This is horrifying. Last week on Dorf on Law, we took a partial break from the news cycle by devoting three of our five columns to an academic discussion about an issue that we care about greatly, but such luxuries are for the time being denied to us, because the man who has claimed over and over again to be "the most militaristic person there is" now has actually threatened to turn American cities into battle zones and has had troops fire tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters.
It is amazing, in fact, that I did not know about Trump's "most militaristic" claims until I watched Seth Meyers's segment last night (from the 7:59 mark through 8:26 of the video, showing six times when Trump so labeled himself); but it makes sense not only that Trump would say such an idiotic thing but that we never even noticed, given how many other things he has said that are equally deranged.
That Trump (or maybe it was Bill Barr) ordered this police-on-public violence to clear the way for a weird walkabout to a church makes it that much creepier, but the point is that Trump has noticed that "the protests" have not all been peaceful, so it is now apparently acceptable to treat all protesters as thugs and criminals, even when the actual protesters are not being thuggish or committing crimes.
In situations like this, conspiracy theories inevitably run rampant, and there are all kinds of theories about who is instigating the violence. But some theories are better than others, and especially when there is a president who thrives on chaos, one can expect those who support him to seize opportunities to give him excuses to overreact. How does this work?
I recently binge-watched Showtime's "Homeland," a critically acclaimed long-running series (2011-20) mostly about CIA agents operating anti-terrorism operations in the Middle East (with extended side stories in Berlin and Caracas). Although there were some complaints about the show's depictions of Muslims -- complaints that I do not find convincing based on having watched the show, although I certainly respect and understand the reactions of those who feel the sting of bigotry in America's demonization of Muslims -- it was a masterful series that showed how intelligence and especially counterintelligence operations work.
One of the most uncomfortably realistic plot arcs in the show came in season 7, when a character based on a mashup of Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones ends up in a compound of gun-toting anti-government extremists in rural Virginia. A Ruby Ridge-like standoff ensues, with a key moment coming when the teenage son of one of the militarists is shot and taken to the hospital. A shadowy, unknown character sneaks into the emergency room and takes a photo of the boy lying on a gurney. Even though medical professionals are working to save his life, it is possible to crop the photo to make it look as though he has been left alone to die. The boy lives, but before anyone knows that he has survived, the shadowy character posts the video to YouTube, under the headline: "FBI Lets Boy Bleed to Death." Carnage ensues.
It turns out that the shadowy character is Russian, an undercover agent who works for the successor agency to the KGB. His job is to foment discord by manufacturing this kind of disinformation. In fact, he had used this tactic in Eastern Europe years before to create exactly the same kind of chaos.
But "Homeland" is fiction, and this kind of thing never happens, right? Hardly. Russia certainly has an interest in undermining American democracy, as even a Republican-led Senate panel concluded in assessing Russia's support of Donald Trump in 2016. It is not only foreign actors that do these things, either.
During the Vietnam War, the FBI was so aggressively infiltrating antiwar groups that stories emerged years later of agents discovering that the only other people in a room of "antiwar activists" were other undercover operatives. Much of the time, the idea was not merely to gather intelligence and evidence of possible plans for violence but to goad the protesters into violent confrontations.
For example, during a standoff at Ohio State in which students had gathered on one side of a massive gateway into campus, the police told the students that so long as the gate stayed open, there would be no problem. After some time, the students were whipped into a frenzy, and two students ran to each of the gates and closed them, which was a clear violation of the truce. The police charged, and violence ensued. It turned out that two of the four men who had closed the gates were undercover agents of the state police (known in Ohio as the State Highway Patrol).
This is only one of countless times when protests have been used by authorities to create chaos and thus to justify oppressive crackdowns. I have no doubt that some violence over the past week has also been sparked by people acting with other agendas, and once the violence starts, some people who had no violent agenda unfortunately join in. Soon after, alt-right hyper-militaristic types show up for counter-protests, assault weapons in hand. What could go wrong?
My point is that the playbook for perverting peaceful protests to the advantage of the oppressors is widely known and easy to implement. It is also by its nature easy to deny that the government is engaged in this kind of manipulation, especially because the very nature of the chaos makes it easy to accuse others of doing the same thing.
But even if my suspicions are merely my own version of fearmongering, we do know at the very least that street-level chaos gives leaders a choice to escalate or to de-escalate. Trump will choose escalation every time, and each of those escalations will create its own excuse for further escalation. Again, now that he can say that some protests have seen some violence, he thinks that it is acceptable to crack down on all protests. This is how governments fall.
Admittedly, I am not trained in espionage or national security, so maybe my take on the situation is naive or overwrought. Unfortunately, an article in this morning's The Washington Post opened with these chilling paragraphs:
Anyone who is not unnerved is not paying attention. It is good to see that the Defense Secretary Mark Esper is now reportedly opposing the use of the military to quell protests, but if Trump has been consistent about anything, it is that he has always gotten his underlings to knuckle under or go away."'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.'"
I have spent the last four years repeatedly warning that Trump's rise threatened to end constitutional democracy in the United States. Even though that horrible result seemed certain to be the result of Trump's rise, how we would get there could not be known. We will soon -- very soon -- see whether or not Trump's desire to use the anti-racism protests to move toward martial law will work. We already can see that this is a man who is not going to calm things down.