Last night I wrote about Trump’s use of ICE and Border Patrol stormtroopers under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security to detain and intimidate peaceful protesters. In that piece I speculated that Trump was not only testing the waters of creating his own personal paramilitary domestic security force and attempting to please the most sadistic elements of his base, but also that he was taking the natural actions an executive might take if he actually believed the dystopian propaganda about America’s cities being promulgated every day on Fox News.
But there is another deeply alarming possibility to consider. This November will be the first since the expiration of a 1982 consent decree in which the Republican National Committee will be freed to conduct voter suppression and intimidation en masse. As Andy Kroll recently explained at Rolling Stone:
The result of the suit was a 1982 consent decree between the Democratic and Republican parties. Even though the RNC refused to admit wrong-doing in New Jersey, the group agreed to stop harassing and intimidating voters of color, including by deputizing off-duty law-enforcement officers and equipping those officers with guns or badges. Over the next three decades, Democrats marshaled enough evidence of ongoing Republican voter suppression to maintain the consent decree until 2018, when a federal judge lifted the order.
The 2020 presidential election will be the first in nearly 40 years when the RNC isn’t bound by the terms of the 1982 decree. Clark, the Trump campaign lawyer, told the group of Republicans at the private meeting last November that the end of the consent decree was “a huge, huge, huge, huge deal,” freeing the RNC to directly coordinate with campaigns and political committees on so-called Election Day operations. The RNC is sending millions of dollars to state Republican parties to vastly expand these measures, which include recruiting 50,000 poll observers to deploy in key precincts.
So consider the following facts:
1) The Republican National Committee under Trump is set to deploy tens of thousands of likely armed, unbadged goons to try to intimidate voters of color from exercising their right of suffrage;
2) Both Border Patrol and ICE are functioning as largely unaccountable enforcers of the president’s personal whims and interpretations of law, detaining citizens for hours without explanation or formal charges, and operating in direct conflict with local mayors and governors;
3) Border Patrol and ICE both have stridently bigoted, conservative organizational cultures hostile to most people of color and more liberal, urban areas generally–and they are well aware that their powers will likely be curtailed under a possible future Democratic administration;
4) Trump continues to ramp up rhetoric against nonexistent “voter fraud” in liberal areas. His focus has primarily been on vote-by-mail as a result of the COVID pandemic, but imaginary in-person voter impersonation fraud among communities of color in Democratic-leaning cities has long been a Republican obsession. A senior legal adviser to the Trump campaign recently declared that Trump would win even California if voting were “fair,” showing just how deeply the conspiratorial thinking around this issue runs in top GOP circles.
5) Acting Department of Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf appears to have no constraints on his behavior or his overheated rhetoric, and that the Trump Administration is planning to scale up the use of border patrol agents as a conservative paramilitary nationwide.
6) Donald Trump and his campaign team know by now that absent some explosive scandal around Biden or other unpredictable event to change the fundamentals of the race, the president’s only path to victory lies not in persuading a majority of voters but in choosing his own electorate by suppressing the votes of the majority of Americans who despise him.
Put all of this together, and it opens the possibility of a terrifying abuse of power. We could end up seeing armed private contractors hired by the RNC and affiliated conservative organizations to intimidate Democratic-leaning voters, bolstered by camouflage-wearing taxpayer-funded rifle-toting border patrol agents aggressively checking papers of every voter in line in the guise of “securing against voter fraud” on the president’s orders. This would be happening during the most tense presidential election in our lifetimes during a raging pandemic, often in lines in which voters must wait 8 to 10 hours to vote due to restricted polling places in minority communities–also a blatant suppression attempt enabled by the Supreme Court’s voiding of many of the protections of the Voting Rights Act. The likelihood that these actions would be met with immediate enraged protest would be very high. Election Day violence unheard of since the Civil Rights era could ensue, which would give Trump an excuse to instigate further crackdowns across the country as election day continues. Federal agents could forseeably be sent in to attempt to stop the counting of mail-in ballots in the days following the election on presidential orders. No need for a Brooks Brothers Riot if you can just send in an armed federal paramilitary, instead.
Absent some form of preventive action by states, municipalities, the Democratic Party and left-affiliated organizations, there is very little to stop Trump, Attorney General Bill Barr and Acting DHS Secretary Wolf from attempting any or all of this.
And unlike in normal political circumstances where a party that loses an election can hope and expect to retool and win elections in the future, Republicans know that if they get wiped out in 2020, demographic realities mean it could be the last hurrah for this version of the GOP at a federal level. If Democrats were to follow up a landslide victory with efforts to secure a voting bill of rights, an elimination of gerrymandering and the filibuster, and a rebalancing of the Senate, the courts and the electoral college, the Republican Party would not be able to regain serious federal power in its current form without a realignment. Donald Trump himself would literally be in danger of going to jail. The Republican incentive in November would be to pull out all the stops to prevent this from happening, especially in a census year.
Perhaps these fears are paranoid. But when left organizers warned that ICE and Border Patrol were being converted into an authoritarian paramilitary security force and demanded that they be disbanded and abolished, self-proclaimed serious people in politics tended to dismiss their concerns as so much overheated partisanship. One of the most important lessons of the Trump administration has been that whatever you fear they might do, expect them to do worse if they can get away with it.
Far better to be prepared for such eventualities and be ready to fight back with all available legal means on Election Day, than to be caught surprised by the next unthinkable transgression. If Trump and his cronies can create authoritarian chaos on Election Day to intimidate Democratic voters, they likely will. Portland was just the first step.