For most of Donald Trump’s disastrous presidency, the words “authoritarian” and “dictator” have been so cynically thrown around by his political opponents, it’s been hard to gauge how much to take it all seriously.
On the one hand, Trump has clear authoritarian tendencies in his rampant flouting of rules and laws, his encouragement of violence and hostility toward political opponents and democratic institutions, the cult of personality that surrounds him, and his threats of state violence against nonviolent protesters.
On the other, he has largely governed as, in Barton Gellman’s words, “a weak authoritarian,” while some of his most headline-grabbing acts of despotic-type behavior — his efforts to prosecute Julian Assange and various whistleblowers, suppress the vote, go after political dissidents, and use executive orders as an end run around Congress — are largely in line with, if escalations of, the actions of previous presidents and other parts of the US political spectrum.
For some, all of this has, understandably, dulled the edge of warnings about Trump’s authoritarianism and potential power-grabbing, even when issued by figures like Bernie Sanders and Noam Chomsky. A second Trump term would be a horror show for a whole host of reasons, they figure, but warnings about him becoming a genuine autocrat are over the top.
This made sense as late as early this year. As the pandemic surged, Trump, unlike some authoritarian leaders in other countries, failed to use the ideally suited pandemic conditions to snuff out civil liberties. But, over the course of 2020, things have changed. Trump and the GOP have been giving increasingly clear signals of the kind of authoritarian policies and power-grabbing governance they may pursue more ardently in a second term.
A State Assassination
The most recent effort is also arguably the most shocking. Last week, the New York Times published new reporting on the case of Michael Reinoehl, the anti-fascist activist shot dead by law enforcement after killing a far-right counterprotester in Portland, Oregon, days earlier out of what he said was self-defense. Though the first eyewitness accounts were contradictory, the Times got twenty-two witnesses on the record with relatively uniform recollections of Reinoehl’s death.
According to the Times, all of the witnesses say Reinoehl wasn’t holding a weapon when he was shot, all but one didn’t hear officers identify themselves or give any commands before they started shooting, and five remember officers unloading the moment they drove up to Reinoehl. This gels with testimony gathered by ProPublica and Oregon Public Broadcasting and published on the same day, with witnesses likewise agreeing that officers gave no warning before shooting. Based on their conduct, several witnesses said the officers resembled gang hit men or even an armed militia more than law enforcement. In all, they fired thirty-seven shots at Reinoehl.
“I respect cops to the utmost, but things were definitely in no way, shape, or form done properly,” one eyewitness told the Times.
This not only contradicts the officers’ own often inconsistent testimony of the incident — in which they claimed they yelled “Stop! Police!” at Reinoehl before firing, and that he, in some versions, pointed a gun at them — but casts it in a very different light. These details sound more akin to a premeditated state assassination than an arrest gone awry.
The Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force, the squad of federal, state, and local law enforcement agents responsible for the killing, routinely arrests what it calls “the most egregious . . . violent offenders,” people like Jaromir Prokop, a Czech gangster involved in armed robbery, kidnapping, and murder, who they took into custody earlier this year. They made two hundred arrests between June 3 and August 23 last year alone. Why did this one result in a fatality?
More than that, why did at least some of the officers appear to lie about what happened? And why did they violate protocol and unleash a hail of gunfire on Reinoehl without warning? It stretches credulity that this elite team of agents trained to capture gangsters, murderers, and armed robbers panicked at the thought of arresting a man whose only previous brush with the law came from racing his son on a highway while under the influence. An official inquiry launched last month may answer these questions, though some involved in the case expressed concerns that it’s being carried out by a fellow law enforcement agency.
Regardless, the killing is particularly chilling in light of Trump and his administration’s repeated endorsement of it. Trump told Fox News that “that’s the way it has to be,” that “there has to be retribution when you have crime like this”; boasted during the first presidential debate that he “sent in the US Marshals, they took care of business”; and only last week took credit for it again in front of cheering crowds at a rally, saying the agents “knew who he was” and “didn’t want to arrest him, and fifteen minutes — that ended.” Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, meanwhile, applauded the apparent assassination, saying that “the streets of our cities are safer with this violent agitator removed.”
Adding to the menace are the events in Portland themselves, in which Trump has deployed federal police — an assortment of ICE, CBP, and other DHS officers kitted out and acting like soldiers in a war zone — to violently quell Black Lives Matter protests, while threatening to treat antifa as a terrorist group. Meanwhile, police across the country, who overwhelmingly support Trump, have met protests with gratuitous, shocking brutality.
It’s true, as the Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill recently noted, that this is not as sharp a departure from politics as usual as many commentators would have us think. Barack Obama assassinated a US citizen and his teenage son on foreign soil, later asserting the power to do so on home soil, too, while anyone familiar with the story of Fred Hampton knows police assassinations have a long pedigree in the United States. But, unfortunately, this was only the noisiest of Trump’s authoritarian moves over the course of the year.
Packing the Institutions
Equally alarming has been the Trump administration’s attempt to fill key sectors of the government with loyalists, and to get rid of voices viewed as too independent or adversarial.
This began well before this year, arguably rooted in Trump’s February 2019 nomination of Barr for attorney general. Prior to becoming Trump’s AG, Barr was a consummate establishment Republican (meaning: a proponent of mass incarceration and an extremist on a host of other issues), and George H. W. Bush’s AG, best known for saving Bush and a host of other Reagan-era officials from jail time over the Iran-Contra scandal by urging him to simply pardon them before they were tried. This was one outgrowth of the “unitary executive theory,” devised in part and promoted by Barr before later being made famous by Dick Cheney and his aides, which holds that there is no meaningful external check on the president’s power to control the executive branch — the president can simply bypass or even ignore Congress and the courts on certain issues.
