The dictatorship is almost here, are you alarmed yet?
Well, are you alarmed yet? A few years ago, even a few months ago, I would have agreed with your assessment that saying imminent dictatorship in the US is alarmist. Sure, Donald Trump has his flaws, he’s corrupt, incompetent, a racist, and embarrassing to have as our president, but almost a dictator? No, every right wing leader you disagree with can’t be Hitler.
Except, the problem is, the dictatorship is almost here, and if you aren’t afraid of it, if you aren’t willing to stop it, if you aren’t worried about what might happen, get worried.
Back in 2016 during the primary, Trump felt like a bad joke, a caricature of a politician. He said absurd things, racist things, he made fun of John McCain, things that would end anyone’s campaign. I remember driving through the Siskyous one night listening to a Republican debate on AM radio and laughing, taking some schadenfreude in every Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted uttered from Trump’s mouth. Surely, Trump would lose, surely the Republicans would pick someone else. But they didn’t. Even then during primary season I could see the beginnings of Trump’s authoritarianism, going so far as to write an opinion piece comparing Trump to Hitler. I was shocked he won the nomination, and distraught when he won the election. I thought, maybe this is the end, but then inauguration day came and went, and I held out hope that democracy would do its thing and we could survive four years. Surely he couldn’t be that bad, he had John Kelly, Jim Mattis, Rex Tillerson, Reince Preibus. There were adults in the room, anything that happened could be fixed. Maybe my assessment of Trump was too harsh and alarmist. It wasn’t.
Democracy is close to dying here in the United States. Trump is a quasi dictator, and if you know anything about how dictators come to power, you are shocked and alarmed, because you know Trump is making all the moves leaders make on their way to dictatorship.
First off, before even considering his actions, they way Trump acts and talks sounds like a dictator.
Take for instance this quote:
At the high points of his speeches, he is seduced by himself, and whether he is speaking the purest truth or the fattest lies, what he says is, in that moment, so completely the expression of his being.. that even from the lie an aura of authenticity floods over the listener.
Or this one:
He wasn’t even honest towards his most intimate confidants… In my opinion, he was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth.
Ok, sounds like dear leader Donald Trump, right? Wrong, both quotes describe Adolf Hitler, the first from Konrad Heiden, a Social Democratic journalist who covered Hitler’s rise in Munich, the second one from Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk, Hitler’s finance minister. (I lifted the quotes from this book.)
Trump is a liar and a demagogue, stoking the fears of people who feel forgotten in rural areas, left behind by the global economy and especially of white people who look around and see immigrants who don’t look like them moving to this country. He has aligned himself with evangelicals who look at the 21st century and its changing mores and see a leader who, while a womanizing-three-time-divorced-irreligious man, says he will stand up for them and the causes they love. Trump stirs the crowds at his rallies into a frenzy while he rolls through the hits. He taps into the racism built into America’s core, and our awkward relationship with immigration despite being a country mostly descended from immigrants.
Hitler stoked the fears of rural Germans who were upset about a lost war, angry about nascent globalization and its deleterious effects on the rural German economy, and conservative folk who were upset about the collapse of morality and the advance of modernity. Hitler used antisemitism to bind it all together, not surprising given its latent existence in German society since the Middle Ages, and the large number of Jews who had emigrated to Germany from Poland and Russia before and after World War I.
Trump used the United States’ own longstanding use of immigrants as scapegoats for his own election campaign. First, he just called them murderers and rapists, then he started locking children in cages, separating children from their parents at the border, misappropriating funds to build a wall on the southern border, with even his former advisor allegedly committing fraud off of fundraising to ostensibly build a wall. If racism and looking for a scapegoat is where it started, Trump continued with cruelty to execute his own vision of the United States, where immigrants looking to make a good life for themselves are instead kept in concentration camp like conditions and separated from their families in the most cruel ways possible.
It doesn’t just stop and end at the demagoguery. Trump’s use of paramilitary forces echoes those of Hitler. Hitler had his brownshirts and stormtroopers who roamed Weimar Republic Germany looking to brawl with left wing folks or Jews or journalists or whoever else they perceived to be enemies of the people. When Hitler seized power, he then used the power of the state, through both the police and the SS, to maintain that power.
Trump has a motley crew of right wing instigators who have been coming to Portland for years now looking to brawl. Much like the Stormtroopers would go into neighborhoods in Berlin loyal to left wing parties looking to start fights so they could claim that the left is full of violent actors, Patriot Prayer, Proud Boys, III Percenters, Oath Keepers, and other have gone to Portland looking to fight. First it was protests, then it was a brawl outside a cider bar. This has been going on since Trump took office.
