After 9/11, the balance between liberty and despotism in America took an unprecedented turn in favor of the latter. In previous centuries, America had certainly been put under presidential dictatorship and experienced attacks on constitutional liberties. Remember Lincoln’s imposition of martial law during the Civil War or Wilson’s imprisonments of dissenters during World War I. But with the advent of the War on Terror, the possibility emerged for a much less easily reversible state of tyranny.
In this case, America had entered into a war with the assumption that the war wouldn’t ever be allowed to end. How and why? Because a war against “terror” would be a war against an amorphous enemy that could never be decisively defeated, and that “terror” would consistently get portrayed by the government as an overwhelming threat, no matter what the actual reality was. Echoing Herman Goering’s rhetoric after the Reichstag fire, Americans were told after 9/11 that they were now on a “war footing.” Nazi-esque language about defending the “homeland” became normalized, giving a nationalistic sense of legitimacy to the illegal wars, unconstitutional state surveillance, for-profit security apparatus expansions, torture, extrajudicial arrests, and persecution of Muslims that would happen in the next few years.
In the years since the initial post-9/11 hysteria, America has settled into a new normal, one where a constant state of war goes unquestioned and where we live with less and less of the freedoms we once took for granted. No one has digital privacy from government surveillance. Whistleblowers are now regularly prosecuted, and if Julian Assange is extradited to the U.S, both leakers and their publishers will become subject to arrest. With the passage of the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, the president gained the ability to arrest and indefinitely detain American citizens at any time. Since the start of America’s longest war, our freedoms have been almost consistently stripped away, and under our current administration the authoritarian takeover could go much further.
In her 2007 book The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, Naomi Wolf wrote that:
“America is not driven by pure ideologies the way that fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were. In America, profit drives events where ideology does not: Within days of the 9/11 attacks, security companies were lobbying airport and government officials to invest in new technologies of surveillance. Six years later, the surveillance industry is huge business…Lockheed Martin, Acxiom, ChoicePoint, and other companies have sharply increased their investment in lobbying for a piece of this profit.”
This corporate-centered American fascism, Wolf observed, had by that point thoroughly revealed itself as a threat. The historical signs of a transition towards dictatorship—with the invocation of an exaggerated threat, a crackdown on dissent, and the loss of rights like privacy and due process—had appeared in those first six years after 9/11. And Wolf judged that since the war was slated to go on indefinitely, the country would only continue on its path towards despotism unless an uprising took place.
The last twelve years have proven Wolf right. Obama used the Espionage Act to go after whistleblowers more than all previous presidents combined. The Obama years also saw the completion of the NSA’s universal online surveillance apparatus, the continued use of excess war equipment to militarize police, the escalation of immigrant deportations, the normalization of extrajudicial drone assassinations of American citizens, and the implementation of the 2012 NDAA, which gave Obama unlimited indefinite detention powers and granted him the authority to use the army as a domestic police force (in complete contravention of the Posse Comitatus Act). Since these authoritarian tools were turned over to Trump, the decline of liberty has further accelerated, as well as the project of the surveillance, private prison, and weapons industries to profit from the takeover.
Trump has used the Espionage Act to prosecute three whistleblowers so far, with Assange likely being the next one; Trump’s FBI has been persecuting black activists like Rakem Balogun, using the new label of “black identity extremist;” ICE has been empowered to conduct raids more aggressively than ever. The biggest causes of alarm are the instances where the Trump White House has used its manufactured “crisis” at the border to justify measures that endanger not just undocumented poor people and workers, but the entire American working class. When Trump has sent troops to the border to attack migrant families with chemical weapons, or vastly expanded the migrant detention centers, or conducted military-style raids to round up millions of undocumented people, he’s set a precedent for treating citizens who are either political dissidents or simply poor with the same brutality.
Trump’s base has been made comfortable with this the same way that past fascist regimes have gotten a section of the populace on their side: by making the favored groups detached from the horrors that others are experiencing. In our situation of corporatized fascism, where wealthy executives are directly involved in White House policy-making and private prison companies are profiting from Trump’s detention camps, this effort to get many people to consent to the fascist takeover is tied in with the corporate fascist ideology that dominates the American right.
The rhetoric from proto-fascist groups like Turning Point USA, which glorifies “free markets” and “limited government” while posting codedly racist memes designed to inflame resentment against welfare users, provides ideological justification for the profit-driven atrocities that are being carried out against poor and nonwhite people. As part of neoliberalism’s dark path to fascism, an authoritarian populist ideology has been fused with the corporate totalitarianism which drives events in America.
For Trump and his base, cruelty against the groups they demonize is in fact the entire point of why they advance this fascistic ideology.
“The cruelty of the Trump administration’s policies, and the ritual rhetorical flaying of his targets before his supporters, are intimately connected,” The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has written.
The recent news story about the Trump White House’s crimes against humanity, wherein the administration has claimed that it shouldn’t be obligated to provide imprisoned migrant children with items like soap, toothbrushes and sleeping accommodations, represents one more level at which Trump’s supporters have come to accept the evil they’re complicit in.
It’s these ideological foundations behind American fascism—the manufactured fear and hatred of Muslims and immigrants, the white nationalist rhetoric about protecting the “homeland,” the scapegoating of poor people and “degeneracy” for society’s decay—that’s being used by Trump to try to bring America to a state of dictatorship. Trump’s endless escalations of human rights abuses, defiance of legal procedures, and efforts to provoke war with Iran serve the purpose of provoking outraged protest from his detractors, which he can use to solidify dictatorial control.
This clarifies the meaning of Stephen Miller’s February 2017 proclamation that the president’s authority “will not be questioned;” Trump recently tweeted that his heavily-armed supporters should “demand that I stay longer” than his official term, hinting that he’ll use violence to stay in power.
As Yoav Litvin writes about Trump’s “authoritarian endgame” for 2020:
“Trump seeks to foment maximal unrest, rage and violence among his adversaries at home by engaging in blatantly outrageous miscarriages of justice, and breaking well-established societal taboos. Starting a war under false pretenses would serve to inflame an already polarized and dissatisfied American public, pitting Trump’s growing opposition against his most loyal white supremacist, nationalist and heavily-armed base…Trump would manipulate any public forms of defensive aggression, real or manufactured, to stoke offensive aggression from his hard-core base, which would stick with him regardless. Under the pretext of a “rebellion”, Trump could suspend the writ of habeas corpus to detain opposition, including immigrants without trial, and potentially, cancel the 2020 election.
Thus, if Trump’s warmongering efforts succeed, his opposition faces an impossible catch leading up to the 2020 Presidential race: protest and he may use it as a pretext to fortify his dominance by suspending habeas corpus, or remain indifferent and enable war crimes and crimes against humanity, as well as the further erosion of the moral fabric of American society.”
Our best option is clear: to carry out massive and sustained civil disobedience with the goal of ending the capitalist and imperialist systems of oppression. The United States government has drifted towards despotism to an irrecoverable extent, and it’s time for the left to get organized and militant. It’s a given that this will provoke attacks from the government; our focus needs to be on how we’ll ultimately undo Trump’s fascist regime.
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