Turning point: Trump threatens military rule, turns country toward fascism
President Donald Trump reviews the troops in Lafayette Park after they attacked protesters in Washington's Lafayette Park so he could visit St. John's Church, Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. | Patrick Semansky / AP

Was he declaring martial law, or was he not? The vagueness of Trump’s “law and order” speech Monday night was calculated to give the appearance of getting tough against those protesting the murder of George Floyd and the systemic racism ingrained in U.S. policing, but he left out precise details as to exactly what he may be planning. The president’s singling out of enemies and his ominous hints at a move toward military rule have echoes of fascism, however, and suggest a dangerous escalation of his administration’s authoritarianism.

In a White House press conference, he sounded like a dictator as he threatened to unleash the army in the streets of America to “quell” demonstrations if state and local authorities don’t crush protesters to his satisfaction. In the face of a supposed rebellion orchestrated by dangerous enemies within—“Antifa and others”—he ordered governors and mayors to “dominate the streets” with the National Guard and police. Should they fail, however, Trump declared his intention to “take immediate presidential action” by mobilizing the military to “quickly solve the problem.”

Demonstrators kneel on Monday, June 1, 2020, in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles during a protest over the death of George Floyd. | Ashley Landis / AP

Trump’s words immediately generated fear as well as uncertainty, as the only legal way for a U.S. president to deploy the military against the country’s own citizens is through the 1807 Insurrection Act, a 213-year-old law that could allow him to bypass governors for the purpose of putting down revolts. The president did not officially invoke the act in his speech on Monday but made clear he plans to initiate a violent crackdown if Americans don’t stop protesting Floyd’s lynching and police brutality.

The confusion over what action Trump was actually initiating with his speech was an essential part of the made-for-TV moment the president produced for the nation yesterday. As he spoke in the Rose Garden, federal forces were attacking peaceful protesters just outside the gates of the White House. The sounds of flash grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas being fired could be heard in the background at the very moment Trump was on television calling himself “an ally of all peaceful protesters.”

In a paltry attempt to deflect charges of racism against his government, Trump even had the gall to say he was “fully committed that for George (Floyd) and his family, justice will be served.” As police continued to drag Black people from their cars and beat demonstrators in cities across the country for a seventh night, however, Trump’s claim of being a friend to African Americans and peaceful protest rang hollow.

Meanwhile, federal troops violently cleared Washington’s Lafayette Park, making way for the president to stride across the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church for a photo op, complete with a Bible and a house of worship as props. Trump portrayed himself as the defender of the faith for his evangelical base in front of the cameras. He then reviewed his heavily armed troops who were fresh from the “battlespace,” as Defense Secretary Mark Esper has taken to calling our cities.

The whole affair was an intentional provocation with a political purpose. The White House kept announcing the president’s plan to appear all afternoon, repeatedly delaying his event with multiple announcements moving back the time. The aim was to get the maximum number of television cameras and protesters packed into Lafayette Park before Trump made his move. Once the trap was set, the mounted patrols stormed in, and the path was cleared for Trump to make his triumphant march to the church.

Last night’s show of force was preceded earlier in the day with his declaration in a call with governors that he was putting Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “in charge.” As to what Milley was being placed in charge of, Trump offered no detail. According to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, however, a White House official confirmed “the general would be part of a ‘central command center’ meant to help state and local authorities deal with the uprisings.” The move suggests Trump is assembling an alternative structure to overrule governors’ control of the National Guard.

Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and Democratic presidential candidate Vice President Joe Biden were among those condemning Trump’s embrace of authoritarian solutions. Bowser called Trump’s deployment of federal forces to attack Lafayette Park demonstrators “shameful.” Pritzker denounced Trump’s order to governors, saying he had no intention to “dominate peaceful protesters that have legitimate grievances.” Biden said Trump trafficked in “fear and division,” and pledged as president he would seek to “heal racial wounds…not use them for political gain.”

Trump’s use of dictatorial language and his efforts to further cripple the functioning of the country’s democratic institutions were cheered along by some of his staunchest supporters in the Republican Party. In a tweet, Arkansas GOP Sen. Tom Cotton said that law enforcement should give “no quarter” to “insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters,” using a military term to suggest demonstrators deserve no mercy. On the battlefield, “no quarter” means no acceptance of the lawful surrender of an enemy and instead says captives can be killed.

It’s not just the official Republican channels at work, though. Whether coordinated or not, the Trump administration is also working hand-in-hand with the neo-fascist right wing to create an explosive situation. White nationalists, the racist shock troops of the extreme right, posing as Antifa (anti-fascists) online and at demonstrations, have issued fake calls for an armed uprising by the left. Their moves provide the excuse for Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr to paint all the violence as the work of the radical left. It is an effort to turn the legitimate campaign for justice currently sweeping the country into a racial war.

It’s often said that turning points in history only become obvious as such once we’re already living with their consequences. June 1, 2020, may turn out to be just such an inflection moment for the United States—the day when the president decisively turned the country down the road of authoritarian rule, taking actions that recall those of fascist dictators of the past.

President Donald Trump clutches a Bible for a photo op outside St. John’s Church across from the White House Monday, June 1, 2020, in Washington. | Patrick Semansky / AP

Of course, this notion of a turning point is a relative one. In a lot of Black communities, martial law has effectively been the reality for years, even decades. Living under an armed occupational force is tragically nothing new for African Americans. Now, everyone else is waking up to a situation where Donald Trump plans to make that the case for the whole country.

Yesterday’s speech and the martial law theater act carried out in Lafayette Park was almost a farcical copy of a scheme carried out in Germany by Adolf Hitler in 1933. Having just become chancellor, Hitler set his own government building, the Reichstag, on fire and blamed Communists for it. Show trials were held, and an “insurrection by the radical left” was used as pretext for tightening Hitler’s grip on power. Within days, he had a law passed granting himself total authority. He then proceeded to militarize the state, suppress workers’ unions and left political parties, and set up a racist, genocidal regime.

Trump also has his eye on holding onto power—by winning re-election in November. His exploitation of racial hatred in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder is aimed at rousing his base, inciting a sense of hopelessness among his opponents, and distracting us all from his disastrous handling of the COVID pandemic that’s killed over 100,000 people in this country and the economic crisis that has vaporized up to 50 million jobs.

Don’t let Trump win. The organizing and protesting happening now must be matched with voting in November.

John Wojcik and Chauncey K. Robinson contributed to this article.

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C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left.