Rising Autocracy

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

This is not only one of the worst times for American democracy, it is one of the most dangerous times.

The creeping – and creepy – autocracy that is the hallmark of President Donald Trump and his inept, ineffective administration of court loyalists has slithered further into upending America’s freedoms with the dispatch of federal officials onto the streets of Portland, Oregon., despite the repeated objections of federal, state and local leaders.

The purpose: to police and detain protesters who have staged daily demonstrations since the May 25 cop killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement to secure more racially just law enforcement.

This is the tactic of police states, a red line in any true democracy that should not be crossed. Every day something new, unexpected and usually distasteful from the White House. Every day something worse than the previous one.

Trump, the self-described law and order president, ran into stiff opposition when he wanted to federalize soldiers to “dominate” protesters exercising their constitutional right of peaceful assembly in cities around the country to demand criminal justice for minorities, particularly those who have been treated unfairly by white police. So he substituted troops for law enforcement officials from various federal agencies. He often seems to get what he wants.

Let’s take a step back for some perspective.

Novelist Hari Kunzru, in his review of the nonfiction book “Surviving Autocracy” by New Yorker staffer Masha Gessen in the July 2 edition of The New York Review of Books, denounced Trump’s June 1 Rose Garden speech while explosions were heard as police and other authorities tried to scatter demonstrators from outside the White House with flash-bang rounds and other devices.

“It became apparent that the protest had been dispersed to allow Trump to finish his speech and walk over ‘recaptured ground’ to St. John’s Episcopal Church,” Kunzru wrote. “The cynical use of violence, to allow the president to stage a photo op, constitutes a new moral low in a presidency that has not exactly been short of them.

“The deployment of the U.S. military against Americans exercising their First Amendment right to protest is a red line. If it is crossed with impunity, the transition to autocracy will be complete.”

That’s what’s been happening in Portland.

Federal police and agents dressed in camouflage military gear who gave the appearance of regular soldiers reportedly fired teargas and swept through the streets in minivans devoid of markings that were used to haul in protesters.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler characterized the paramilitary forces as Trump’s “personal army.”

“This is part of a coordinated strategy out of Trump’s White House to use federal troops to bolster his sagging polling data and it is absolute abuse of federal law enforcement,” he said. “As we were starting to see things deescalate, their actions last Saturday (July 11) and every night since have actually ratcheted up the tension in our streets.”

“A peaceful protester in Portland was shot in the head by one of Donald Trump’s secret police,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., tweeted Thursday.

Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenbaum, has filed a lawsuit that charged several federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and its Customs and Border Protection, with unlawful law enforcement and sought a temporary restraining order against federal officials from detaining Oregon residents. She also named up to 10 “John Does” for not wearing badges, making it impossible to identify them.

Oregon’s American Civil Liberties Union Foundation said it sued DHS and the U.S. Marshal’s Service to prevent them from dispersing, arresting, threatening to arrest or using force against journalists or legal observers.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., tweeted that he and Wyden would seek to amend the Pentagon’s authorization legislation to stop the Trump administration “from sending its paramilitary squads” into the nation’s city streets.

The acting DHS deputy secretary, Ken Cuccinelli, told NPR in an interview Friday in defense of federal intervention in the “law breaking going on in Portland” that “this is a posture we intend to continue not just in Portland but in any of the facilities that we’re responsible for around the country.”

In his review of Gessen’s disturbing book, Kunzru strikes with convincing precision to tell us where we are in our developing autocracy under Trump:

“The book is a snapshot of how far American public life has been degraded, how the vaunted democratic system of checks and balances has collapsed, and how the conventions of journalism and policy debate have hampered the task of holding power to account.”

He defines Trump “as an attempting autocrat,” then he directly quotes Gessen, 53, who lived in the Soviet Union as a child and, later, as a journalist and thus knows something about autocracy. He quotes from the book:

“The first three years [of Trump in office] have shown that an autocratic attempt in the United States has a credible chance of succeeding. Worse than that, they have shown that an autocratic attempt builds logically on the structures and norms of American government: on the concentration of power in the executive branch, and on the marriage of money and politics.”

In short, we’re in big trouble.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.