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On “Domestic Terror” and the Path Toward Dictatorship

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This is a guest post from Colin Snider, Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas-Tyler, a long-time friend of the blog, and historian of the Brazilian dictatorship.

Of the many indelible – and indelibly awful – images of 2020, Monday evening will likely stand out for future historians. The juxtaposition of police firing tear gas and attacking nonviolent protestors in Lafayette Park while a couple hundred yards away the president is saying he is “an ally of all peaceful protestors” is the kind of narrative moment historians dream of.

Yet Monday evening will likely stand out to future historians as much for what was said as for what the country saw. In addition to trying to parrot Nixon and proclaim himself a “law and order president,” Donald Trump noted that the protests happening across the country were “not acts of peaceful protest. These are acts of domestic terror.” This statement followed Trump’s Sunday pledge to categorize Antifa as a terrorist organization (a distinction the Ku Klux Klan hasn’t been able to achieve despite its actual use of terrorism for over a century). Trump then threatened to “deploy the United States military” in order to halt protests nationwide. Shortly afterward, the military deployed Blackhawk helicopters to intimidate protestors even while Customs & Border Patrol deployed armored agents to Washington DC – not exactly near the border of anything beyond Maryland and Virginia.

Obviously, any one of the above items would be terrifying. Many people’s attention understandably fell to the crackdown on the peaceful protestors and the subsequent ham-fisted photo opportunity of Trump in front of St. John’s, given the visual dissonance between the state’s violence against non-violent protestors and the head of state who doesn’t go to church standing in front of one holding a Bible while functioning as the antithesis of the church’s actual message. Given what followed, the content of the address in the Rose Garden has been largely drowned out.

Yet the violence against protestors fell fully in line with those comments that view protests as “domestic terrorism” and that threatened to deploy the military to “protect the rights of law-abiding Americans” (he of course specifically mentioned the Second Amendment without addressing the First Amendment, even as on his administration’s orders police were violating citizens’ First Amendment rights several hundred feet away). And no doubt for many historians, including those of Latin America, Trump’s threat to use military force to restore “order” and end “terrorism” were not only frightening, but all too familiar historically. But we shouldn’t leave this up to historians of the future – we need to be mindful right now of the full historical implications of the categorization of protests as “domestic terrorism” and the threat to deploy the military, and know how to act on it now.

Blaming “domestic terrorism” to use the military against civilians & usher in brutal repression was the textbook move for dictatorships in Cold War Latin America. These regimes and their backers usually relied on social unrest over what were usually very real economic and social inequalities, fanned the flames of unrest—almost always with paramilitaries or elite private citizens who shared in fascist ideologies—and then stepped in where politicians failed so as to “restore order.”

And this wasn’t just a matter of political elites and military leaders mobilizing against majority opinion. In each case, they did so with support from a considerable part of the population, and the passivity of even more. People would clamor for the military to step in and “save” the country from the turmoil, taking to the streets and banging pots and pans to symbolize their anger, as in Brazil in the weeks before the 1964 coup and in Chile in the weeks before the 1973 coup. In Argentina, the military spent the period of 1973-1976 using paramilitary groups and death squads to systematically go after armed leftist groups (groups that formed largely in response to the repressive military regime of from 1966-1969). It was only once those groups were eliminated that it claimed “domestic terrorism” posed a threat to the country and that the military had to take over in order to defend “Western Christian civilization” from “terrorists” who, according to Army leader Jorge Videla, were “not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilization.” The result was a carte-blanc defense to target anybody the military and its supporters believed were engaged in “subversive” activities – be that criticizing the government, defending human rights, or even studying the “wrong” fields (like psychology) in college.

Historians have dozens of examples of this exact process, and it doesn’t even have to be in the Cold War. Recent regimes in Egypt and the Philippines show that turns to authoritarian measures and a greater role for the military in such processes have outlasted Cold War politics. In each instance, the turn to the military for “order” only ever ends in repression, an undoing of democracy, the loss of basic rights like freedom of speech or right to assembly, state-sponsored terror, and the state’s use of torture, murder, disappearance, and the deaths of thousands of civilians. And in each of those instances, the violence and repression flowed because political and/or military officials raised the specter of disorder and “domestic terror” to justify persecution of those who disagreed with them, and many civilians supported those projects because they agreed ideologically or even because they just hoped these men (it was always men) could help restore economic and social stability to the country.

When it happened in Brazil in 1964, people said that the military had never governed the country long-term before, so it wouldn’t happen now; the military went on to govern for the next 21 years, killing over 400 (excluding the thousands of indigenous people that according to the National Truth Commission the government may have killed but that is difficult to quantify and to confirm). When it happened in Chile in 1973, people were proud that Chile had one of the longest uninterrupted democracies in the Americas; over the next 17 years, the military regime killed or disappeared over 3000 people, tortured over 38,000, and nearly 10% of Chileans went into exile. When it happened in Uruguay in 1973, it happened with a civilian president inviting the military to help crack down on “subversion”; across the next 12 years, one in every 50 Uruguayans was arrested and imprisoned. In each case, what “couldn’t happen here”—and hadn’t happened before—happened, with catastrophic results for human rights and democratic rights.

I want to be clear that this is not to ignore the US’s role in supporting those regimes in Brazil, Chile, and Argentina (or repressive regimes elsewhere in the world, in the Cold War or presently); that is well documented. Nor is this to suggest that Latin America was some “backwards” area that was more susceptible to such phenomena. Quite the opposite – the point is that authoritarianism isn’t exceptional to any part of the world, and that includes the US. Obviously, US exceptionalism abounds in many areas where we are in fact not remotely exceptional, be it in the historical use of police to attack the marginalized, the denial of basic democratic rights to considerable portions of the population, or the militarization of police forces. Where many citizens still buy into American exceptionalism explicitly or implicitly, many historians can point to all the ways that notion breaks down when you compare the US to other parts of the hemisphere or the world – and even where there may be differences (the military in Latin America had a greater historical role in state-making since the 19th century than it did in the US), a quick glimpse at images like those from the CBP itself on Monday night make clear that such differences may be less deterministic than one might think.

One of the lessons of Latin America is that the path to dictatorship is an easy one to follow, and it doesn’t happen because the military said “we’re in charge” and people said, “well, they do have the guns, so I guess the gig’s up.” It happened because the political and military elite raised the specter of “domestic terror” and “disorder,” and some citizens and politicians alike backed such military projects and ideologies while many more remained passive and just hoped that the militarization of society and politics would lead to stability and thinking it wouldn’t lead to a repressive authoritarian regime. The parallels between the US in 2020 and these historical examples remind us that while we think “it can’t happen here,” others thought that too, and it happened, just as now it is happening in much the way it has happened elsewhere in the past. The only difference for now is that it’s still not too late to do something to stop it.

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