On every issue where America has made progress over the course of the last decade, the Trump administration is rolling back those gains with alarming speed. While it’s tempting to think of this regression as a return to an earlier time—a dirtier, more racist, more sexist, less compassionate America—it’s far worse than that. This is what authoritarianism looks like in its nascent stages. And we’re letting it happen.
In the course of the last two weeks, President Donald J. Trump and members of his administration made a series of announcements that the news media necessarily address individually: the separation of parents seeking asylum from their children in detention centers, the order to cut federal funding from reproductive health clinics that even dare to utter the word “abortion,” the president’s demand that the Justice Department investigate the FBI for allegedly “infiltrating” his presidential campaign for ostensibly political reasons. (My colleague, Paul Waldman, has a take on the Justice Department investigation here.)
Taken together, however, these assaults and many others—including the apparent end of discrimination protections for LGBTQ people and the virtual abandonment of Justice Department consent decrees on police departments that have records of violating the civil rights of African American people—add up to groundwork laid for the imposition of a much harder form of authoritarianism likely planned for the near future. You just have to step back far enough from the onslaught of outrageous actions to view the pattern.
Evangelicals and White Nationalists
During the presidential campaign, Trump was known to retweet the false claims and hateful utterances of neo-Nazis and so-called white nationalists, who are really just degrees of variation in belief from fascists. In the context of our politics, this was seen as simple, opportunistic base-pleasing—a way to access the media platforms of the far right. And, sure, Trump found their networks useful for carrying his message of making America “great again.”
These groups are seen as something unrelated to the white evangelical movement from which Trump draws much of his support—despite his philandering, his stiffing of contractors, his foul mouth, and his inability to tell the truth. But they’re not.
Take Trump booster Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (which is designated an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center). On May 14, Perkins became the newest commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The appointment was made by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the obstructionist Trump toady. During the presidential campaign, Perkins played coy for a while before coming around to Trump, but once Perkins’s heart was won, the relationship blossomed into bromance.
The brand of evangelicalism represented by Perkins has much in common with white nationalism. When I asked Perkins, two months before the 2016 election, to comment on the Trump campaign’s relationship to the so-called alt-right (the term coined by white supremacist Richard Spencer for his coalition of haters), Perkins replied:
I can speak to the fact that, in the last eight years, [the Obama] administration, which Hillary Clinton has been a part of, has increasingly tried to marginalize people who do not surrender to a progressive, liberal agenda. And there have been a lot of alternative voices that have risen up, just because Americans feel they are under constant threat by this administration’s policies. So, what has given Donald Trump, I believe, the nomination, is that he has given voice to a lot of people who feel like their voice has all but been snuffed out under this administration.
In 2007, I saw Perkins deliver, to a religious-right gathering in Florida, an address that was a thinly veiled condemnation of mixed-race relationships. In 2008, FRC Action, the Family Research Council’s political arm, welcomed to the exhibit hall at its annual Values Voter Summit a vendor selling a racist parody product, Obama Waffles, that featured a cartoon of the presidential candidate in a turban, as well as a racially insulting “rap” piece titled “Barry’s Bling Bling Waffle Ring” inscribed on the box.
Actually, They Might Replace You
Richard Spencer, on August 11, 2017, led a group of white men bearing Tiki torches and yelling in unison to the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Among the chants they shouted was “You will not replace us.” The “you” in this case was a tiny, multicultural group of counter-protesters who met the white nationalists’ menacing march. Spencer’s group also chanted the Nazi slogan, “Blood and soil.”
The next day, neo-Nazis marched through the streets of the town, looking for fights. One of them killed a woman, counter-protester Heather Heyer, with his car. Donald Trump suggested that some of those who marched that day for the cause of white supremacy were “very fine people.”
We’re told that the fear that drove many of Trump’s voters is existential; they’re afraid that their kind will no longer be in the majority, nor enjoy the power advantage so long conferred on those who are both of the male sex and white race. In the United States, the birth rate has hit a 30-year low, according to a May 17 report by the Centers for Disease Control. The fall-off seems most pronounced among white women; while non-Hispanic white people represent almost 77 percent of the U.S. population, white babies accounted for just about half of the births reported by the CDC. Overall, the CDC report indicates that the birth rate has fallen below the rate that would be required for “replacement” of Americans who die.
From an NPR story on the report:
The numbers seem to correspond with what the Census Bureau and others have been predicting for years: America's population growth will increasingly depend on immigrants, after decades in which the U.S. enjoyed a relatively high fertility rate when compared with that of other developed countries.
But if “racial hygiene” is your dogma, and immigrants are mostly brown and black, those numbers pose a problem—because the thought of being “replaced” by a person of a darker hue is anathema. In fact, that’s why you’re trying to close the borders. So where are those replacement babies going to come from?
The gag rule against abortion advice applied by executive order last week to all groups that receive federal funding for the provision of family planning is as much about the stigmatization of contraception as it is about abortion. And, of course, it’s about abortion, too. Both Tony Perkins and, I’m guessing, the neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach are rather pleased.
It’s noteworthy that the Third Reich had a Central Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion. As cited on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “In a 1937 speech … German police chief Heinrich Himmler stated: ‘A people of good race which has too few children has a one-way ticket to the grave.’” This was the rationale given by the Nazis for opposing both homosexuality and abortion. This is not to say that all who oppose abortion and homosexuality are Nazis or neo-Nazis; some are just bigots and misogynists. But add to that the adding of troops to the border and the plunder of the public commons by the likes of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt—all to the benefit of large corporations—and things start looking a little “fashy.” Then add in the “deals” done by Trump cronies in and out of government (I’m looking at you, Wilbur Ross and Jared Kushner), and you’ve got a pretty authoritarian formula. It’s the operationalizing of fear and suspicion to enact the big heist.
It’s not for nothing that Trump admires so-called “strongmen”; they unfailingly wind up with the wealth of their nations in their Swiss or Cypriot bank accounts. Vladimir Putin is said to be one of the richest men in the world.
Show Me Your Papers
From the travel ban on visitors to the United States from a number of Muslim-majority countries, to the planned deployment of some 4,000 troops on the southern border, people of brown skin become more likely to endure unpleasant encounters with armed authorities—even more likely than America’s more organic expressions of racism and bigotry have previously precipitated.
On May 16, two women, both U.S. citizens, spoke to each other in Spanish at a gas station in Montana, and were detained by a Border Patrol agent for no more than that. And while 4,000 troops on the border may not sound like a lot, they could easily represent the thin edge of the blade, acclimating people to the everyday reality of a militarized border, which could prove just as effective at keeping people in the United States as it is in keeping people out.
And Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a personal interest in the case of a Salvadorian woman who requested asylum because of persecution by her physically abusive ex-husband. We just can’t accept everybody who faces “difficult circumstances” in their home countries, he said. (Authoritarian governments—see Hungary, for example—often sanction and encourage violence against women.)
Without consent decrees such as those imposed on the police departments of Baltimore and Ferguson, the African American people of those communities may well experience even greater threats to their civil rights than existed before those decrees were enacted. That’s because the message has been sent: Gloves off.
Authoritarianism isn’t simply something that could happen in the United States. It’s here. Now the question is: What are we going to do about it?