Sinclair Lewis put it best when he wrote:
“Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!”
It was first reported on Thursday, July 16th that unmarked federal agents had descended on Portland, Oregon and were “seizing people and throwing them in unmarked vans.” These federal agents belonged to the Department of Homeland Security’s Border Patrol Tactical unit (BORTAC), which specializes in drug busts and other covert action. Their mission: to arrest peaceful protesters without reading them their rights or giving them their due process. President Trump has also promised that there will be a “surge” of federal agents in cities across the country, including Chicago, Kansas City, and Albuquerque, which will likely magnify the problem by setting up confrontations across the country. I wrote an article several months ago about the growth of authoritarianism in other countries, but like many other Americans, I would have never expected such an overt overreach of federal military power (and explicit flirtations with fascism) to reach our shores. It cannot happen here.
Fascism is a word used far too casually in today’s day and age, and has most recently been used with greater frequency as politicians draw comparisons between face mask mandates during a global pandemic and fascist Nazi Germany. It is a comparison that should only be reserved for legitimate historical comparison, which is the only reason why I believe it is an accurate descriptor in this case. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Hitler’s rise to power was aided by the Sturmabteilung, better known as the brown shirts or storm detachment. Their job was to provide protection for Nazi rallies and to disrupt gatherings of rival groups and essentially served as a private police force for the party. By 1930, the group was under the direct supervision of Adolf Hitler and was under little to no accountability, so long as they targeted groups that sought to undermine Hitler’s leadership. This extrajudicial form of subversion and secret policing should not be tolerated in any country across the globe, much less the United States, but it is now a reality we must grapple with.
In Portland, local and state officials objected that not only did they not give consent for BORTAC to be deployed, but also that they were given no say over the unit’s actions. As of July 22nd, the unit has still not been recalled, and arrests continue to be made.
Portland May Ted Wheeler said on Sunday to CNN that there were “dozens if not hundreds of federal troops” in the city, adding: “Their presence here is actually leading to more violence and more vandalism […] They’re not wanted here. We haven’t asked them here. In fact, we want them to leave.” Oregon’s attorney general also filed a lawsuit against the federal government, accusing it of unlawfully detaining protesters and violating their Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.
Despite public outcry across the country, the president and his lapdog Attorney General Bill Barr have announced further deployments of federal agents nationally, a move that has been received with fierce opposition from a growing number of Democratic congresspeople, a group of mayors from various states, and even Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. Among the mayors who cosigned the open letter was Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, a staunch opponent of the president and his denigrative attacks against the city.
“Under no circumstances will I allow Donald Trump’s troops to come to Chicago and terrorize our residents,” tweeted Lightfoot, who has adamantly opposed federal intervention. But it is likely that she won’t have a choice as Trump justifies his action in response to increases in shootings and murders during the pandemic, particularly during the month of June.
But as the consequences of the president’s actions continue to play out across the country and more protesters object to federal involvement, it is important to keep our eye on the more ominous threat: an explicit affront to our democracy and its foundations. On Sunday morning, Trump tweeted, “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property, AND OUR PEOPLE. These were not merely protestors, these are the real deal!”
One tool in the fascist’s playbook includes choosing a common enemy to unite one’s people against, like the Jewish people in Nazi Germany, or protestors in American cities. “If they are not with us then they are against us,” is often a sentiment used to divide and conquer one’s own people. It’s also a justification for measures that dismantle a democracy, such as the vilification of the press, the dismantling of accountability measures, and a disdain for voting rights. Additionally, as smaller democratic institutions and safeguards are quietly eroded, often without the knowledge of the public, every other dismantlement of democratic tenets make it progressively easier to get rid of the next. Regardless of political affiliation or ideology, students of history will understand that we may be in a very perilous situation. An exceedingly unpopular and desperate president is in the midst of several national crises that he has helped create and has instead turned to authoritarianism in an attempt to “disappear” the very people protesting his rule. Political desperation often leads to poor decision making, and the next few weeks represent a critical window to avoid the further degradation of our constitutional rights and liberties.
For those who accept the president’s flimsy excuse to allow armed forces to roam the streets of American cities as an attempt to maintain “law and order,” I suggest reflecting upon the words of Benjamin Franklin. He once said, “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” We appear to be at a crossroads, where we can choose to accept “safety” or fight with every fiber in our being to preserve our freedom.
America has always taken pride in its democratic ideals and institutions, considered as a self-anointed, shining city on a hill that towers over the rest of the world. But when looking back at America’s history, it is plain to see that freedom has always come at a cost, and not been distributed evenly. After the bloody toll of the Revolutionary War, only a select few were able to fully realize the American dream, namely non-marginalized wealthy white males. This selectivity the American government has used throughout its history to determine who is eligible for civil rights and liberties has grown since the Philadelphia Convention, but the non-white and non-wealthy have always been at risk to lose their rights. Lincoln may have helped pass the 13th Amendment, but he also unconstitutionally suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, and jailed journalists. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Housing Act into law, which helped millions of Americans afford homes during the Great Depression, yet unfairly discriminated against equally eligible black Americans and further heightened racial inequality. George W. Bush’s Patriot Act and use of Guantanamo Bay also allowed for the indefinite detainment of non-citizens who were not charged with crime until the Supreme Court struck it down as unconstitutional.
Clearly, the delicate balance between security and liberty, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks could be considered a “one step forward, two steps back” method of freedom which often emerges in the aftermath of a crisis, much like the one we’re in now. Whether it is a problem of national security, economic distress, or war, leaders throughout history are often able to expand their reach of power in the midst of national upheaval—which is why we must be more watchful than ever. A bill is currently being drafted in the Senate that would outlaw the use of secret police, and while there may be bipartisan support, it would require a two-thirds majority as the president will likely be unwilling to sign it. The arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, and it is up to us to continue protesting, resisting, and chafing at the shackles of tyranny until they are broken.
When discussing the events of the Holocaust, Italian-Jewish survivor Primo Levi once wrote:
“The plague has died away, but the infection still lingers and it would be foolish to deny it. Rejection of human solidarity, obtuse and cynical indifference to the suffering of others, abdication of the intellect and of moral sense to the principle of authority, and above all, at the root of everything, a sweeping tide of cowardice, a colossal cowardice which masks itself as warring virtue, love of country and faith in an idea.”
Democracy, wherever it may flourish may be strong, but is always in danger of eroding without vigilance. Levi experienced this firsthand and cautioned the future generation to keep fighting a plague that had killed millions and induced countless suffering.
The recent death of Representative John Lewis has reminded us that now is the time to get into “good trouble” and fight for what we believe in. Call your local officials, donate to protest groups, and get on the front lines. America is a place where dreams come true, and as we fight against the virus of fascism alongside a physical virus, we are reminded that they both can be contained. It can’t happen here, because we can do everything in our power to make sure it will not.