The past few weekends the right wing demonstrations in Portland have reached a new level and violence and fear. Gunshots were fired as a car sped out of a parking garage on August 15. Pipebombs were thrown at Black Lives Matter protesters in Laurelhurst Park on August 8. Back the Blue, Anti-Marxist, pro-Trumpers (there were a few different right wing causes that day) brawled with BLM counter protesters, sprayed bear spray and mace indiscriminately, shot paintballs, threw smoke grenades, and at one moment, pointed a gun at counter protesters on August 22. I was in the crowd of counter protesters that day and honestly it scared the crap out of me and was the most violence I had seen at any protest since they began in May.
Then there was this past weekend, August 29, where Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department, Oregon State Police, Oregon Department of Transportation, and Portland Police Bureau blocked traffic to allow a pro-Trump truck caravan to descend on downtown Portland. The Trumpers sprayed crowds with bear spray, shot paint ball guns as they roared through downtown, with police blocking streets and arresting counter protesters, letting the Trumpers terrorize downtown unmolested. The evening culminated with a member of the right wing Patriot Prayer group being shot and killed in the street. The worst fear of many people in Portland had come to pass, that someone would die as a result of the protests.
There is an argument to be had about the tactics, vandalism, and ongoing nature of the protests in Portland, which have reached 100 straight days with no end in sight, but I think the lesson to take away from the protests are that local police have picked their side in the struggle against the quasi-dictator, and they are already decided whose free speech matters and whose speech will be protected by the police. After 100 days of protests, Portland Police continue to beat protesters, shoot tear gas, and arrest people for no reason at the nightly protests. Portland Police know that locals demanding defunding of the police, demanding real reform is a danger to their power, and they have been swinging batons since day one, and were gassing neighborhoods long before the feds showed up.
What worries me most about what has happened the past two weekends when right wing agitators have descended on the city, is the police have turned a blind eye to the violence committed by the Trumpers, or at worse they have actively assisted them as they rampaged through the city. On August 22, if the police had rolled in and declared a riot, I wouldn’t have argued against them. There were fights, men pointing weapons, chemical agents being used, projectiles being thrown. Portland Police have declared a riot for less. However, they stood aside, claiming to be understaffed, claiming the situation was too dangerous. The violence committed by the Trumpers had the tacit approval of the police, who did not move in until federal agents declared an unlawful gathering at the end when the last Back the Blue flag disappeared. And then the past weekend, the police aided the Trumpers, paving their way into downtown by blocking roads and streets and arresting only the folks booing the Trump trucks, looking away while Trumpers sprayed bear spray and shot paint ball guns. The local security apparatus has thrown its lot in with Trump and will continue to.
If you aren’t already exhausted by the parade of police brutality in Portland or if you hope that our local Democratic elected officials will stand up to the police, or Trump, or the feds, you are wrong. Tear Gas Ted Wheeler has continued to let PPB brutalize protesters, as they are tackled, gassed, and beaten in the streets. Wheeler has decried the vandalism, but rarely mentions the violence committed by the police force he supposedly controls. Other local leaders have noticed the brutality Portland Police have taken against those protesting police violence, while they give armed right-wing protesters a pass when they attack other people. State Senator Lew Fredrick, who represents Portland, has noticed the difference and police hypocrisy having occasionally attended the protests saying to the Oregonian:
“The folks who have offensive weapons are not cordoned off, are not surrounded, are not taken into custody, but somebody who is objecting to police being aggressive and overreacting, those are the ones who are rushed and police say there’s a riot going on.”
And then there is Governor Kate Brown, who thought she had negotiated the withdrawal of Federal Department of Homeland Security Agents from the city, only to have within hours of her announcement both Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf and Trump respond by saying the Feds were going nowhere. They have gone nowhere, and while not as aggressive as they were in the beginning, they still continue to make appearances at protests, such as those at ICE Headquarters in the South Waterfront. Brown got played by the Feds, with Trump and Wolf both reading her as weak after she allowed the Feds to terrorize Portland for weeks before taking action. Another governor might have called in the National Guard, issued warrants for the arrest of federal agents who were kidnapping people on the street, or dismantled the fence that block a lane of traffic in the city. Instead she stood by and did nothing.
