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Trump’s storm troopers

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Donald Trump is a fascist, full stop. That he couldn’t define the word himself is not irrelevant — it’s actually further evidence that this authoritarian imbecile is a classic representative of a historical movement that has always been both intellectually incoherent and fundamentally syncretic (that fascism in America doesn’t look exactly like fascism in Spain or Italy or Russia is exactly what we should expect):

The month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Yale historian Timothy Snyder published the best-selling book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century.” It was part of a small flood of titles meant to help Americans find their bearings as the new president laid siege to liberal democracy.

One of Snyder’s lessons was, “Be wary of paramilitaries.” He wrote, “When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.” In 2017, the idea of unidentified agents in camouflage snatching leftists off the streets without warrants might have seemed like a febrile Resistance fantasy. Now it’s happening.

According to a lawsuit filed by Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, on Friday, federal agents “have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland, detain protesters, and place them into the officers’ unmarked vehicles” since at least last Tuesday. The protesters are neither arrested nor told why they’re being held.

There’s no way to know the affiliation of all the agents — they’ve been wearing military fatigues with patches that just say “Police” — but The Times reported that some of them are part of a specialized Border Patrol group “that normally is tasked with investigating drug smuggling organizations.”

The Trump administration has announced that it intends to send a similar force to other cities; on Monday, The Chicago Tribune reported on plans to deploy about 150 federal agents to Chicago. “I don’t need invitations by the state,” Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said on Fox News Monday, adding, “We’re going to do that whether they like us there or not.” . . .

It is true that C.B.P. is not an extragovernmental militia, and so might not fit precisely into Snyder’s “On Tyranny” schema. But when I spoke to Snyder on Monday, he suggested the distinction isn’t that significant. “The state is allowed to use force, but the state is allowed to use force according to rules,” he said. These agents, operating outside their normal roles, are by all appearances behaving lawlessly.

Snyder pointed out that the history of autocracy offers several examples of border agents being used against regime enemies.

“This is a classic way that violence happens in authoritarian regimes, whether it’s Franco’s Spain or whether it’s the Russian Empire,” said Snyder. “The people who are getting used to committing violence on the border are then brought in to commit violence against people in the interior.”

On Friday, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, tweeted about what’s happening in Portland: “Trump and his storm troopers must be stopped.” She didn’t mention what Congress plans to do to stop them, but the House will soon vote on a homeland security appropriations bill. People outraged about the administration’s police-state tactics should demand, at a minimum, that Congress hold up the department’s funding until those tactics are halted.

Through the Trump years, there’s been a debate about whether the president’s authoritarianism is tempered by his incompetence. Those who think concern about fascism is overblown can cite several instances when the administration has been beaten back after overreaching. But all too often the White House has persevered, deforming American life until what once seemed like worst-case scenarios become the status quo.

Everyone who simply assumes that Trump is too lazy and cowardly to do what fascists generally do when faced with the prospect of defeat by something as abstractly procedural as an election is ignoring what is now right in front of everyone’s face.

Maybe Trump will accept defeat — but maybe he won’t. If he doesn’t, then we’re going to have to fight to save what can be salvaged of this country. Quite literally.

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