As the people rise up, Trump regime moves to criminalize dissent

Trump and his enablers are once again seeking to exploit a crisis to advance their authoritarian agenda

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published June 11, 2020 7:25AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement to the press in the Rose Garden about restoring "law and order" in the wake of protests at the White House June 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement to the press in the Rose Garden about restoring "law and order" in the wake of protests at the White House June 01, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his 1838 Lyceum Address, a young Abraham Lincoln warned:

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

In the year 2020, the United States in the Age of Trump has arrived at one such moment. Donald Trump is an authoritarian and a neofascist. Such a description does not need the modifiers of "apparent" or "would be" or "impending" or "inclinations" or "autocratic."

That language is all too often deployed by journalists and others to soften the hard blows of the full and horrible reality that the United States is a failing democracy where Donald Trump is now only barely restrained in his anti-democratic behavior by the country's now much weakened political norms, institutions and culture.

In his response to the protests and people's uprising that was sparked by the savage killing of a black man named George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Donald Trump has fully graduated from "would-be tyrant" and "apparent authoritarian" to full-on membership in such a category of ignoble leaders.

Just as Derek Chauvin snuffed out the life of George Floyd, Donald Trump has his knee on the throat of American democracy.

Because he is mentally unwell and lives in his own malignant reality, worships power in the service of his own fabulism, narcissism, ego and greed, lacks empathy and concern for other human beings, and is an authoritarian and a neofascist, Donald Trump is only capable of destruction. Healing and creation are anathema to him.

As such, Donald Trump's response to the protests was to slur those Americans who are sickened by police thuggery and brutality and are therefore moved to force positive social change as being "thugs." Trump also summoned his paramilitaries and street thugs to defend him at the White House by participating in "MAGA Night."

Trump threatened to enforce martial law by invoking the Insurrection Act through which he would deploy at least 10,000 active duty soldiers to crush and "dominate" protesters.

Trump also threatened to attack the protesters outside of the White House with the Secret Service and their "ominous" weapons and "vicious dogs." The protesters outside of the White House were shot with rubber bullets, choked with tear gas, and beaten by police and other law enforcement forces at Trump's and William Barr's command. Why? So that Donald Trump could have a photo op where he could look "strong" as he walked from the White House to St. John's Episcopal Church across the street in what was a Christian fascist authoritarian spectacle

The resulting images were supposed to be akin to Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will" but instead Trump and his coterie looked like something out of an Ed Wood movie.

Donald Trump's reaction to these protests was so dangerous and reckless and likely illegal that the country's most senior military and civilian leaders decided to ignore his orders to unleash the United States military on the American people.

Lost in this maelstrom of events is how Donald Trump and his regime have again turned crisis into an opportunity to advance their neofascist authoritarian agenda. In response to the George Floyd protests, Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr declared "antifa" to be a "terrorist organization." Such a designation means that offering material support to antifa or perhaps even being a "member" is now a very serious federal crime.

In a master stroke unnoticed by most Americans, the Constitutionally guaranteed rights to protest, free speech, and criticize elected officials are imperiled. In total, by declaring "antifa" a terrorist organization Donald Trump has criminalized dissent by the American people (and others) against him.

The facts:

Antifa is not an organization. It is an organizing strategy and an ideology.

As Billie Murray, professor of communications at Villanova University and an expert on rhetoric and social justice, explained to Salon in a phone conversation, "Antifascism is self-defense. They believe they are protecting their community, they are defending their community from fascist organizing and violence."

Murray also clarifies the false equivalencies that are often made by too many reporters and other members of the commentariat when they discuss and write about "antifascists":  

We have a history of fascist violence that has led to world war. You are forgetting your history when you are assuming that fascist organizing is just a bunch of crazy people. You allow it to be a non-problem in your mind.

Too many people assume that fascism died in 1945. We won the war. Mussolini is gone. Hitler's gone. Franco's gone. We're good. That is absolutely not true.

The first antifascist groups started in the late 1940s by Jewish people who were walking around Germany and seeing fascists on the side of the street touting the same things that Hitler did. Those Jewish people said, "We were soldiers in this war. We won this war and this guy is still on the corner saying such things!"

Clearly, we did not get rid of all of fascism because it's an ideology. You are never going to completely eradicate it even with a world war. I think people assume that fascism died and, therefore, is no longer a problem.

Then, when you have antifascists on the scene, you can say, "Well, what are they even fighting for? They must just want to engage in violence. They just are being crazy and they're just crazy just like those other people."

We talk about these right-wing fascists as being "hate" groups or something like that because fascism is supposed to be dead.

