Is Trump a tyrant? Or does he just play one on Twitter?
The debate over these questions goes back to the earliest days of the Trump administration. Though I've gone back and forth during the past three and a half years, I've usually sided with the skeptics. Trump talks (and tweets) like an autocrat. He clearly would love to control the country like a dictator. He may well be preparing a sizable segment of the population for an authoritarian future. But Trump himself is, if anything, an unusually weak president, with very few accomplishments, most of them enacted with executive orders that quite often get ignored by executive branch departments and agencies or shot down by the courts, and all of which will be vulnerable to reversal by Trump's successor.
Yet the case has always been a complicated one, for one thing because the words a president uses matter a great deal. But beyond that, it's complicated because, despite Trump's feebleness and ineptitude, he practices a style of politics that actively short-circuits liberal democratic norms, pushing presidential powers beyond normal boundaries in order to provoke a reaction on the part of his ideological opponents that will, in turn, advance his own political prospects and justify further unprecedented authoritarian acts. Call it a slow ratchet in the direction of dictatorship.
The most blatant example of the Trump presidency is happening right now — with the Department of Homeland Security deploying on the streets of American cities (Portland in recent days, perhaps Chicago and elsewhere by next weekend) what The New York Times calls "officials from a group known as BORTAC, the Border Patrol's equivalent of a SWAT team, a highly trained group that normally is tasked with investigating drug smuggling organizations." These federal agents — driving unmarked vans, wearing battle fatigues without badges, lacking training in crowd control, sometimes responding to protesters with violence — sweep up people on the street and lock them in vehicles without arrest or explanation.
It would be one thing if local elected officials had asked for federal help in restoring order. But they haven't. In fact, they've said the opposite — that actions that look an awful lot like the imposition of martial law are making the disorder worse, as more protesters show up to demonstrate against police-state tactics by the feds. But this isn't something that concerns either the president or Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, both of whom have declared their intent to continue deploying a quasi-military force against American citizens on the streets of American cities. As Wolf said on Fox News on Monday, "I don't need invitations by the state, state mayors, or state governors to do our job. We're going to do that, whether they like us there or not."
Those words — spoken by an unelected official who, like so many members of the Trump administration, has been appointed by the president in an "acting" capacity in order to circumvent the process of Senate confirmation — should send chills down the spines of every American. But they should also be seen as cover for the true intent of the policy.
One possibility is that the Trump campaign has decided that the president's base will be thrilled by the sight of federal officers dressed in combat fatigues messing with dirty hippies in deep-blue cities like Portland (now a "right-wing boogeyman") and Chicago. But there's another possibility as well — that Trump and his advisers think that provoking protesters to more radical acts of disorder will make the left look more dangerous and thereby enhance the president's re-election prospects.
Which would mean that recent actions by federal agents are intended to provoke the very unrest they've supposedly been deployed to quash.
Trump's problem is that in order to look tough and seem justified in deploying armed agents of the state, he needs a threatening antagonist. He needs the protests to appear out of control. He needs them to be highly disruptive, chaotic, and violent. Yet most of the protests, especially after the riots that faded in late May, have been peaceful. That's why Trump's boldest attempt so far to portray himself as a paragon of law and order — the use of force against peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park outside the White House on June 1 so that the president could stage a photo op and deliver a combative speech on national television — failed so miserably. (Trump’s ongoing polling collapse picked up speed and intensity with that ham-handed stunt.)
Trump's solution to this problem is to provoke the protesters by harassing them lawlessly. It's the real-world equivalent of online trolling — an act intended to bring out the worst in one's opponent in order to get him to act out in a self-defeating way.
The act of deploying military forces trained to combat drug smugglers against citizens exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest would be tyrannical enough. But what makes Trump's actions especially toxic is their intentionally escalatory aim — his effort to drive his opponents to deeds that will necessitate even more drastic measures in response.
Politicians have always known that it's possible to bait the opposition, causing it to overreact and make an unforced error. But such jujitsu is usually a staple of the campaign trail, not something that fundamentally shapes public policy. FDR didn't seek to enact the New Deal to get Republicans to go to the mat for big business during the Great Depression. Ronald Reagan didn't favor cutting upper-income-tax rates so that Democrats would come out in favor of sticking it to entrepreneurs. George W. Bush didn't invade Iraq to get the left to defend the legitimacy of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. Barack Obama didn't work to pass the Affordable Care Act to make the GOP look like heartless plutocrats.
But Donald Trump is sending federal agents into American cities in order to spark a conflagration with protesters in the hope that the resulting brutal crackdown will make him look like a hero, enable him to win re-election, and allow him to grab even more power in a second term.
It's up to the rest of us to ensure the Trump's bid to spark a crisis that turns him into real-life tyrant ends in failure — like everything else about his appalling presidency.