Donald Trump embodies a rogues’ gallery of cartoonish figures: the confidence man, the master of misdirection, the buffoonish big shot, the demonic clown. But he is a clown with a semiautomatic assault weapon. In pursuing terrorists, his predecessors in the White House have provided this president with the tools to pursue executive tyranny. Trump is up to the job; his temperament is oligarchic rather than managerial. His explosive mix of appetite and impulse makes him an embodiment of license. He gives a green light to eruptions of anger that menace the least powerful groups in our society. There are innumerable reasons to challenge his reign, but what seems most menacing to me is Trump’s eagerness to strengthen and deploy the militarized police state that has been emerging alongside the “war on terror.”
While previous administrations have sought to conceal or legitimate their abuses of power, Trump boasts openly of his bullying intentions—down to and including his eagerness to torture suspected terrorists. The targets of Trump’s emerging police state include our most vulnerable populations—Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and African Americans. But its shadow falls on everyone. As surveillance spreads and acquires legality, we all fall under suspicion. This is the atmosphere of permanent emergency that allows demonic clowns to flourish.
The institutional sources of opposition to Trump are various, and some are more promising than others. Since the rise of Reagan, Congress has been a rubber stamp for the expansion of executive power, especially when proposed as a response to imagined foreign threats. While not much is liable to change on that front, it is possible that Trump’s flagrant violations of the emoluments clause in the Constitution will provoke a successful attempt to impeach him. The judiciary is a little more promising. As of this writing, several federal judges have shown admirable independence in striking down Trump’s travel ban. Yet on Fourth Amendment (search and seizure) issues, the prospects are problematic, especially given the likelihood that a Trump Supreme Court will prove even more zealous than its predecessors in validating expansion of police power. State and local officials are also blocking Trump policies, including (to take a nearby example) Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s determination to continue prohibiting “stop and frisk” procedures by New York City police. Perhaps most important is the resistance of targeted populations themselves—indigenous people protecting their water rights, for example. The republican tradition of popular protest—“the people out of doors,” as they said in 1776—is more crucial than ever, especially given the failure of the Democratic Party and the press to pose any coherent alternative to Trump.
There was a historical moment, during the Vietnam War and the Watergate investigation, when the Democratic Party challenged the accumulation and abuse of concentrated executive power. Among the consequences were Nixon’s resignation and Senator Frank Church’s investigation into the crimes of the Central Intelligence Agency. These included the overthrow of democratically elected foreign governments, the actual and attempted assassination of foreign leaders, and the spread of “disinformation” in media at home and abroad. Disinformation, the planting of false narratives by anonymous officials to promote particular policy aims, was an earlier form of “fake news.” It remains the most insidious and influential, as reputable news organizations continue to endow unidentified government sources (unlike rumors on social media) with enduring legitimacy. Yet for a moment, the Church Committee helped to create an informed citizenry: its revelations may have marked a high point in public skepticism toward the national security state.
How times have changed. The Democratic Party has recoiled from Trump by embracing the CIA. Rather than re-examining the neoliberal economic policies that contributed to their defeat in Rust Belt states, rather than ousting their corrupt and self-satisfied leadership, the Democrats have retreated to a single rallying cry: the Russians, led by the villainous Vladimir Putin, hacked the election and stole it for Trump. The charge is based on a confused and largely fact-free “assessment,” produced by the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency (the last with only “moderate” confidence) in early January. The major media have accepted the charge uncritically and repeated it gravely, in effect serving as mouthpieces for the Deep State—a familiar role, to be sure. One need only recall the New York Times’s key part in legitimating CIA “assessments” of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
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