To top it off, Brown has now decided the answer to months long protests demanding police reform and an end to police brutality, is to send more cops to Portland. The initial plan asking the sheriff’s and police departments of surrounding cities was rebuffed by those sheriffs and police chiefs, no surprise given the police’s political role in stirring chaos desired by the Trump administration, making it look once again like Brown had been played in seeking an end to the protests. Now, Brown is sending in Oregon State Police, troopers who have been deputized by the federal government and who say they may bring charges in federal court rather than local courts after the local District Attorney Mike Schmidt said he would not pursue charges on many lower level offenses related to the protests.
This is scary. The initial federal invasion of Portland trampled all over Oregon’s rights as a state, and provided the backdrop of Trump’s every third tweet since the middle of July. It was understandable then that local officials had little control over the unrequested and unprecedented deployment of federal agents, but now Brown is allowing state troopers to act as agents of the federal government to quell the protests. It is a scary turn of events, and once again a local official claiming to have Portland’s back against the feds is instead collaborating with them. This is especially scary since the local U.S. Attorney has now turned his attention towards protesters not arrested by federal agents and nowhere near federal property. I can only guess that Brown is trying to quell the protests, probably on orders from Democratic Party HQ or the Biden campaign, who see Trump’s pivot on the campaign trail toward railing about LAW AND ORDER as potentially hurting Biden’s campaign in Pennsylvania or Michigan or some other place on the other side of the country. Once again Portland is a political football to be used by whomever while we watch our rights get trampled and our democracy crumble. Democrat officials will not save the day, because most are too concerned about salvaging whatever political future they may have rather than standing up to a tyrant or reining in their own out control police forces.
Portland is out of control you say. Those are just looters and rioters. I have nothing against peaceful protesters, but can’t those people in Portland just give it up? If you don’t want to get in trouble, you shouldn’t go down to the protests? You’re just being ridiculous, we are nowhere near a dictatorship, you’re too young to even know what that means. The problem is we are now living under a quasi-dictatorship, we aren’t quite at full blown triumphant military parade, dear leader on the dais waving as famine wipes out a tenth of the population, but it is dangerously close. If you think I’m just another alarmist liberal who’s cranky Clinton lost in 2016, let’s just run down a list of things that have happened this summer:
- The president directed the military to stop protests in the capital, using both chemical weapons and air power to disperse protesters.
- Trump threatened to delay the presidential election.
- Trump has encouraged people to vote twice.
- The postmaster general has removed sorting machines, mailboxes, and delayed the mail in key areas in battleground states in order to discourage people from voting and to delay election results.
- He has applauded armed civilians attacking protesters.
- He has used the cover of the pandemic to bar citizens from returning to the U.S. and to increase deportations of undocumented immigrants.
- He has threatened to cut off funding to cities governed by mayors of the opposition party.
- Militarized federal agents in Portland and Kenosha snatched people up and threw them in unmarked vans, detaining them for unknown reasons.
- Federal agents shot an untold amount of chemical warfare agents night after night in Portland. Agents beat protesters, assaulted women, shot people with munitions, and detained many.
- U.S. Attorneys general are now prosecuting in federal court citizens who have committed no crimes against federal agents, or property, for having participated in protests around the country.
- Trump has threatened to send in the army to many cities on many occasions.
- Trump authorized the domestic surveillance of protests and protesters in the executive order deploying federal agents. In addition to spying on protesters, they also compiled dossiers on reporters covering the events.
- Trump continues to call the press the enemy of the people.
And that’s just this summer. We saw Trump’s fascist tendencies before this, but the alarming rate and pace at which it is now coming is scary. Dictators seize power or end democracy during times of turmoil. They use the excuse of protests, a health emergency, a war, to take extraordinary powers. They then hold onto to those powers long after the emergency has past, or abuse those powers during the emergency to solidify power.
This trampling of our constitutionally protected rights by federal agents who are under absolutely no local control — not that Portlanders have much control over PPB either, but at least we nominally have control — has been frightening. What is even more frightening than using the apparatus of the state to create chaos and to trample on free speech, harass and injure protesters, and target journalists, Trump is now encouraging his followers to do the same. Those followers are now killing Trump’s enemies in cold blood in the street. They are maiming and terrorizing people in order to maintain power. And the police in Portland and elsewhere turn a blind eye to it all.
