Is Trump a domestic threat to America?

After Trump: Prospects for Civil War

US President Donald Trump repeatedly brags about the muscle strength of his supporters, which gives his increasingly beleaguered presidency a threatening undertone. "Law enforcement, military, construction workers, Bikers for Trump... They are tough people, "he said at a 2018 election rally in St. Louis, Missouri. “They are great people. But they are peaceful people, and Antifa and anyway - they'd better hope they stay that peaceful. I hope they stay that way. ”Six months later, Trump became clearer in an interview with“ Breitbart News ”regarding the threat of his supporters' virulent propensity for violence. "I have the tough guys, but they don't go tough - up to a point," he said. "But that would be very bad, very bad."

Very bad indeed! Thanks to Trump, the threat of violence has already become much more tangible. Ever since the Democrats made his attempts to force the Ukrainian government to crack down on Joe Biden the subject of impeachment investigations, the president has been lashing out. He qualifies the constitutional steps of the House of Representatives as a "STATE OF THE STATE, which is supposed to disempower the people, to rob them of their VOTUM, their freedoms, their second constitutional amendment [the right to own weapons - D. Exercise], religion, military and border wall - and the God-given rights of a citizen of the United States of America! ”Trump has called for Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to be arrested for treason, alluding to the fact that this crime was punishable by the death penalty. At a rally in Pittsburgh last October, he asked his supporters in mock concern: “Please, be careful not to hurt them. Many Thanks."

Trump qualifies the impeachment investigation as an immoral and illegal campaign by the "deep state", the "enemies of the people" in the left-wing liberal media and the democrats who "hate our country" to rob patriotic Americans of their democracy. In this way, the President is preparing the ground for his followers to react dramatically to an impeachment - if necessary with sheer violence.

Certainly, Trump says this and that when the day is long - a mixture of lies, half-truths, conspiracy gossip and almost comical nonsense. Keeping track of all of this is almost impossible. But the impression is growing that he sees violence as an effective weapon in his political arsenal - and that his supporters will not take it without a fight - literally - if he is removed from office or beaten in an election. For example, Stuart Rhodes, leader of the radical right-wing militia, jumped Oath Keepers (the "oath-loyalists"), immediately through the breach made by Trump: "We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war" - We are on the verge of a civil war - "like 1859", Rhodes tweeted in September 2019.

Such rhetoric insinuates that there is a shadow army among us - a force that might one day decide to execute its kind of legal understanding. And by lumping his supporters - from the military to the militia - all together, Trump is making the border even more permeable, separating those who exercise official violence from those who act violently without office or openly in violation of the law .

This blurring of boundaries evokes the specter of a very specific type of state-sponsored vigilanteism - the kind of violence that autocratic leaders around the world incite to break free from the shackles of liberal democracy. Leaders like Rodrigo Duterte, who called on Filipinos to kill drug dealers wherever they encounter them and under whose presidency the number of those killed in the thousands; or Narendra Modi, who incidentally promoted vigilante-like lynch mobs before he became Prime Minister of India; [1] or Jair Bolsonaro, who justified the idea of ​​street justice before his election as President of Brazil.

If the idea that the world's oldest democracy might embark on a similar path may seem far-fetched, it may be because we have forgotten our own history. It would be comforting if one could see in Trump only a temporary deviation from the much-invoked American exceptionalism. In reality, however, the same basic elements of violent tribalism that have infected politics elsewhere have long been at home in the United States and threaten to re-emerge.

Invasion, gangs, criminals, illegals, strangers, killers, cattle, predators, rapists - Trump's vocabulary, which sometimes sounds ridiculous, but often malicious, is proving to be a veritable power factor worldwide. It would be foolish not to take his words seriously. All too likely, Trump will label any election he loses as illegitimate. Even in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Trump repeatedly refused to commit to recognizing their results. He will accept the result - "if I win," he pointed out. Later he went so far as, despite his victory in the electoral college, to deny the electoral lead of the defeated candidate - with the ridiculous, demonstrably false claim that millions of votes had been cast illegally. He has also repeatedly indicated that he would like to see the term limit abolished and loudly expressed his admiration for China's Xi Jinping, who was elected "President for life". "It would be worth a try in due course," he mused.

Tearing Down All Democracy: Trump's "Samson Option"

Whether Trump will lose his office by impeachment or by being voted out of office - it is unlikely that he will disappear silently. He has what, with a view to the Bible, could be called the "Samson Option": namely, to tear down the whole temple of American democracy with him - not only by attacking its institutions and norms, but also by inciting violent resistance against a peaceful change of power.

