So it’s come down to this. Trump has begun sending federal troops (or whatever they are) into Portland, and has threatened to do the same in Chicago and New York. The District Attorney of Philadelphia, in turn, has threatened to arrest any federal officer found to be violating his jurisdiction.
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner promised to criminally charge any federal agents who “unlawfully assault” or “kidnap” Black Lives Matter protesters in the City of Brotherly Love.
People are quite understandably worried. I have a different view. Trump’s panicked overreaction to Black Lives matter is not something to be feared. The monster that has suddenly revealed itself in plain sight may be terrifying, but it’s far less dangerous than it was when it was lurking in the shadows. We are seeing the economic and cultural contradictions of a corrupt American ruling class play out in real time.
For decades the American right has billed itself as being anti-government, but it’s important to keep one thing in mind. Traditionally, when right wing libertarians criticize “government,” they have only referred to the federal government, not state and local government. As I wrote back in 2015, conservatives hate the federal government but love their local sheriff.
While the American ruling class may not be consciously fascist, they still seem to fear a revolutionary upsurge by the American people, and by black Americans in particular. Hitler had his Ernst Rohm and Heinrich Himmler, but the American ruling class doesn’t need storm troops with a centralized leadership, let alone a single fascist grandee. All they have to do is mobilize conservative, white resentment and fear of national decline behind the highly militarized, but decentralized network of big city police forces, the class armies they built up in the wake of 9/11. A more centralized command structure, in fact, is not only unnecessary. It’s not desired. The banks were able to crush Occupy Wall Street with a highly coordinated attack, even while arguing they had nothing to do with it, that it was just about city cops dealing with a public nuisance. The intermittent murders of black men and women by the police, in turn, don’t have to be planned, just allowed to happen. The police become, in effect, a distributed Gestapo, a rallying point behind which conservative whites, already heavily armed, can reaffirm their loyalty to the capitalist state, even while denying it. They hate the federal government. They support their local sheriff.
Back in 2011, Barack Obama smashed Occupy Wall Street, but he did it with a coordinated, but decentralized network of local police forces. That allowed Wall Street and the media to market the crackdown, not as political repression organized in the defense of wealth and privilege but as a “public safety issue” enforced by city cops. In 2020, in one overly hasty move, Trump has thrown away this plausible deniability and begun taking responsibility for a direct attack on the First Amendment. While middle-class, liberal Democratic women (most of whom support gun control) organized as the Wall of Moms, are taking on jackbooted federal goons in the streets of Portland, the usual right wing “libertarian” suspects in the NRA are nowhere to be seen. On the contrary, the hardcore, gun toting right, who loudly virtue signal that their guns are about opposing government tyranny, at this moment seem to support government tyranny. The “distributed gestapo” that I wrote about in 2015, the decentralized network of militarized police forces and local media that’s been so successful in keeping the American people compliant and politically passive, has suddenly found itself in need of a federal bailout.
But it goes even deeper.
This March, the liberal wing of the ruling class had to mobilize an older, conservative generation of black voters in South Carolina behind a senile reactionary old relic of the 1980s and 1990s in the form of Joe Biden in order to head off a real possibility that Bernie Sanders would win the Presidential nomination and push for Medicare for All. This meant that Democratic Party mayors of big cities like Seattle, Portland, and New York couldn’t bring down the hammer against protests the way they did against Occupy Wall Street in 2011 or Black Lives Matter in 2015 and 2016. In order to maintain their facade of anti-racism, they had to let the protests go on, which, in turn, terrified the more culturally conservative wing of the ruling class, perfectly and vividly summed up by the image of two middle-aged, right wing lawyers standing on their lawyers pointing guns at protesters in St. Louis Missouri a few weeks ago. Trump, recognizing the full blown panic in his white supremacist base, which no longer control the local police, decided to tap into the very federal bureaucracy he loudly claims to oppose, a federal bureaucracy that would just as soon see Joe Biden win this November. Biden, in turn, is so out of touch he might as well be living in a different decade, which of course he is.
The whole system, in other words, is weak. Suddenly the American people have begun to act like the French. The orange game show host in the White House has begun to talk like Napoleon and about how the the rabble in the streets need a good “whiff of grapeshot.” The liberal and conservative wings of the American ruling class, who usually pretend to battle it out in a pantomime so obviously fake it makes professional wrestling look like a real sport, are now tearing at each other’s throats in earnest. The “anti-government” far right has revealed itself to be what we’ve known them to be all along, boot licking racist thugs who worship established wealth and privilege. White middle-class soccer moms, who in normal times would wag their fingers and tell their kids not to talk about politics or religion, are now learning how to pick up tear gas canisters and hurl them back at riot police, almost as if they were students in Paris in 1968. Whether it will lead to the rebirth of American democracy or open, fascist totalitarianism, only time will tell, but I highly doubt anything’s going back to “normal.”