The pace of it all is frightening too. Every day there is another absurd anti-democratic thing happening. It is so much that by November, I wouldn’t be surprised if Americans have given up on democracy, given up on whether the election might be fair, given up on the peaceful transition of power. There are so many lies spread by Trump and his administration and the right wing propaganda machine, that it is disheartening. And the never ending tidal wave of disinformation and chaos might be Trump’s point.
Democracy really dies when people no longer trust in it. Elections work because people trust them to be fairly conducted. If there is doubt, it ruins everything. Doubt leads to fear. If people are afraid, they are less likely to speak out. Dictatorships rule through fear, people begin to conform because they are worried about trouble or don’t want to get people upset or have their lives changed. Fear leads to dictatorship, and dictatorship leads to lie after lie after lie until you now longer know what to believe.
Night after night this summer, planes and helicopters circled Portland. These were DHS surveillance planes sent here to spy on the protests, to spy on citizens, circling the city to triangulate which phones were at the protests and then figuring out which phones belonged to which people, and who their network of contacts are, and what their routines are. Having participated in the protests, I believe my name is now on some surveillance list. Some signals intelligence spy has probably read through my texts, looked at my emails, listened into my phone calls, and probably even watched while I typed and researched this blog post. It’s scary thinking that, but having committed no crime yet, I am hoping this will stand as an attempt to exercise my freedom of speech while I am still able to. The DHS agents did not care about folks constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms when they were protesting, and I am sure it is only a matter of time before this spreads to writing as well. Dictatorships spy on their law abiding people, not democracies.
The problem is DHS and Trump have already won in a way — they have made me begin to fear. Not that I have done anything wrong, but I am worried what I text or say on a phone call could be used against me. I am afraid of the police, and what they might do to me and my family. I am afraid of the Trumpers rolling through town with their flags and lifted diesel pickup trucks and shooting, beating, or ramming whoever they feel like while police watch.
The fear is there because the Trump dictatorship is not just something I have to fear downtown protesting outside the courthouse, it is something that is now in our Northeast Portland neighborhood. We’ve seen right wing stickers placed to deface Black Lives Matter signs in people’s lawns. We’ve seen Black Lives Matter signs in people’s lawns damaged from fire. Our closest big blue U.S. Mail box was first vandalized and now has disappeared entirely, even after our letter carrier said a replacement was coming. Scariest of all, a man wearing a camo hat was driving slowly down our street last weekend in a van with out of state plates. He paused in front of each house with a Black Lives Matter sign in the lawn, like he was casing the neighborhood for further action or a future purge. The dictatorship is already in the streets acting on the leader’s orders.
Like any dictator, Trump has demonstrated he will do anything to maintain power. And he is aided by a propaganda machine that is so loyal to the president that every word he utters, no matter how false, is taken as truth. And the lies build up so much over time, and they are so big, anyone who has any commitment to reality and to truth gets exhausted just trying to handle the lies.
Trump loves using a very effective propaganda technique, one Hitler used to great effect during his rise to power. Trump loves the Big Lie, because the bigger the lie, the more believable it becomes to his followers. In the Death of Democracy, Benjamin Carter Hett looked at Hitler’s explanation of the Big Lie in Hitler’s memoir Mein Kampf, writing:
The less honest the political message, Hitler wrote, the better. Politicians went wrong when they told small and insignificant lies. The small lie could easily be discovered, and then the politician’s credibility would be ruined. Better by far to tell “the big lie.” Why? In “the greatness of the lie there is always a certain element of credibility,” Hitler explains, “because the broad masses of a people can be more easily corrupted in the deeper reaches of their hearts” than consciously or deliberately. “In the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves sometimes lie about small things but would be too ashamed of lies that were too big.”
These primitive and simple people would never think to make up “colossal untruths,” and they could not imagine that other people might do so. Facts didn’t matter at all. “Even when presented with the true facts,” these ordinary people “will still doubt and waver and will continue to take at least some of [the lie] to be true. For the most impudent lie always leaves something lingering behind it, a fact which is known only too well to all great expert liars in this world.”
Trump is no Hitler yet, but he is a master at the Big Lie. His rise to political fame came from the Big Lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. He used a big lie that the 2016 election was fraudulent, an election he won! And for the last year he has beaten the drum that the 2020 election will also be fraudulent, even though the only actions taken that are remotely fraud-like are those committed by him and his allies. If you say a whopper of a lie long enough, eventually a few will believe it, and even if it is eventually disproved, people will still have to acknowledge the lie in their discussion of whatever it is.