Many of his followers have already become violent or have at least shown how much they would like to be. Sometimes this is done with Trump's explicit approval, such as when he promised in 2016 that supporters who literally “crushed” protesters would be reimbursed the costs of the proceedings. In other cases, he is more involved by doing nothing, for example when his otherwise hyperactive Twitter account keeps silent about new acts of violence by right-wing extremist vigilantes. Sometimes he provides noticeably pro forma, half-hearted distancing formulas in order not to be associated with politically motivated violence. In any case, the potential for continued - and increasing - violence on the part of Trump supporters is clear. It ranges from physical attacks and threats against journalists to the failed attempt by a certain Cesar Sayok to assassinate prominent Democrats and blow up the CNN newsroom, and doesn't end with the targeted killing of Hispanics in a Wal-Mart in El Paso in the past year.

At the beginning of October 2019, Paul Hasson, a white nationalist and lieutenant in the US Coast Guard in possession of an extensive arsenal of high-powered weapons, confessed to having planned the killing of journalists, politicians, professors, judges and other “left-wing radicals”. And those already mentioned Oath Keepers demonstrated clearly how radical right-wing militias are shifting their activities from the periphery - for example the Mexican border - to the center of American democracy: in September and October of last year they announced their intention to "protect" Trump rallies with armed escorts.

Unfortunately, vigilante violence is a film we already knew. In his introduction to “American Violence: A Documentary History” Richard Hofstadter (1970) writes: “What makes Americans exceptional is not so much the dimension of their history of violence as their extraordinary ability to convince themselves in the face of this story that they belong As far as behavior and rules of conduct are concerned, among the best among the peoples. ”As Hofstadter observes, the historical form of this violence did not arise from efforts to undermine state power, and therefore, as a rule, did not undermine any authorities. Rather, it was about the use of violence by and for the establishment, unleashed at different times against different groups - “against anti-slavers, Catholics, radicals, workers and union activists, negroes, Orientals and other ethnic, racial or ideological minorities, practiced with the overt Purpose, way of life and morals of Americans, southerners, white Protestants or simply to protect the established middle class. "

This deeply American appearance can be traced back to 1767, when the South Carolina Regulatorswhich historian Richard Maxwell Brown classifies as "North America's First Vigilante Group". Originated as a reaction to a real crime wave that swept across South Carolina at the time, the regulators later spread to North Carolina and Virginia, there under the leadership of Colonel Charles Lynch, the namesake of this infamous type of killing. Their geographic expansion went hand in hand with an expansion of the range of activities, which was no longer restricted to outlaws, but included "lewd" women, "vagrants, idlers and gamblers" and the "scraps of Virginia and North Carolina". Brown counted 326 different vigilante movements that roamed America between 1767 and 1910. These movements were not limited to targeting crime as such. Rather, they wanted to uphold anti-black, Catholic, and immigrant social attitudes - which again reminds us that extra-legal violence in the United States is inextricably linked to various manifestations of white nationalism.

Militias like the one led by John Chivington [2] massacred Indian villages that had surrendered to the American federal government and placed under its protection. In the west and southwest of the Rocky Mountains, vigilante groups of white farmers and miners attacked Chinese and Mexican workers. They wanted, as Catherine McNicol Stock writes in her book "Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain" (1996), to expel everyone who "endangered the control and success of their so-called white republic". And in San Francisco, where police and justice with the so-called vigilance committee often cooperated, vigilance emerged as one of the responses to the growing political power of Irish Catholic working groups.

After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the Johnson administration appointed one National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. This concluded in its final report that both frontier vigilantism as well as one of her as neovigilantism described the more urban variant that emerged after the Civil War - "largely in response to the problems of an emerging urban, industrial, racially and ethnically diverse America".

One of the most infamous of these vigilante groups, which was rampant after the civil war, was the Ku Klux Klan, created in 1865 by six former officers of the defeated Confederation Army. The KKK went through three different phases. During the Reconstruction-After the Civil War, the South experienced a veritable epidemic of lynching. Later, in the 1920s, in the wake of the film event "Birth of a Nation" (1915), the Klan attracted attention for its evil anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic activities. In the course of this revival at the beginning of the 20th century, the KKK also became increasingly overtly nationalist, targeting anyone and everyone who was seen as a threat to the nation, including such "popular enemies" as socialists, anarchists and radicals.

Shuttling across the sometimes permeable border between vigilantes and state organs, the clan wielded considerable political power in southern California and Indiana. For a short time he even controlled the parliaments of Colorado, Oregon, Texas and Oklahoma. Between 1915 and 1944, more than two million members passed through the clan, which then regained strength in the 1950s and 1960s - as a backlash against the civil rights movement. (Fred Trump, the father of the current US president, was apparently also one of the KKK's sympathizers.)

