By Robert A. Vella
The United States, despite all its obvious flaws and transgressions, has always promoted democracy and freedom even when its government worked covertly to undermine those principles. Although the U.S. often failed to lead by example, its idealistic stance was nevertheless valued around the world as something to strive for. Having such goals is extremely important to societal cohesion because our complex modern civilization is inherently unstable. When demagogues exploit social anxieties and unrest, they do so only to serve their political ambitions. Autocrats loathe democracy and freedom, but they are wary of admitting so in public for fear of exposing their true intentions before they can completely seize power. And, it is sadly ironic today that the U.S. isn’t just being hypocritical about its professed principles but is blatantly showcasing the very thing it has stood against for 244 years.
As America continues to be ravaged by the dual crises of a deadly pandemic and violent internal dissent, the nation faces a fateful crossroads between collapsing into dictatorship and redeeming its democratic values. At this intersection stands the reviled figure of Donald Trump daring the people to oppose him. What he cannot achieve through merit, he hopes to obtain through intimidation. It’s “what autocrats do,” to quote former CIA analyst Gail Helt. But, despite this looming precipice, Americans have a unique opportunity to save their country and themselves.
Yesterday, I wrote about the profoundly symbolic abuse of power Trump committed Monday evening when he ordered police and military forces to forcibly evict peaceful, legal protesters from Lafayette Square just so that he could walk from the White House to a nearby church for a defiant photo op. Afterwards, not only was that symbolism widely condemned, it also triggered a backlash from within his administration because Trump apparently didn’t inform his cabinet about what he was really up to (see: Esper Says He Opposes Using Insurrection Act on Protesters – The Pentagon chief walked away from his remarks that American cities are a “battlespace” and said he didn’t know about the cops’ violent plan for Lafayette Park.). A despot who cannot confide in his own lieutenants is a despot destined to fall.
In addition to the condemnation and backlash against Trump (which will be further detailed in this post), his support among the populace continues to erode. Nate Silver’s 538 blog of aggregate polls had Trump’s presidential approval rating this morning deeply in negative territory at 54.1% disapprove versus 42.6% approve. A new CBS poll shows 49% disapprove of Trump’s handling of the nationwide protests while only 32% approve (see: Americans see differences in how police treat whites and blacks – CBS News poll). That’s an astonishing 17 points underwater, and even evangelical Christians (who represent a huge faction of his base supporters) are bitterly split over this issue.
It should also be noted that the number of Republicans and ex-Republicans who oppose Trump is growing every day much to the dismay of GOP leaders. For example, George Will – the longtime conservative commentator who had been the bane of liberals and progressives since the Nixon administration – is calling for voters to sweep Trump and his Republican allies out of office this November (see: Conservative Icon George Will Urges November Sweep: Vote Out Trump, All GOP Enablers). Will also said yesterday that the only way Trump could be reelected is if the destruction of property and other violence being committed in parallel with peaceful protesters continues indefinitely. I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment, and it appears that Senate Republicans do also. Yesterday, the news media filmed virtually the entire GOP Senate caucus running away from reporters’ questions about Trump’s Monday night photo op stunt. Furthermore, there is not even one major election analysis forecasting Democrats losing control of the House of Representatives, and the bulk of projections are showing increasing chances that Republicans will lose control of the Senate.
Yes, America is at a dangerous crossroads; and, there is no guarantee that it won’t take the wrong course. But, the opportunity to stop this madness is wide open. All we have to do is walk with determination and togetherness through that door.
Here’s the news:
While clashes between police and the public continued well past the curfews in cities nationwide on Tuesday night, tensions subsided in some places as a second week of protests over George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody got underway.
Some cities, however, experienced another night of chaos. In New York, hundreds of protesters walking over the Manhattan Bridge were met by a blockade of police officers who had refused to let the group exit the bridge. At Lafayette Square in the District, protesters who threw water bottles and shook the fence separating them from a line of law enforcement officers near the White House were met with pepper bullets and pepper spray. And what was an hours-long peaceful protest in Portland, Ore., turned ugly after police shot off tear gas and flash bangs.
The scenes have been disturbingly familiar to CIA analysts accustomed to monitoring scenes of societal unraveling abroad — the massing of protesters, the ensuing crackdowns and the awkwardly staged displays of strength by a leader determined to project authority.