Contrary to Trump's and Barr's and the broader right-wing echo chamber's lies and fantasies, antifa is not responsible for the violence which took place during the protests following George Floyd's murder by the Minneapolis police. The FBI's own data shows that violent acts such as arson, other property crimes, and physical assault was committed by local criminals who took advantage of the chaos, as well as "boogaloo" and other right-wing extremists.

As with "Obamagate," "antifa" is an empty phrase, a type of signifier that can be made to mean whatever Trump and the right-wing disinformation machine want it to mean in the service of criminalizing Democrats, liberals, and progressives as somehow being "un-American."

Trump and his agents use of "antifa" also represents the type of conspiracism and propaganda now rampant among American conservatives and other members of the right wing -- and the resulting damage it has caused to American politics and society.

Writing at Business Insider, Sonam Sheth details how:

Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights who released a report last year on how disinformation would affect the 2020 election, told Business Insider that efforts to frame the George Floyd protests as "a violent leftist conspiracy" bear "all the earmarks of current-day disinformation."

"The now-familiar elements include profuse social media posts of dubious provenance, flat-out falsehoods by President Trump, and deft amplification by right-wing figures on Fox News," said Barrett, who is also the author of a newly released report on content moderation.

The theory that antifa is behind organizing the riots is the most prominent piece of misinformation flying around about the demonstrations, according to Zignal Labs, which tracked and analyzed certain types of mis- and disinformation connected to the protests.

Out of 873,000 pieces of misinformation linked to the demonstrations, 575,800 mentioned antifa, Zignal Labs told The New York Times.

The allegations gained traction after Trump tweeted on May 31 that antifa and other left-wing radicals were responsible for the violence. But they started bouncing around social media days earlier, according to The Times, which found more than 6,000 Facebook posts linking antifa to the protests that garnered 1.3 million likes and shares from May 25 to June 1.

On Thursday, the hashtag #exposeAntifa began trending on Twitter as the president and his allies continued amplifying the theory.

Legal scholars and others have warned that Trump's decree against antifa is "unconstitutional". That may in fact be true. However, Donald Trump, an authoritarian and neofascist, has no respect for the rule of law. "Unconstitutional" is increasingly no longer a useful analytical category.

What role does Trump's and the broader right wing movement's misrepresentation and weaponization of "antifa" fulfill?

By criminalizing antifa (which literally means "anti-fascist"), Donald Trump is announcing that he is a fascist. He is doing this through the façade of fighting against "terrorism."

Trump and the right wing's lies about antifa legitimates violence against Trump's political enemies. The logic is simple: To support Donald Trump is to love America. Anyone who stands against Donald Trump or otherwise opposes him is, by definition, a member of antifa and a "terrorist." It is good and right that terrorists are to be subjected to violence and ultimately destroyed to keep America "safe."

Trump's recent comments about Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old man who was pushed to the ground by members of the Buffalo Police Department, suffering a fractured skull while his blood poured out of his ear on to the sidewalk and police officers walked over him like he was human trash, is one such example.

On Tuesday, Donald Trump said via Twitter that: "Buffalo protester shoved by Police could be an ANTIFA provocateur. 75 year old Martin Gugino was pushed away after appearing to scan police communications in order to black out the equipment. @OANN I watched, he fell harder than was pushed. Was aiming scanner. Could be a set up?"

Trump and his followers feel no human care of concern for "protesters" like Martin Gugino because they are supposedly antifa members. In Trump's authoritarian worldview protesters are enemies of the state who are to be destroyed.

Other Republicans have been even more clear and direct in their public claims that antifa members should be hunted down and killed.

On Twitter, Florida Republican Matt Gaetz recently said, "Now that we clearly see antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?"

The criminalization of dissent by labeling anti-fascists as "terrorists" is a preview of how free speech and other rights will increasingly only apply to Donald Trump's right-wing Christian followers.

Such an escalation is taking place in how the FBI and local police are now interrogating people who they detained during the protests sparked by George Floyd's murder by the Minneapolis police.

The Intercept reports how:

Joel Feingold was in his apartment in Brooklyn when he heard the sound of police beating protesters outside of his building Wednesday night. Having spent much of the week in the streets joining the waves of demonstrations against police brutality currently sweeping the nation, Feingold rushed outside. He was swiftly tossed to the ground by a senior New York City police officer in a white shirt, thrown in a police van, and placed under arrest along with four other individuals for having ostensibly violated a recently imposed curfew on New York City residents.

Feingold and the others were taken to the NYPD's 78th Precinct, where they were told that they were being cited for violating the city's 8 p.m. curfew. It was there, Feingold told The Intercept, that they were interrogated by the NYPD and the FBI about their political beliefs and their reasons for participating in the nationwide protests — subjects that should, under the Constitution and local NYPD rules, be off-limits from law enforcement inquiries following an alleged curfew violation.