Today, the open forms of expression of racist vigilanteism in the style of the KKK are considered incompatible with the American project, even as its curse. At the same time, however, similar forms of vigilant violence remain core elements of the mythology of this country: For example, the much vaunted march of fearless pioneers to the west went hand in hand with the violent expropriation of the native peoples of America, who were robbed of their homeland. The ethos of the American vigilante has deep roots and is closely linked to fears of the erosion of America's white identity, which are sparked in particular at the geographic and conceptual borders of the American state.

The roots of vigilante violence

Under what political conditions can such violence take hold? In the 1970s, the sociologists H. Jon Rosenbaum and Peter Sederberg distinguished three types of vigilantism in their book "Vigilante Politics": Fight against crime (the prevailing US concept of what a Superman-style vigilante does); group-related Social control (Acts of violence in defense of the existing order against all who seek a redistribution of social, cultural or economic resources); and regime control (Violence as the establishment's means of making the state a more effective guardian of its “base”).

Such forms of violence offer an illiberal would-be autocrat like Donald Trump advantages (elimination of opponents, intimidation in general) and at the same time the possibility of denying any joint responsibility if necessary. So it is not just weak democracies in which such vigilante violence takes permanent roots. It can also serve as a process for democracy deliberately to weaken - to fundamentally redefine the relationship between the citizen, the state and the norms that we expect to be observed.

Vigilante violence can also be a trial by fire for affiliation politics -politics of belonging - are significantly broadened and deepened by the lines of division between in-groups and out-groups in society. It undermines the institutional containment of the state's use of force, which characterizes a healthy democracy, and at the same time makes authoritarian behavior in the population a kind of normality. And when a state has slipped far enough on the incline in the direction of autocracy, police vigilantism in particular opens up the opportunity for an autocratic leader to simulate and generate public support for a strong state. Joshua Barker - an anthropologist working at the University of Toronto who researches mainly on Indonesia - states that the Suharto regime valued it about nneighborhood watch groups because this "produced a citizenship that thought and acted like the police". [3]

As early as the 1970s, Rosenbaum and Sederberg were judging a group like the American ones Minutemen as "potential regime controlVigilante group ". [4] The number of militia-like groups has now risen dramatically. The Anti-Defamation League estimated this number to be over 500 in 2017, twice as high as in 2008. These include groups like those already mentioned Oath Keeperswho, worryingly, are recruiting former soldiers and police officers, and who Three Percenterswhose name alludes to the claim that only three percent of the American population at the time fought against the British colonial power in the Revolutionary War.

In view of their multiplication in numbers, the militia groups were also able to enormously expand their sphere of influence.American militias have set fire to federal officials, occupied government buildings and grounds, appeared heavily armed in protests, including self-proclaimed bodyguards for Republican MPs, and "patrolled" the Mexican border, especially in the Trump era.

At the beginning of 2019 a published as United Constitutional Patriots (UCP) operating border militia posted a video on social media showing their heavily armed members in military-type camouflage suits in action. The men guard hundreds of migrants in New Mexico at gunpoint. According to the US news website "The Daily Beast", Larry Hopkins, who poses as the "National Commander" of the UCP, boasts of having personal contact with Trump.

Whether that's true or not, the president's language when it comes to borders hardly needs interpretation. “Illegal” immigrants are demonized as “criminals and rapists” in view of a profound demographic change in existing conditions. Vigilante militias that “patrol” along the border with Mexico are therefore not just out to “fight crime”, but rather to suppress certain groups in society. In this way, they undermine the basic values ​​of liberal democracy using methods that are not at the disposal of a state authority that is otherwise quite sympathetic to it.

Common cause: the state and the private militias

Indeed, the UCP and other militias seem to be involved with the state border guards, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to have a positive relationship, even if the CBP denies this. The agency is prohibited by law from accepting "aid" beyond what Congress has specifically approved for its purposes. (With which she justified the rejection of donations in kind in favor of the children, which the authorities had separated from their parents and locked in cages.) Convincing evidence suggests that the CBP and various militias are tacitly working together. "The Border Patrol is certainly aware, or should be aware, that the local officials accept 'help' from members of private militias, ”Deana El-Mallawany from told me Protect Democracy, an organization that has been keeping border militias under surveillance since Trump's election.

The “New York Times” and the media portal “Buzzfeed” told UCP members that their group had never been asked by the border protection agency to cease its activities. You have a "direct line" to local CBP offices. El-Mallawany also referred to a video from 2018. It shows a CBP officer calling for it, following the example of the Three Percenters to follow.

Fidan Elcioglu, a professor at the University of Toronto, has written a paper on two border militias in Arizona, which they use the pseudonyms "Soldiers" and "Engineers". She emailed me that there was no doubt that the CBP was cooperating with the militia. Instead of “vigilantism”, she prefers to speak of “popular sovereignty” to make it clear that these militias do not operate on the margins of society: “The 'Soldiers' clearly operate in the institutional center. You work with the border guards. It is clearly a form of collective policing qua civic engagement, ”says Elcioglu. "As far as I have been able to observe the situation, border guards on the field are doing nothing to prevent them [the 'Soldiers'] from conducting armed 'operations' near the Arizona-Sonora border."

