What will remain of democracy?
With Trump now employing paramilitary forces, writes Daniel Lazare, the signs are not good
“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” So saith the legendary baseball coach, Yogi Berra (supposedly). But, with Donald Trump sending paramilitary forces into Portland, Oregon, in order to snatch protestors off the street and bundle them into unmarked vehicles, here is a prediction that seems quite easy: the US is heading for straight-out authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism does not mean some minor contretemps about a congressional appropriation for the Ukraine, but something more serious: ie, a descent into strong-man rule, in which elections become little more than formalities. Although Trump is now talking about imposing martial law in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, his real target is the November elections, which may well turn into a chaotic mess, tailor-made for the sort of strong-arm tactics he now favours.
At the first sign of trouble, Portland will provide a precedent for sending in federal police to ‘rescue’ ballot boxes from Democratic clutches. Instead of leaving it to poll workers, the upshot will be an opportunity to count the ballots ‘correctly’ so as to yield a certain desired outcome. If so, it will be the third stolen presidency in two decades, and this time the theft will be the most brazen of all.
Not long ago, a scenario like this would have been dismissed as a paranoid fantasy. Post Portland, however, it is no longer so easy. Indeed, the vital signs are all pointing in that direction. One is a decrepit 233-year-old constitution that is a driving force behind America’s growing instability. Another is political polarisation - not only in Washington, but out in the hinterlands, where in a growing number of incidents Black Lives Matter demonstrators in small towns are being met with cursing, shoving and Confederate flags. While some Americans are shocked by unidentified federal police whisking people into unmarked cars, others are delighted to see BLM supporters, Antifa streetfighters and big-city liberals getting their come-uppance - and their numbers may be larger than polls indicate.
A third vital sign is Trump’s response to Covid-19, which has been so staggeringly incompetent that the only weapon he has left in his arsenal is whipping up a backlash against Antifa and BLM. The more the virus surges, consequently, the more he can be counted on to play the Antifa card to the hilt. This means more riots, more polarisation and more martial law.
There is a fourth factor as well: an electoral system that is breaking down under the strain. Thanks to the pandemic, estimates are that as many as 100 million Americans will vote by mail in November - triple the number in 2016. If so, the upshot will be an avalanche that buries poll workers under more paper than they can possibly handle.
The signs so far are not promising. Last summer, a small election in Queens, New York, ground to a halt for six weeks, as attorneys for the two leading candidates scrutinised mail-in ballots for flaws that would render them invalid. Hundreds were tossed, before a Democrat named Melinda Katz squeaked through by a mere 55 votes.1 This June, a primary in Georgia turned into “a hot, flaming, fucking mess”, to quote one election observer, when a brand new $107 million electronic polling system malfunctioned, leaving thousands of would-be voters stranded for hours in the midday sun.2 Weeks later, two New York congressional primary elections are still up in the air due to yet more wrangling over mail-ins. After three weeks, poll workers in one contest had succeeded in counting just 800 ballots out of some 65,000, while as many as 25% have been invalidated overall due to technical infractions like sealing an envelope with tape instead of licking it shut.3
There are no federal elections in America’s fragmented system - only a series of state elections under the control of local officials, who range from hopeless to semi-competent. Predictions of disaster are therefore impossible to dismiss. If so, the result could be another ‘Battle of Florida’, but on a far grander scale. In that November 2000 episode, a battle over ‘hanging chads’ - punched holes in poorly-designed paper ballots that did not go all the way through - led a Republican-controlled Supreme Court to decide the election in George W Bush’s favour, even though he was trailing by more than 500,000 popular votes. If the battle this time around stretches across multiple state lines, then the struggle for power could be even more chaotic and explosive.