As Trump’s AG, Barr has moved quickly to put that philosophy into action. He’s worked aggressively to shield Trump and his allies from legal consequences, whether preemptively exonerating Trump for obstruction of justice over the “Russiagate” scandal, dropping charges against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, or pressuring prosecutors to lessen the sentence of Trump crony Roger Stone in line with the president’s wishes.
While both Russiagate and the case against Flynn were highly dubious, this was clearly not what animated Barr, as evidenced by his minimization of Stone’s genuinely outrageous witness tampering (prompting three career prosecutors to withdraw from the case and one to resign), and his later ousting of Geoffrey Berman, US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who had prosecuted Trump fixer Michael Cohen and was investigating Trump’s other fixer, Rudy Giuliani, over unrelated matters. Barr then tried to replace Berman with Jay Clayton, a guy who regularly went golfing with Trump.
This was just part of a White House push during the pandemic to purge the government of perceived enemies after Trump survived impeachment and replace them with loyalists. This ensnared not just lower-level officials who happened to criticize or testify against Trump at his impeachment trial, but five inspectors general by late May, figures meant to serve as independent watchdogs within government to root out official misconduct. Those included State Department inspector general Steve Linick, replaced by Stephen Akard, an ally of vice president Mike Pence, and Michael Atkinson, inspector general (IG) for intelligence agencies, who was initially set to be replaced by a White House aide, one who is, instead, now IG for the pandemic response, another role where Trump ousted the sitting official.
To be clear, just because Trump tried it doesn’t mean he’s succeeded. Many of these nominees were replaced, at least for now, with career prosecutors and other mainstream figures, while Clayton’s nomination never got over the line, and Akard resigned. But the intentions of Trump and those around him is clear.
More worrisome, Trump has also set his sights on the military, where he’s been more successful. This past June, Trump nominated Fox News contributor Anthony Tata — a conspiracy-peddling Islamophobe and Trumpist who’s called Barack Obama a “terrorist leader” and “a Manchurian candidate” for “Hamas & Muslim brotherhood [sic]” — as undersecretary of defense for policy. When his nomination stalled for obvious reasons, Trump simply leapfrogged Congress and appointed him to a different position where he would be “performing the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy.”
But Tata is only the most high-profile of such appointees. For months, the administration has been taking advantage of a loophole to appoint often inexperienced Trump loyalists in senior Pentagon positions, some of them simultaneously serving both the White House and the Department of Defense. And in May, Trump installed another Pence aide, Michael Cutrone, to ferret out Pentagon officials deemed insufficiently loyal to the president, mirrored by a government-wide effort led by a former campaign aide and White House staffer to make sure departments from Defense to Treasury are filled with Trump faithfuls come a second term.
It’s worth remembering that one of the reasons Trump was unable to make good on his threats to deploy troops to US streets to put down the largest protests in the country’s history is because the existing US military leadership rejected the idea. They have similarly rejected the prospect of intervening during the election, something they privately fear Trump wants them to do.
This effort extends beyond the military into spy agencies, too. After pushing out former director of national intelligence Dan Coats last year, Trump has cycled through several replacements, before settling on one inexperienced political ally after another. The man currently in the position, John Ratcliffe, already withdrew his name from consideration once due to his glaring lack of qualifications and partisanship, as well as the fact that he lied about his résumé.
Meanwhile, in March, Trump took the unusual route of passing over career professionals to appoint a White House lawyer’s deputy into a National Security Council role that oversees intelligence activities like covert action. And, just this month, Politico reported he had placed one of his 2016 campaign advisers into a senior role at the CIA, from which that adviser has been reportedly recruiting allies, with some suspecting he may be waiting in the wings to replace current director Gina Haspel.
All of this follows the pattern set by Trump’s takeover of federal courts, easily his and the Republicans’ greatest success during his term. Thanks to feckless Democratic leadership, Trump not only appointed 217 judges by the end of September this year, all carefully vetted to be right-wing ideologues, but is currently poised to install his third Supreme Court justice, creating a hard-right supermajority on the ludicrously overpowered body.
His domination of federal courts, with nearly a third of all judges on US appeals courts nominated by Trump, has led to the distinct possibility that a ruthless GOP will use an army of lawyers to go through the courts to suppress voting, invalidate mail-in ballots en masse, and simply freeze vote counting in place. Beyond that, with an army of activist right-wing judges on the highest court in the land and sprinkled through lower courts, Trump could virtually rewrite the law without bothering to go through Congress.
What’s to Come
There’s, of course, no guarantee any of this will happen should Trump win a second term. But if this is what he and a demographically challenged GOP have resorted to, largely in the space of this year alone, it’s hard to believe they wouldn’t use another four to take it even further.
A second Trump term would be an authoritarian threat on account of his and his attorney general’s increasingly violent war on protesters and voting alone, symbolized by Michael Reinoehl’s execution, as well as the wide support he enjoys from law enforcement around the country. But this past year has shown Trump and those around him are not content with just that. Rather, they want to root out those they view as disloyal in the parts of the federal bureaucracy not already behind his agenda, and replace them with people who will carry out his bidding. And those parts just happen to be some of the most powerful institutions in the United States: the courts, the military, spy agencies, and federal prosecutors.
Skeptics of Trump’s budding authoritarianism, understandably turned off by years of cynical and ratings-chasing sensationalism from sources like MSNBC, keep looking for a Reichstag fire. But not every despot takes Hitler’s path. For some, it’s a gradual one, paved bit by bit by the logic of expediency and the fear of losing power. We can’t know for sure if Trump will live up to his detractors’ worst fears in a second term. But there is ample reason to worry.