In a functioning liberal democracy, only the state has the right to exercise violence, and this only within the framework of institutional restrictions. Vigilantism especially flourishes in “defective democracies and weak authoritarian systems,” says Peter Kreuzer, who studies internal conflicts at the Hessian Foundation for Peace and Conflict Research (PRIF). One of the reasons why vigilantism can benefit those in power is that it opens up opportunities for them to deny and distance themselves. One thinks, for example, of the gangster attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators welcomed by the Hong Kong police - a series of concerted, state-sanctioned attacks by the so-called triads, which allow the authorities - apparently - not to get their hands dirty.

Increasing violence in a damaged democracy, especially when ruled by a would-be autocrat with no respect for the limits of his powers, is a sure sign that the core function of any state power is in danger of being lost - the ability to exercise and control the monopoly of force to be recognized by its citizens as an effective, legitimate and just "honest broker". Politicians who cynically promote vigilante violence are depriving collective governance of its inherent power for the sake of short-term political advantage. States that take this path find it difficult to find their way back.

Trump's backing: the fears of the white population

If Trump were more Machiavellian and not the egomaniacal, narcissistic, deeply incompetent actor he is, American democracy might already be doomed. But even if Trump is nothing more than a show-like racist who happens to have a feel for the real concerns of the republican base - what does it do to the most militant supporters of the president if he is one day removed from the white House managed, yelling “PUTSCH!”?

What happens when his supporters, who, as he correctly asserts, are well represented in the police, judiciary and military, take action to “defend” democracy and what, in their black and white conception, is legitimate state power? The question is particularly difficult because it is about more than politics and ideology. For many Trump supporters, it is of existential importance. Trump's blurring of the boundaries between reality and conspiracy fantasies, between legitimate and illegitimate, cannot be understood without taking into account what constitutes his real support: white fear of repression, fear of relegation and doom.

Numerous studies have been able to refute the myth that has spread in the media that Trumpism somehow has to do with economic fears. Scientists like Michael Tesler [5] were able to prove even before Trump's election victory in 2016 that the popularity of him grew out of the increasing response to white identity politics. The pull of this policy extends well beyond the working class and even encompasses many white millennials born between 1981 and 1998. Racist and anti-immigrant feelings, as well as the belief that whites lag behind other sections of the population, have been shown to correlate most closely with voting for Trump. This enjoys the almost cult-like admiration of a hard core of about 25 percent of the US population. People who value whiteness are more likely to support him when told that non-white groups will outnumber whites in America by 2042.

By its very nature, vigilantism is a fringe (group) phenomenon that occurs when the state or the trust it enjoys weakens. If a large number of the citizens of a country and - roughly estimated - half of its political class deny the legitimacy of the state's rules and institutions, then the rest of the country has no good cards! Healthy democracies have a multi-party spectrum, the participants of which profess common principles and lead political discussions on the basis of a reality that is recognized by all. The United States, on the other hand, is now a country with a political party, a tribalist community, and multiple conflicting realities.

More than anything else, the impeachment process is capable of showing a way forward. It gives Republicans the chance to do what their country demands of them. They need to speak the blatant truths - such as that the president is corrupt and unfit for office - the truths that will only gain a foothold within the Republican community if confirmed by people inside Trump's information bubble. Other right-wing parties in other countries have done the same - most recently in France in 2017, where Les Républicains finally got up to form a kind of Cordon Sanitaire against the Front National in order to keep the republic healthy in the long term.

The historian Hofstadter mentioned above once wrote about his own era that politicians striving to sow discord and seek confrontation resorted to the brilliant tactic of provoking acts of violence instead of committing them themselves. Political violence, he said, was the product of official instigation, rather than spontaneous upsurge, anywhere in the world. What was already true of Hofstadter's time is even more true today.

German first publication of an article that first appeared in “The New Republic” under the title “The Vigilante President”. The translation is by Karl D. Bredthauer.

[2]Chivington was an officer in the Union Forces and responsible for the infamous "Sand Creek Massacre in a Cheyenne village in 1864".

[3]Joshua Barker, Identifying with Freedom: Indonesia after Suharto, New York 2007, p. 89.

[4]They referred to an armed group of anti-communists formed in the 1960s. A border militia founded in 2004 also called itself “Minutemen”, and a number of other groups are currently trading under this name.

[5]See John Sides, Michael Tesler and Lynn Vavreck, Identity Crisis. The 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Battle for the Meaning of America, Princeton 2018.