Based on a recent interview with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, that seems to be what Trump is thinking: “I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election, I really do,” he said. Asked if he would go peacefully if the results don’t go his way, he replied: “I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say, and I didn’t the last time [in 2016] either.”4
Thus, Trump regards an election with tens of millions of mail-in ballots as suspect before it even begins, and he refuses to say what he will do if the count does not go his way. Given the martial law he has imposed in Portland, it would be a perfect opportunity to charge Democrats with trying to steal the election - something he clearly expects them to do - and then send in the paramilitaries to seize ballot boxes and count them ‘right’.
Trump is pursuing a classic strategy of tension because he thinks polarisation will help him more than it hurts. Where Democrats are trying to appeal to everyone from ‘never Trump’ neocons to BLM, his goal is to empty out the centre by accusing Dems of going soft on crime and radicalism and phrasing the problem in such a way that voters will have no choice but to opt for either martial law on the one hand, or runaway street violence on the other. And even if they do not opt for martial law, that is what they will wind up with regardless.
Finally, there are the police themselves to consider. In other advanced economies, cops are an instrument of national policy. But in America’s hyper-federal system the country’s 18,000 state and local police departments are political players in their own right - people who sometimes do what politicians tell them and sometimes do not. The growth of police unions since the 1960s has intensified the gamesmanship by permitting rank-and-file cops to play state and local officials off against one another across municipal lines. It permits them to appeal more effectively to middle-class home owners for support and to establish alliances with right-wing politicians.
There is no question that the strategy has worked, which is why recent polls show Americans opposing BLM calls to “defund the police” by nearly two to one and support for stepped-up policing runs high, even in minority neighbourhoods.5
This is what puts the wind in Trump’s sails: “The respect we have for law enforcement is unbounded,” he told a 2019 rally in Minneapolis, before calling a police lieutenant named Bob Kroll up to the podium. President of the local police officers’ union, Kroll is a notorious ultra-rightist who allegedly wears a white power patch on his motorcycle jacket, sells ‘Cops for Trump’ T-shirts and once denounced BLM as a “terrorist organisation”. He has been accused of repeated instances of misconduct throughout his career, including using excessive force during a no-knock drug raid and punching a pedestrian who made the mistake of bumping up against his car. When Jacob Frey, Minneapolis’s liberal Democratic mayor, tried to prevent local cops from undergoing “warrior-style” training, Kroll told him to back off, declaring that the union would pay for it instead.6
“He knows I’ve been good to law enforcement,” Trump said of Kroll. “He knows I’ve been good to … the police. He knows I love the cops.” To which Kroll replied:
The Obama administration and [its] handcuffing and oppression of police was despicable. The first thing president Trump did when he took office was … [to] put the handcuffs on the criminals instead of us.
This is America, as it careens toward disaster: a country in which mayors cannot control their own cops and police are taught a strategy known as ‘killology’, in which the goal is to fight criminal violence with “superior violence, righteous violence”, as one “warrior” instructor puts it.7 It is a perfect atmosphere for a Bonapartist who not only believes in unleashing the police, but who now wants to up the ante by imposing martial law. The question is whether Americans will go along with Trump’s bid for strong-man rule and what will remain of American democracy if they do.
See my article, ‘Trump: three questions’ Weekly Worker June 18.↩︎
Quote starts at around 37:15 at youtube.com/watch?v=W6XdpDOH1JA.↩︎
N Rakich, ‘How Americans feel about “defunding the police”’ FiveThirtyEight June 19 2020: fivethirtyeight.com/features/americans-like-the-ideas-behind-defunding-the-police-more-than-the-slogan-itself; AR Coleman, ‘How black people really feel about the police, explained’ Vox June 17 2020: vox.com/2020/6/17/21292046/black-people-abolish-defund-dismantle-police-george-floyd-breonna-taylor-black-lives-matter-protest.↩︎
B Schatz, ‘“Are you prepared to kill somebody?” A day with one of America’s most popular police trainers’ Mother Jones March 2017: motherjones.com/politics/2017/02/dave-grossman-training-police-militarization.↩︎