Opinion

Will American police serve as Donald Trump's stormtroopers?

They're already partway there

Donald Trump's fascist maturation is proceeding nicely. In November, the last time we checked in, he had the victim complex, the cult of nationalist purity, the proposed wars of aggression, a fairly strong left-wing challenger, and some incipient political violence. It wasn't the whole way there — in particular, he did not have a paramilitary wing, and had yet to abandon democratic norms — but it was a firm foundation.

Since then, Trump's use of political violence has dramatically increased. Fights at Trump rallies — typically between his supporters and black protesters — have become a nearly daily occurrence. Trump constantly incites and feeds off the violence, and it has a lot of centrists and liberals extremely freaked out. Then, after securing victories in four out of five state primaries last Tuesday, he speculated that there could be riots should Republican elites attempt to hand the nomination to someone else at a brokered convention. It's a short step from there to threatening mass uprisings should he lose the general election (which he will undoubtedly characterize as "stolen," as he did when he lost the Iowa primary).

Still, despite the goons surrounding him, he doesn't have an official paramilitary group (aside from some small initial private efforts), and it's sort of hard to imagine building one out of the elderly people who make up the bulk of conservative voters. But there is another group that is ready-made to serve as Trump's stormtroopers: the police. Whether they will jump on the Trump bandwagon may be the key to whether Trumpism becomes a movement of outright fascism.

In case you've been living under a rock for the past several years, America has been having some serious problems with its police, who it turns out have a disturbing habit of shooting unarmed people to death and then showing up to the subsequent protests with heavy military hardware the Pentagon has been handing out like candy to departments across the land. As I've argued before, playing soldier dress-up outside of a context of military necessity makes police little more than paramilitary goons. If one is not actually in a war zone, an armored personnel carrier can only be for intimidation.

Undoubtedly many if not most police officers are decent supporters of democracy, but at least some are in the tank for Trump. He is actively courting them, arguing that police are the "most mistreated people in this country," and has been rewarded with an endorsement from one New England police union so far. To be fair, that's a small one, but the utterly deranged response from the vastly larger New York City police unions to very mild criticism from Mayor Bill de Blasio gives me zero confidence it will be the last.

Perhaps more important, the constant disruptions and protests at Trump rallies puts the police in a context of being strongly pushed to act as Trump's enforcers. American cops are already socialized to respond to unrest with extreme force, and violent suppression of anti-Trump protesters can happen almost automatically. Watch this video, where one cop starts pepper spraying bystanders in Kansas City, causing the rest to start blasting away more-or-less indiscriminately:

I wouldn't necessarily bet on it, but it's disturbingly easy to imagine Trump co-opting some police to act as his paramilitary wing. They might serve in an unofficial de facto role — watch some local sheriff's deputies ignore a Trumpist who sucker-punched a black protester, but dogpile the protester himself — or they might actually join up in some quasi-official role.

Either way the endpoint would be the same: the use of violence and intimidation for political purposes. Rank on rank of big burly men, clad in "tactical" clothes, armor, and insectile sunglasses, standing between Trump and his now-ubiquitous row of American flags, only breaking formation to ritually pummel whatever protesters happen to show up. The best, nicest, greatest, most important fascist militia you could ask for.

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