The Intercept continues:

After being processed and taken to a cell, Feingold said he and the three men he was locked up with were approached by two men in plainclothes. "One of them is from NYPD intelligence and the other is an FBI agent," he said. Feingold said a third officer confirmed the affiliations of the two men as they were being discharged. The FBI agent's line of questioning was clearly focused on his political views.

"We want to know who's hijacking your movement and making it violent," Feingold recalled the agent saying. "That is what he said verbatim."

The FBI's involvement in protest interrogations is part of an emerging pattern, New York City civil rights attorneys say, that seems to have followed Attorney General William Barr's designation of the leaderless movement against fascism known as antifa as a domestic terrorist organization. President Donald Trump and his allies have repeatedly alleged that outside agitators affiliated with the movement are stoking violence and unrest across the country.

Donald Trump and the Republican Party's criminalization of dissent by targeting antifa is also best understood as part of a much larger effort to undermine America's multiracial secular democracy.

This effort consists of: Voter suppression, voter theft, and gerrymandering; attacks on the free press and journalists as being "enemies" and "fake news"; targeted harassment and threats against those reporters, journalists, professors, and other public voices deemed to be enforcing "political correctness" against conservatives and Trump supporters; Trump's use of white supremacist and other right-wing paramilitaries and extremists to enforce his will through violence and intimidation obedience to Trump's political-religious cult; legal threats against the news media if they dare to criticize Donald Trump; and an effort to punish Twitter and other corporations if they disobey Trump's orders.

Donald Trump and his Republican Party also command a massive disinformation propaganda machine consisting of Fox News, the OAN network, social media, radio, television, print, film, websites and other digital means of circulating right-wing lies and propaganda more generally.

Writing in her 1951 book "The Origins of Totalitarianism," political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt previewed the type of authoritarian movement that Donald Trump now commands:

Before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself; in which, through sheer imagination, uprooted masses can feel at home and are spared the never-ending shocks which real life and real experiences deal to human beings and their expectations. The force possessed by totalitarian propaganda—before the movements have the power to drop iron curtains to prevent anyone's disturbing, by the slightest reality, the gruesome quiet of an entirely imaginary world—lies in its ability to shut the masses off from the real world.

There are many examples where Trump and his propagandists have created an alternate reality for members of their movement. These include: "antifa" and "Obamagate" and "Benghazi"; Trump was a "victim" and "exonerated" by the Mueller investigation; a "deep state conspiracy" exists against Donald Trump; and Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden are the real "criminals" and "traitors" in the Ukraine extortion scandal and subsequent impeachment.

The truth and empirical reality as they exist must be silenced if the power of Trump and his movement's malignant reality is to endure. Dissent is not allowed because the truth threatens the artifice of Trump and his movement's "greatness."

* * *

For three weeks, by the many hundreds of thousands (if not more) the American people have been protesting, struggling and engaging in both symbolic and corporeal politics where channeling the power of George Floyd's death, they have faced down rubber bullets, tear gas, police batons, National Guard troops, militarized police, and literal loss of life and limb, in an effort to force a better and more just America into existence.

These protesters in this nationwide and now global people's uprising against social inequality in its many forms are also braving death from the coronavirus. This is also true of black and brown and other Democratic Party supporters who have shown in Wisconsin and Georgia that they will wait for hours and days to vote — even during a pandemic — to remove Donald Trump, his regime and the Republican Party from power.

The birth of this new and better America will be painful. Those who engage in such a patriotic struggle are hope warriors.

Donald Trump, his Republican Party, and the other members of the right-wing power elite (and the corporatocracy) have been temporarily disoriented by these weeks of protests and people's uprising.

Their response will be crushing. The empire always strikes back. Trump and his enforcers' efforts to criminalize dissent will be amplified. The American people must not let themselves be cowed.

On Election Day 2020, the American people have a choice to make. Will they save the United States and its democracy by voting for Joe Biden, or will they commit national suicide by reelecting Donald Trump?

The American people will have to be their own heroes in the centuries-long story of defending and improving American democracy. In doing so they should heed journalist and political commentator Bill Moyers' recent warning and advice that, "because truth is the foe he most fears, he has banned it from his administration and his lips. Yes, Bernie, you are right: the man in the White House has taken all the necessary steps toward achieving the despot's dream of dominance. Can it happen here? It is happening here. Democracy in America has been a series of narrow escapes. We may be running out of luck, and no one is coming to save us. For that, we have only ourselves."

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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