In interviews and posts on social media in recent days, current and former U.S. intelligence officials have expressed dismay at the similarity between events at home and the signs of decline or democratic regression they were trained to detect in other nations.
“I’ve seen this kind of violence,” said Gail Helt, a former CIA analyst responsible for tracking developments in China and Southeast Asia. “This is what autocrats do. This is what happens in countries before a collapse. It really does unnerve me.”
Helt, now a professor at King University in Tennessee, said the images of unrest in U.S. cities, combined with President Trump’s incendiary statements, echo clashes she covered over a dozen years at the CIA tracking developments in China, Malaysia and elsewhere.
Other former CIA and national security officials rendered similarly troubled verdicts.
Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called President Donald Trump’s Monday visit outside of St. John’s Church in Washington D.C. a “stunt” while saying he thinks Trump has “disdain” for peaceful protests and will dangerously politicize the military against American citizens.
“It sickened me yesterday to see security personnel—including members of the National Guard—forcibly and violently clear a path through Lafayette Square to accommodate the president’s visit outside St. John’s Church,” Mullen wrote in an op-ed published in The Atlantic.
Mullen says he has been “reticent” to criticize Trump’s leadership until now, “but we are at an inflection point, and the events of the past few weeks have made it impossible to remain silent,” he wrote.
“Whatever Trump’s goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protest in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife, and risked further politicizing the men and women of our armed forces,” Mullen wrote.
A former top policy official at the Pentagon, James Miller, resigned from his role on the Defense Advisory Board due to what he said was Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s visible support for law enforcement officers’ clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square on Monday.
Miller called what he saw as Esper’s support for suppressing the protest a violation of Esper’s oath of office. Miller served as the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration.
“When I joined the Board in early 2014, after leaving government service as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, I again swore an oath of office, one familiar to you, that includes the commitment to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States . . . and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same,’ ” Miller wrote in a resignation letter addressed to Esper, which was published Tuesday in The Washington Post.
“You recited that same oath on July 23, 2019, when you were sworn in as Secretary of Defense. On Monday, June 1, 2020, I believe that you violated that oath,” Miller wrote.
“You may not have been able to stop President Trump from directing this appalling use of force, but you could have chosen to oppose it. Instead, you visibly supported it,” Miller added.
NEW YORK (AP) — New York City police officers surrounded, shoved and yelled expletives at two Associated Press journalists covering protests Tuesday in the latest aggression against members of the media during a week of unrest around the country.
Portions of the incident were captured on video by videojournalist Robert Bumsted, who was working with photographer Maye-E Wong to document the protests in lower Manhattan over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The video shows more than a half-dozen officers confronting the journalists as they filmed and took photographs of police ordering protesters to leave the area near Fulton and Broadway shortly after an 8 p.m. curfew took effect.
The word “antifa” refers to a loose collective of militant anti-fascist protesters. You find them often at far-right rallies or standing in solidarity with those protesting the death of George Floyd. But among Trump’s base, antifa inspires a great deal of fear and revulsion.
Put those two things together and you get a declaration that legally means little but politically means a lot — and, ultimately, will likely put some people in danger, all while inflaming existing political and cultural divides at a pivotal moment. Already, we are seeing some of this, with rumors about fake antifa activity proliferating on social media, with no evidence. In at least one case, a fake post was actually created by a white nationalist group for the express purpose of sowing discord and paranoia.
Militant anti-fascist protesters have been around for nearly a century, but only recently have they become such a target of rage for conservatives. As white nationalists began to engage in the same political spaces as the larger Republican Party, so did anti-fascist protesters. Anti-fascist organizations and marches increased as the far right grew, becoming a large and visible force on the political far left. As the 2020 campaign ramps up and Trump pivots back toward his “law and order” persona, his hope is that white anxiety over riots will help energize his base. Whether or not white Americans — or any Americans — are in danger is beside the point.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks fascist and white nationalist organizations, the far right killed at least 42 people in the United States last year, 53 in 2018 and 41 in 2017. Despite what you might hear on Fox News, there is no proof that anti-fascist activists have killed anyone during the same period.