Trump’s lies have undermined our faith and trust in each other as a society. Loss of faith and trust in each other undermines our democracy, and when our democracy fails, the dictatorship moves in.
Watching the Republican National Convention last week, the Republican Party engaged in its own big lie. Sure, politicians lie, conventions are one giant propaganda moment of self aggrandizement for the candidate, but even the brazen lies and propaganda of the Republican National Convention took me aback.
Night after night we heard how the Coronavirus Pandemic was solved, a thing of the past. We heard how the economy was the greatest its ever been, even though a drive through Oregon shows homeless encampments resembling Hoovervilles, and food bank lines like the bread lines of the Great Depression. The Republicans blamed the protests and civil unrest on Joe Biden, although all of the unrest has happened under Trump’s watch, with Trump the inflammatory source of much its ongoing nature.
One moment in particular caught my eye though. There was a segment on the first night where Trump sat around in the White House with the families of people who had been released from being imprisoned or held hostage overseas. The praise heaped on Trump by these people reminded me of watching Egyptian or Syrian state television when I was studying Arabic. Folks heaped praise on the Dear Leader, fawning in his presence, in the same way that state run TV in other dictatorships would show people heaping praise on Bashar al Assad or Hosni Mubarak. I laughed through a lot of it, but it’s another sign our country is nearing dictatorship. Soon the Dear Leader will be the only thing on television, and the only thing allowed to be said about him will be the praise and attention he so craves.
When the end comes, they will come for me. Eventually they will come for you too, and if they don’t come for you, you will make compromises to survive. You are probably already making compromises to survive. Maybe you stopped watching the news, if I’m doing nothing wrong, why should I get worked up about others losing their rights? Why should I speak out at work, if it’s only gets people upset? Why should I say something to my racist relative when they spout off racist thoughts if it will make future Thanksgiving seating arrangements awkward?
You will compromise and conform, partly because it’s a natural human instinct to want to belong to the group, and partly because it will just be easier than trying to rage against injustice at every turn. You’ll look around your house, your neighborhood, at your friends and family, and you will think it would be too much to lose, just for some freedom of speech or for your rights.
In 1953, East Germans launched an uprising against the communist regime. It started off as simply a strike over wage decreases, but it soon gathered into an uprising that spread to most cities in the German Democratic Republic. I spoke once to someone who had participated in the uprising. It was a heady couple of days, with many thinking the death of Stalin would breath a relaxing of the status quo in the communist regime. If East Germany truly was a worker’s paradise, surely workers complaints over wages was the injustice a communist government was intended to prevent. As they headed to the streets, he said they hoped the Americans would intervene, they would see the people in Berlin and elsewhere standing up to the Russians and they would come to their aid. Of course, no one came to save the East Germans, the Soviets put down the revolt brutally, and this man told me he spent time in prison because of his participation in the uprising.
Why then had he stayed in East Germany I asked? Wasn’t freedom more valuable? Wasn’t it better to move around freely, think freely, act freely, believe freely? He told me a few weeks before the East German authorities constructed the Berlin Wall, he had the family ready to flee to the west. The car was loaded up, but ultimately he couldn’t. He thought about if they left they would never see their friends again, their family, their home, the homeland their family had always called home. Surely things would get better, and was it really that bad? They didn’t leave. His wife became a Russian teacher, not because she liked Russian or the Russians, but because it made life easier, because she had to. They kept to themselves and raised a family. You can survive too, but that pain I saw, the anguish of decades of living under fear and suspicion and watching what you say took its toll. You could see it.
Get scared. Get really scared. This is how democracy dies. The lies, the anti-democratic actions, the police state working to suppress free speech, the leader doing what he can to suppress democratic institutions. I am worried it will get much worse. Signs that the end truly is here are:
- Further voter intimidation, suppression, or delaying of the vote.
- Funding cutoffs to cities or universities or other public entities deemed disloyal to the regime.
- Public employees fired based on their loyalty to the regime.
- Mass arrests and incarceration of those deemed disloyal by the regime.
- People targeted by the police and paramilitary forces based on their loyalty to the regime.
- Tanks in the streets, soldiers shooting civilians.
Get a plan now to vote in November. Plan now on how you will handle living under a dictatorship. Plan how you will resist. Plan how you will survive. Anticipate the hard choices and compromises you will have to make. Use your freedoms you still have to protest against injustice before it is too late. Freedom isn’t free and now it is your turn to defend it.