This is a week that many Americans — certainly a lot of folks that I know — have been thinking and even dreaming about since about 2 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, when the chyron on the bottom of the TV screen said: “Donald Trump elected president of the United States.” I’m sure many wondered what America would look and feel like by the next presidential election, after four years of an inexperienced narcissist with an authoritarian bent. I know I did.
Now that the future is here, I have to sadly report that even I — something of an alarmist about a Trump presidency since he took over our TV sets in the summer of 2015 — didn’t think it would be this bad. The United States may be electing a president for the 59th time, but for the first time, it looks more like a contest in a banana republic, with long lines and other hurdles to vote, increasing violence both from men in uniforms and roving bands of thugs, and an incumbent who seems on the brink of losing but threatens to stay in power by not counting the votes.
And yet, with all the last-minute craziness, the one episode I can’t get out of my mind happened about 15 minutes from my home, close by in West Philadelphia. It involves the police and a little Black toddler — and it has both nothing to do with Donald Trump’s jihad to stay president of a nation staring out over the abyss ... and everything.
On Thursday, the nation’s largest police union — the National Fraternal Order of Police, which endorsed Trump in 2016 and again this September — tweeted a picture near the end of a fraught week, in which the hard-to-watch shooting of a knife-holding, mentally troubled Black man, Walter Wallace Jr., by two Philadelphia officers sparked two nights of protest and unrest. It showed a white, female officer holding a Black toddler in what was framed as a poignant rescue, claiming the child had been wandering around barefoot in a violent, chaotic scene.
"The only thing this Philadelphia police officer cared about in that moment was protecting this child,” the FOP tweet said, adding, in a rather ominous tone: “We are not your enemy. We are the Thin Blue Line. And WE ARE the only thing standing between Order and Anarchy.” But this piece of propaganda was — since we’re using capital letters here — a Big Lie.
As Inquirer photographer Charles Fox, reporter Anna Orso, and others on the scene at 52nd and Chestnut Streets early Tuesday have documented, that toddler had been in the back of an SUV that drove, unplanned and without a provocative intent, into an area where police were in a standoff with demonstrators. As the SUV sought to simply turn around, 15 cops swarmed the vehicle, smashed in its windows, and removed the child while they beat and bloodied the mother, who was then detained for hours, yet — for understandable reasons — never charged with a crime.
The FOP’s completely false tweet smacked of the worst, most vile propaganda of the 1930s — the last time both decency and a coherent world order felt so threatened — yet it hardly felt like an isolated incident. Look, I know there’s some kind of corollary to Godwin’s Law that any piece that mentions fascism in America — it can’t happen here, right? — must be discounted as hysteria. But as I write I find myself at a loss for any other word for the growing embrace of brown shirt-style violence both by vigilantes and, increasingly, by pro-Trump uniformed cops, even as the president’s political movement has taken on a cult-like embrace of “Order” with a capital “O.”
Alarmingly, the 45th president has — in the waning days of his campaign — increasingly staged rallies with the traditional red, white, and blue of the American flag replaced with the azure shade of the “Blue Lives Matter” (or, “Thin Blue Line”) flag. They are worshipping law and order over the more complicated values of the Founders — including the freedom of dissent, conveniently forgotten by Justice Amy Coney Barrett at her recent confirmation hearing — that have been increasingly shattered with the swing of a nightstick.
“Growing dominance of ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag [with]in Trumpism suggests a formation close to but not identical [with] both white nationalism & police state: I’ll call it ‘police nationalism,’” the writer Jeff Sharlet, who has chronicled right-wing movements, wrote recently, adding: “Police nationalists are white supremacists ... who don’t want to think of themselves as such. Police nationalism allows them to fetishize force as ‘law’ and relieves them of having to think about what law is.”
The Blue Lives Matter flag, in fact, was out in force this week not just at Trump rallies but at an appalling incident in Vancouver, Wash., — not far from Portland, Ore., a growing hotbed of political violence — where right-wing extremists descended on a vigil and protest over the shooting there by law enforcement of a 21-year-old Black man, Kevin Peterson Jr. The counterprotesters, who also waved Trump flags, were videotaped spraying marchers with mace and reportedly fired gunshots as the scene grew more violent and chaotic.
This was hardly an isolated incident as America’s years of waiting for a verdict on Trump’s presidency turned into tense hours. Across the nation, a wave of shocking episodes made it hard to find any kind of line — let alone a “thin blue” one — between police nationalism and a rising tide of violent thuggery.
In Texas, law enforcement’s absence was palpable even as multiple videos showed in shocking detail how a large, Taliban-style caravan of flag-waving Trump supporters in SUVs, pickup trucks, and even a hearse on Interstate 35 intercepted a Biden campaign “Battle for the Soul of America” bus as it neared a get-out-the-vote rally in Austin. The Trump caravan forced the Biden vehicle off the road, rammed and injured a Biden supporter in a trailing car, and achieved their anti-democratic mission of canceling the Democrats’ events. Rather than condemn the attack, the president of the United States tweeted a video of it and wrote, “I LOVE TEXAS!”
