Above Photo: ICE. (photo: ACLU/Wikimedia Commons)
The police state impulse is as American as cherry pie
country doesn’t need a monolithic totalitarian government to have an effectively working police state. The United States has had a partial police state in place since before it existed as a “free country.” Slavery required a police state structure to maintain “order.” Segregation required a police state structure. Ethnic cleansing of native peoples required police state management that still exists, most obviously in North Dakota, but also across the country. Fear of immigrants has fostered police state responses, especially under the Trump administration. Fear of Communists has produced police state responses since 1917, most notoriously during the 1950s McCarthy era. Fear of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and their very real dangers, has produced a permanent police state security network. Fear of terrorism, spiked by 9/11, has produced a host of police state responses such as the 2001 Patriot Act (ready and waiting before the attack); such as expanded citizen surveillance by the NSA and some 16 other, more secret agencies; such as unprecedented punishment of whistleblowers for their truth-telling; and such as a unified police state structure euphemistically called Homeland Security, that encourages citizens to spy on each other.
The American police state has evolved relentlessly for decades, with surges of state control when the opportunity presented itself. It’s not perfected yet, but it’s working reasonably effectively and flexibly as a hybrid governmental/private sector control mechanism. The American police state has always been more cultural than political, with incremental controls added by whatever elected party happened to be in office at the time. So far, the tension between centralized absolute authority and constitutional checks and balances has preserved something like a democratic republic. Now we’re in a zeitgeist where a huge minority of Americans want autocratic government and the party in control of all three branches of the federal government is inclined to deliver. Among the signs (far from an exhaustive list):
Leader worship. Cult of personality is familiar to Russia, China, North Korea and other countries, but not so much the US – until the Trump cabinet meeting of June 12. Flattery and fawning is not a new thing in history, but such over-the-top boot-licking as the president got from his mostly white, male assembly of courtiers may be unique to American government, where “supreme leader” does not usually apply. Figuratively on their knees like a cult group, the assembled Trump flunkies each said things like: “We thank you for the opportunity and blessing to serve your agenda and the American people.” What was this? What’s the opposite of Lincoln’s team of rivals? Even conservative stalwart Bill Kristol was appalled, tweeting this obituary: “The American experiment in honorable and dignified self-government. July 4, 1776 – June 12, 2017.”
Secret legislation. Republicans won’t hold hearings on their so-called healthcare bill, the main features of which are to strip healthcare from millions of the neediest Americans while delivering billions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthiest (while stripping veterans of tax credits). Under-the-radar regulatory rollback proceeds both by decree (executive order) and through the Congressional Review Act (used only once before Trump). Now, thanks to Republicans, mentally impaired Social Security recipients can buy guns and coal companies can more freely dump mining waste into streams and rivers (four Democratic senators supported more water pollution: Manchin, Heitkamp, Donnelly, and McCaskill). In an autocracy (like the Michigan emergency manager system) everyone has the right to be Flint.
Death threats to determine elections. Death threats – direct, anonymous, personal death threats have long been a staple of right-wing politics, although not exclusively, from college campuses to New Orleans to Congress, usually delivered through social media (easier than cross burnings). The right complains about threats, too, but mostly these are symbolic. Recently real death threats drove an Iowa Democrat out of a Congressional race and a New York Democrat (who was also assaulted) out of the Binghamton Mayoral race.
Normalizing injustice. Randomly killing unarmed black, brown, and white people with impunity, randomly rounding up and deporting immigrants, randomly and illegally arresting and overcharging protestors – these are all police state tactics. Arrest journalists. (Hasn’t the bully in the pulpit told us the media are “the enemy of the people”?) Criminalizing harmless behavior. Charging even nonviolent protesters with the most serious offense possible. Over-charging unpopular (or despised) minorities helps make official lawlessness acceptable. Sometimes intimidation works.
Privatizing government. “Government contractor” is a benign sounding phrase that often means “the right to loot the US Treasury.” Defense contractors are notorious examples and have been for years. The Pentagon has never been audited, even though it can’t account for somewhere around $125 billion to more than $6.5 trillion (according to its own Inspector General). Outsourcing government responsibilities like justice doesn’t seem like a responsible idea, but it’s a lucrative one when it comes to private prisons. Private prisons don’t save the government money, but they enrich selected politicians and their friends at the expense of inmates. This violent corruption is not new news, but private prisons have paid handsomely for political protection from the Trump administration. Private security forces (mercenaries) have been profitable and problematic at least since Blackwater Worldwide was slaughtering civilians in Iraq. Blackwater’s founder helped to set up the Trump-Putin back channel. Mercenaries do government (and corporate) dirty work in the shadows. Their methods are ruthless and corrupt, as shown by TigerSwan International memos treating the peaceful, unarmed Standing Rock protesters opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline as a “jihadist insurgency model.” The peaceful protest was crushed by force even though the government acted illegally. In a police state, the government can’t be held to account. And a police state needs to protect its police from accountability as well. The Washington Post reports that’s just what US Senate Republicans propose to do with their Back the Blue Act of 2017 – “If this bill passes, it would become nearly impossible to sue the police in all but the most egregious instances of abuse, and even then, only in cases where the victim is basically beyond reproach.”
No doubt readers can think of other active elements of the American police state – two decades of rampant voter suppression comes to mind. The pieces are in place to make America safe for police state governance. Whether the Trump forces will be satisfied with just a qualified dictatorship remains to be seen. And it also remains to be seen, should the Trump forces try to take full dictatorial powers, whether there is enough of America left to prevent their succeeding.