Donald Trump Is Writing A Terrifying New Chapter In The History Of Political Repression

In desperate pursuit of reelection, the president is pitting America against itself.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

In his quest for reelection, President Donald Trump has gone hunting for demons. Federal law enforcement officers entered cities including Portland, Oregon; Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; and Albuquerque at Trump’s direction, clearly meant to gin up clashes and disorder between federal officers and the groups disfavored by his core supporters in pursuit of “viral online content.”

Trump officials deployed Border Patrol officers to suppress a small group of anarchists in Portland inflicting a federal courthouse with graffiti and minor property damage. When officers started snatching people off the streets in unmarked minivans, it provoked a larger protest reaction and a further increase in federal deployment. Some of those officers are now scheduled to leave Portland at the urging of state and local elected officials who called them an “occupying force.” The Department of Justice plans to “surge” federal officers into Black and Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, Kansas City, Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Detroit and Cleveland to provoke scenes of racial conflict. Trump suggested he could send up to 75,000 federal officers into American cities this summer.

These conflicts are the reason Trump’s most fervent supporters elected him. These voters, most of them white, wanted him to erase the legacy of the first Black president and wage war against the unfavored groups haunting their minds. With the economy cratering, unemployment skyrocketing and an uncontrolled pandemic sweeping the nation, Trump’s last hope for reelection is fomenting disorder and division ― this time, using the power of the presidency.

White Americans have long defined themselves as threatened by racial, ethnic and political minority groups that they believe ― often based on conspiracy theories ― will change their way of life. Americans who think their freedom and right to hold on to power are at risk seek to strike down those they think are coming to take it.

“American history is normally seen as a history of freedom rather than suppression,” political scientist Michael Rogin wrote in his 1987 book, ”Ronald Reagan, The Movie,” but that “American racial history suggests that the suppression of people of color outside the normal political system has supported the freedom of the people within it.”

This same logic animates Trump’s deployment of federal forces to create scenes of disorder involving racial and political groups disfavored by his supporters ― the most fervent of whom are the white evangelical Protestants whose own political power and freedoms are tied to the suppression of disfavored groups.

Trump proclaimed as much during his Fourth of July speech in front of the Mount Rushmore monument in South Dakota. There he declared a war on a “left-wing cultural revolution,” emanating from “cities that are run by liberal Democrats,” that is, “designed to overthrow the American Revolution.”

Trump’s War is waged in defense “without apology,” he said, of the traditional American mythological history of a “people who pursued our Manifest Destiny across the ocean” to create “the most just and exceptional nation ever to exist on Earth.”

“This country will be everything that our citizens have hoped for, for so many years,” Trump declared, “and that our enemies fear.”

A demonstrator is pepper-sprayed Wednesday before being arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest at the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon.
A demonstrator is pepper-sprayed Wednesday before being arrested at a Black Lives Matter protest at the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Red Scares And Slave Uprisings

In his Mount Rushmore speech, Trump sings the sweet tune of the traditional American myths of a divinely inspired people who spread onto and beyond a frontier that made them free. Missing in Trump’s tale are the many other peoples who were crushed, enslaved, overrun and ethnically cleansed to make that freedom possible.

The Manifest Destiny mythology originated from Jacksonian political writer John O’Sullivan, who in an 1845 article advocating for annexing Texas from Mexico, declaring it “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” O’Sullivan’s “our” meant, almost exclusively, Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent.

President Thomas Jefferson invoked such myths in his promise that he would help provide the Anglo-Saxon people “room enough” to reach a “final consolidation” when the land would be populated with white Northern European settlers from sea to shining sea.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner would codify a more progressive vision of Manifest Destiny in his 1893 paper “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The frontier’s “free land” provided “a gate of escape from the bondage of the past” and a safety valve for domestic pressures that gave birth to a unique American identity and spirit. Turner’s progressive twist was that this identity was open and available to all peoples of the world, not just Anglo-Saxons.

But the land they wanted to spread into wasn’t free. It was occupied by indigenous tribes. American independence, as the Founding Father imagined it, was cramped from the beginning by the mere existence of Indians. To achieve white freedom, Indians had to be removed. And in order to justify it, Americans dehumanized them.

“Indians were the first people to stand in American history as emblems of disorder, civilized breakdown, and alien control,” Rogin wrote in 1987. “Differences between reds and whites made cultural adaptation seem at once dangerous and impossible. The violent conquest of Indians legitimized violence against other alien groups, making coexistence appear to be unnecessary.”

Freedom and demonization and repression went hand in hand. And so it was with racialized slavery. The enslavement and subjugation of Blacks gave whites their freedom, which meant in turn that enslaved and freed Blacks posed an internal threat to subvert the political culture by breaking their chains, gaining political power and seeking vengeance. To prevent such a result, those in power suppressed dissent, from whites as well as Blacks, and restricted rights.

Americans often explained their racialized fears of indigenous people and Black Americans through paranoid conspiracies claiming these groups were not only outside of the American national family but also directed by external threats to the nation. Before the Civil War, they claimed indigenous people were directed by the British and that Haiti influenced slave revolts in the U.S. And they used those external conspiracies to justify internal repression.

An illustration depicts the 1877 Great Railroad Strike, when soldiers fire on the crowd during a riot at the Halsted Street viaduct in Chicago.
An illustration depicts the 1877 Great Railroad Strike, when soldiers fire on the crowd during a riot at the Halsted Street viaduct in Chicago.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

“[T]hey have seduced the greater part of the tribes, within our neighborhood, to take up the hatchet against us,” Jefferson wrote in 1813 about the hidden British hand behind the Creek War in the Ohio Valley during the War of 1812.