In Graham, N.C., there was a scene with grim echoes of 1960s civil rights marches that were supposed to have ended this kind of racist malarkey. Deputies for Alamance County — a place with a grim history of white supremacy — used pepper spray to attack a predominantly Black march for voting and against police violence, attended by two relatives of George Floyd. The stunning assault and arrest of eight voting rights activists came at the end of a moment of silence for Floyd, the Minneapolis Black man whose May killing by police sparked a nationwide reckoning on race that clearly has a long, long way to go. Melanie Mitchell told the Raleigh News & Observer that her two kids, ages 5 and 11, threw up after the law enforcement officers pepper-sprayed them. “My 11-year-old was terrified,” Mitchell said. “She doesn’t want to come down to Graham anymore.”
And escalating, violent voter suppression appears to be just one prong in a predictable-yet-still-shocking effort by Team Trump to win the election by abusing the power of the federal government — from jailing political dissidents to even slowing up the U.S. mail — and hoping that friendly local election officials, state lawmakers, and a new wave of conservative federal judges will stop the counting of legitimate votes.
Back here in Philadelphia, on the same day as the FOP’s Big Lie tweet, Trump-loving U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain announced that federal agents had arrested a prominent young Black activist, Anthony Smith, less than a week before Election Day. At a news conference, McSwain presented zero evidence against Smith — a mild-mannered social studies teacher who leads the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial and Economic Legal Justice, with a history of nonviolence — or the three others indicted for supposedly torching police cars during May’s unrest. The ambitious prosecutor did echo his allies in the FOP, as well as Trump’s “law and order” campaign, in claiming Philadelphia sits on the precipice between “respect for democracy” and “destruction.”
Again, McSwain’s preelection arrest of Smith is part of an alarming pattern. A recent investigation by journalist Aaron Miguel Cantu working with the Intercept found that federal prosecutors have charged more than 300 left-wing protesters since Floyd’s killing, even as the Justice Department has largely honored Trump’s wishes to ignore right-wing violence — frequently citing crimes that are normally handled on the state level and often insisting that suspects be detained without bail. It seems that filmmaker Aaron Sorkin wasn’t the only one determined to remake the trial of the Chicago 7 in Trump’s reelection year.
Of course, all the violence, police suppression, and violations of civil liberties serve as the backdrop for the real work of stealing the 2020 election, which is preventing thousands and possibly millions of legitimate votes from ever being counted. Even before Tuesday, we are seeing this outrageous crusade waged in Texas, where the Republican Party wants to throw out 127,000 votes from Democratic-leaning Harris County cast legally at drive-thru locations, and in Minnesota and Wisconsin, where rulings by GOP judges threaten lawful but late-arriving mail votes, and here in Pennsylvania, where it’s also likely that late-arriving, legally postmarked votes will be challenged.
If Trump claims a second term on this strategy, he will attempt to govern not with the consent of the American people, who rejected him at the ballot box, but by dictatorially pulling the levers of his federal government and a rigged and hot-wired right-wing judiciary, backed with the threat of Trump-loving cops or Homeland Security goons, aided by flag-waving vigilantes, suppressing the inevitable protests.
In using lie-based propaganda to frame this week’s election as the choice between “Order” and “Anarchy,” the FOP accidentally showed us what’s really on the ballot — a showdown between freedom and fascism. Of course, “fascism” is to some extent the last banned F-word in modern America. For more than five years now, as Donald Trump has jetted across the nation for Nuremberg-style rallies to egg on mob violence while riling up “the forgotten Americans” with a stew of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia, many of us have tried to tap dance around what is really going on in this country. I know, at times, I have.
So we call it things like “demagoguery” or “authoritarianism” or — especially in the wake of 2020′s racial reckoning — “white nationalism.” And on occasion when things really go off the rails — like when the president’s men shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters near the White House so Trump can stage a photo-op with an upside-down Bible — a few folks go out on a limb and call it “creeping fascism.” Pay attention: It is not creeping. It is on full gallop from Vancouver, Wash., to Graham, N.C., bloodied clubs raised and at the ready.
These are the stakes. Four years ago, we went into a fraught election week with vague anxieties about what could — but probably wouldn’t, we wrongly convinced ourselves — happen. Now we no longer have to imagine what a Trump presidency would be like, or how much worse things could get if he clings to the White House by illegitimate means for another four years. There are so many problems that America needs to address, but all of that hinges on the coming weeks and whether we fulfill our already frayed but implied 1787 promise to Ben Franklin made right here in Philadelphia: A republic, if we can keep it.
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