can invade an American city over the objections of the local authorities and beat and tear gas and falsely arrest US citizens, while our head of state sits on his hands and timidly allows a murderous foreign dictator to commission the slaughter of American soldiers? Short of blackmail or a Manchurian candidate scenario, can anyone explain that, or why allegedly patriotic, self-identified conservative Americans still want Jane Fonda burned at the stake, but have given Donald Trump not only a pass, but the keys to the kingdom?
I’ll be here waiting, Republicans, when you have an answer for me.
Photo: Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond, 1981