Months of daily protests against systemic racism, and the white supremacy upon which this country was founded, have sparked a violent, dangerous response from the federal government. What began with the tear gassing of peaceful protestors by National Guard troops for a Trump photo-op in Washington DC has led to the deployment of an unaccountable, lethal secret police force against protestors in Portland, Chicago, and elsewhere. Many are waking up to the fact that Trump’s use of various Department of Homeland Security (DHS) personnel to create an apparent paramilitary force to kidnap, harm, and indefinitely detain protestors is, in fact, legal. Welcome to creeping fascism, American-style, brought to you by the post-9/11 security state.
In grad school, I studied how countries emerged from authoritarian states into fledgling democracies. It was the fall of 2016 when I started my graduate degree. Soon after, we began studying how quote-unquote liberal democracies backslid into illiberalism and authoritarianism. A core component of a country’s slide to authoritarianism, or the rise of fascism, is a combination of the ruling regime’s willingness to use laws to amass power and turn those laws against its own citizens, and a virulent nationalism rooted in the dehumanization of “the other.” The United States stands on this precipice today.
Unfortunately there are ample laws for Trump to use and abuse in the expansive executive powers vested in the presidency. Following 9/11, Congress granted the executive branch broad powers in the name of security. By establishing DHS, providing mass surveillance powers, and expanding law enforcement’s purview to focus on “terror” threats at home – in addition to a mandate for endless war abroad – Congress established a vast national security state. For decades, it has trampled on the civil liberties of people in the United States and around the world in unprecedented ways, while also securitizing the United States’ approach to popular uprisings for justice and mental health issues.
It’s no wonder that Trump is now using these agencies’ vague legal authorities against activists in the streets, after years of successfully doing so against people seeking refuge at the border with little to no accountability.
The deployment of what has been likened to a pilot Gestapo force to undermine Black power and foment violence is an outgrowth of the ways this administration has weaponized pre-existing laws and institutions for the president’s supposed political benefit. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 consolidated various law enforcement bureaus under one agency, providing them with the power to investigate any activity that could be deemed “dangerous to human life or potentially destructive of critical infrastructure or key resources.” This enormously expansive mandate, coupled with unprecedented power to detain people without cause and without a warrant, was always ripe for abuse. In the decades since its establishment, law enforcement arms of both DHS and the Department of Justice, have slowly but surely used these powers to target Black and brown communities here in the United States – well beyond its intended mandate to protect against foreign threats.
In just over three years, Trump has transformed ICE and CBP into a massive incarceration and deportation machine of “the other” – detaining and kidnapping immigrants and US citizens alike throughout the United States, and jailing migrant families and children in concentration camps – all in service of Trump’s unequivocally racist form of virulent nationalism. DHS has also expanded its reliance on unaccountable private security contractors, now totaling 13,000 under the Federal Protective Service alone, allowing it to further operate above the law or out of public view. It’s no wonder that Trump is now using these agencies’ vague legal authorities against activists in the streets, after years of successfully doing so against people seeking refuge at the border with little to no accountability. The scenes in Portland and elsewhere are nothing less than an apparent audition for a national police force, like those in authoritarian regimes, made up of a conglomeration of federal law enforcement and private security forces.
Policing in this country was always, of course, designed to enforce white supremacy and institutionalize a prison-slavery-complex to ensure this goal. The establishment of DHS and other post-9/11 executive powers were merely the expansion and application of this model to a perceived threat embodied by predominantly brown, predominantly Muslim men. In addition to these laws, the US government has relied on an othering and dehumanization of Muslim-majority, Black and brown communities around the world to justify endless wars that kill civilians with impunity. Trump, as nationalist demagogues do, rooted his campaign and presidential rhetoric in these long-standing policies of dehumanization and merely added dog whistles in attacks on his perceived political opponents.
Rather than strong pushback, both Democratic and Republican politicians have defended these broad executive powers, as they have for decades, through broad-based fear-mongering about the purported threats posed by people outside our borders. Prior to COVID-19, much of the American public was at least silent enough to support a never-ending taxpayer bankrolling of Violence, Inc. corporations thanks to the massive Pentagon and nuclear weapons budgets. The crisis of nearly 150,000 Americans dying of COVID-19, coupled with ongoing viral videos of state and non-state violence against Black people, however, has finally sparked a popular awakening. It has led to fledgling, yet impressive, efforts to cut these budgets and redirect them toward social needs. To date, however, Congress has failed to meet the moment.
If there was ever a time to fundamentally reckon with the damage that the US government’s militarization of security has wrought, the deployment of a secret police at the hands of a lawless, increasingly craven, and delusional president is it. Yet amid promises to pass legislative blocks and reforms, Congress’s response on both sides of the aisle has largely been business as usual. Rather than take this opportunity to significantly curtail, defund, and otherwise dissolve DHS, House Democratic leadership proposed, and then had to pull the DHS spending bill from floor consideration this week due to progressive pressure — the bill as written possessed no restrictions on Trump’s secret paramilitary forces.
Following decades of dehumanizing bipartisan national security policies, the republic is at a breaking point. It would be political malpractice for Congress to further empower these forces to commit abuses with impunity. Without changing the bill to, at minimum, ban DHS funding for “Operation Legend” and “Operation Relentless Pursuit” across the country, House Democratic Leadership will be helping fuel the creeping fascism this president has increasingly relied upon.
If it yet again fails to meet this moment, the Trump administration appears poised to devolve our country into anarchy and violence that may only be a preview of what’s to come if Trump loses reelection.