The same was true of the racial demonization and violence directed at other groups, including Mexicans, preceding, during and after the Mexican-American War, and Chinese, Catholic and Jewish immigrants into the early 20th century. These groups were often seen as being directed to undermine the American way of life at the behest of external conspiracies emanating from the Vatican, the Illuminati or the Elders of Zion.

Political repression did not solely target racial or religious minorities. Left-wing working-class uprisings were similarly repressed and demonized as external threats. Movements for economic equality were perceived as threats to the private property rights that underpinned the foundation of American society. And they were perceived as external ideologies smuggled in from “French Communism” or, later, the Soviet Union.

But originally, working-class movements were seen through the same lens as the lives of Native Americans, whose practice of collective landholding was deemed dangerously subversive to the white settlers’ way of life.

Working-class revolts were then seen as an extension of the threat of Indian subversion. They were also viewed as providing a potential to unite Black and white working-class interests. In the political chaos and violence of the late 19th century, the demonization of these groups united into one tale of the nation’s history of political repression.

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes pulled Union troops out of the former Confederate South and sent them West to begin the final fight to wipe out the Plains Indian tribes. The removal of American forces from the South allowed ex-Confederates to violently overthrow the post-Civil War Reconstruction state governments and impose a new system of oppression on freed Blacks. But those troops sent to the West were soon dispatched back east to suppress the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

When those troops entered Chicago to crush striking workers, the Chicago Tribune referred to it as a “Red War,” inciting fears of communism.

Trump’s War

Freedom continued to be linked to repression through the anti-communist Red Scares of the 20th century. When imperial expansion on the North American continent ended with the closing of the frontier, that frontier soon extended into the Pacific and around the world. America would wage war against external threats to promote the freedoms at home, including consumer freedom now fueled by oil.

Paranoia about external contamination and infiltration colored all of America’s conflicts through the Cold War, the Middle East oil crises and then the “war on terrorism.” The country would create a vast national security state, both internally and externally focused, to root out this contamination. Anyone could be a threat, whether an opera singer, a Hollywood writer or a civil rights activist. Internal repression followed external demonization.

But with Trump, the direction of American energies externally has come to an end, as historian Greg Grandin notes in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall.” Overseas wars promise no fix or diversion for the country’s internal problems. They are simply endless. The frontier, meanwhile, should be walled at the border.

“[T]oday the frontier is closed, the safety valve is shut,” Grandin writes in his 2019 book. “Whatever metaphor one wants to use, the country has lived past the end of its myth.”

And so the country turns inward, bringing its external wars home. Just as the troops fighting the Plains Indians switched to fight striking workers and the national security state targeting Nazi fascists was turned against real and imaginary Communists at home, Trump directs federal officers fighting America’s demons at home and abroad to battle anti-racism protesters on city streets.

Border Patrol officers are redirected from countering what Trump called Mexico’s “most unwanted people,” who are, “in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” to now battle “anarchists” and protesters in Portland. Riot control officers are redeployed from prisons, the main institution used by America to repress Black people, to the streets of Washington, D.C., during Black Lives Matter protests. And federal agents from the Department of Justice will now be sent to fight crime in Black and Latino neighborhoods.

Demonstrators participate July 25 in a rally against "Trump's Police State" in Washington, D.C.
Demonstrators participate July 25 in a rally against "Trump's Police State" in Washington, D.C.

Trump’s War is suffused with “war on terrorism” rhetoric. The deployment of officers into cities is a “surge.” The New York Post labels demonstrators damaging property as “insurgents.” The Pentagon calls protesters and journalists “adversaries.” The Department of Homeland Security circulates “Baseball cards” identifying protesters, as the military did for former ministers and generals in Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq and al-Qaeda terrorist leaders.

Trump himself finds domestic property damage to be worse than war. “This is worse than Afghanistan, by far,” Trump said about the protests in Portland. “This is worse than anything anyone’s ever seen.”

Where Trump’s War diverges from much of America’s history of repression is where he situates its source. The subversive behavior he aims to repress does not emanate from indigenous people in the forest; it doesn’t originate from the USSR; it isn’t directed by the pope; there is no anti-American “axis of evil.” The demons animating Trump’s imagination are directed by the Democratic Party.

“All run by the same liberal Democrats,” Trump said about the cities he’s targeting that have seen protests. “And, you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell.”

Trump has portrayed former Vice President Joe Biden, his likely Democratic opponent in the November election, as a Trojan horse for progressive Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“Joe Biden would be nothing more than an autopen, a Trojan horse for a radical agenda so radical, so all-encompassing that it would transform this country into something utterly unrecognizable,” Vice President Mike Pence said in a July 17 speech in Racine, Wisconsin.

Biden is cast as a white exterior masking the subversive Latinos, Blacks, Muslims and socialist Jews inside.

This is also a tale about the Democratic Party. Biden is an elderly white Catholic of Irish descent who was raised in a blue-collar community. He represents the old Democratic Party, once the home for the interests of the white working class. But the party has shifted and now represents a broad multiracial and multi-religious coalition. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win the white vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

The party is today the political home for large majorities of Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Jews, women (in particular, single women) and the working class. These groups are among those that have been demonized throughout American history as subversive to the American way of life.

And so Trump places the Democratic Party outside of America. It is now a threat to freedom, to the American way of life. It wouldn’t be the first time in American history when the frontier collapsed in on itself and directed domestic political opponents against each other.

We now know a bloody civil war resulted from that rift. And who knows what all this may lead to.

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