As protests continue in Portland, Oregon, footage of government officials in unmarked vans snatching protestors off the streets has hit the Internet. According to Politico, the Trump Administration “enlisted federal agents, including the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group and an elite U.S. Customs and Border Protection team based on the U.S.-Mexico border, to protect federal property.”
Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley called these tactics “authoritarian” while Speaker Pelosi argued that they make America resemble a “banana republic.” Various high profile Democrats including gun control activist Shannon Watts have called Trump a “fascist.” Disgraced former Nixon attorney and longtime cable news denizen John Dean called Trump “fuhrer” on July 17th.
Throwing around comparisons to a man who attempted to conquer Europe and helped murder 6 million Jews is sloppy at best and, in my mind, offensive to those whose lives were ended by fascism. Many of Trump’s most vehement critics offer their views from cozy living spaces, free to say whatever they please without consequence. Polish Jews circa 1939 weren’t afforded the luxury.
Is Trump violating the Constitution? Of course. And it’s right for Americans to stand against him. But where was the outrage when Obama waged an unconstitutional war in Libya and overreached his authority to aid Saudi Arabia’s genocide against Yemen? Legally, he was in the wrong and could have been impeached for both actions. Ethically, he was engaging in atrocities that spread death to benefit American corporate interests (which I detail in this piece). Few liberal lawmakers cared, with only Rep. Dennis Kucinich daring to utter the word “impeachable” following our Libya invasion.
Pelosi now claims she knew George W. Bush was lying about weapons of mass destruction as he initiated Shock & Awe in Iraq. He wasn’t impeached. Nor was he impeached for expanding NSA surveillance powers in clear violation of Americans’ civil liberties. Torture and unlawful detainment were staples of Bush’s war on terror. No one in leadership was held accountable. The current CIA director, Gina Haspel, oversaw torture. Support for her confirmation was bipartisan.
Bill Clinton intervened in Kosovo without Congressional authority while being impeached for an idiotic affair that had little bearing on actual governance. Ronald Reagan didn’t seek Congressional authority when he invaded Grenada in 1983. Michigan Congressman John Conyers led an ACLU suit in protest; nothing came of it and within two years, the Reagan Administration was engaged in a convoluted and illegal scheme to fund right-wing death squads in Nicaragua. Many of those same liberals demonizing Trump will spin you a lovely story about how “Reagan was a true patriot.” I don’t imagine any of them belong to labor unions in the Rust Belt.
Richard Nixon resigned over the Watergate break-in and cover-up, a deserved outcome and yet one that leaves us with the assumption that it marked the moral low-point of his administration. Operation Menu & Operation Freedom Deal, spurred on by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, involved secretly carpet bombing Cambodia and killing tens of thousands of civilians. These efforts persisted alongside the war in Vietnam, already known to be a lost cause justified with increasingly flimsy lies.
We can go all the way back to World War II, the aftermath of which created the American Empire we know today. Secret coups often led by the CIA weren’t put to any Congressional vote. Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile…I can go on. Innocent people killed, governments deposed, instability cultivated, despair spread…American politicians as left-wing as Bernie Sanders enjoy quoting President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell address in which he warns of the Military-Industrial-Complex. What Ike said about “The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power” is unquestionably true. What gets lost over time is how he himself both benefited from this misplaced power and helped expand it during his tenure.
Before the era of state-by-state primaries, nominees for president were chosen by party leaders. The expected Republican nominee in 1952 was Robert Taft, an Ohio Senator and grandson of William. But Taft was a noted isolationist, opposed to the creation of NATO and skeptical of antagonizing the Soviet Union. Eisenhower, revered by the public for his leadership during WWII, also appealed to elite business interests. His own desire to expand NATO and actively combat Communism made him a favorable instrument for those who wanted America to preside over the growing global markets. Taft was the candidate for small business owners. Eisenhower was the candidate for Wall Street. Wall Street won out.
As president, Eisenhower oversaw coups against the democratically-elected leaders of Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954). I don’t want these events to read as mere points in history, dates we see and forget…they continue to have seismic impacts on the people who live in these countries and the world at large. Iran’s popular leader, Mohammad Mosaddegh, nationalized the country’s oil industry, placing him in direct conflict with western interests (particularly Britain) that sought to further exploit the resources of malleable governments. Prime Minister Churchill and John Foster Dulles, Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, were leading players in Mosaddegh’s overthrow. Secular democracy in Iran eventually gave way to hard-liners and near-unyielding tensions with the United States. In 2017, every senator except Sanders & Rand Paul followed the will of John Bolton and voted to sanction Iran further into poverty after we abandoned the joint nuclear deal. The airport in Washington D.C. is named after Dulles.
Our coup in Guatemala emerged for similarly bleak reasons. Upon taking office, President Jacobo Arbenz sought to reduce poverty among the nation’s landless peasants. To do so, he bought vast swaths of land from the United Fruit Company, an America-based agricultural powerhouse that previously ran the country like its own personal fiefdom. United Fruit whined to the American government, a few important people decided Arbenz (who was, I repeat, democratically-elected) was a Big Bad Commie and that was that. The immediate, notable gains in Guatemalans’ living standard’s were washed away as right-wing authoritarianism took hold. Once deposed, Arbenz sank into depression. His daughter killed herself in 1965. Today, Guatemala’s poverty rate sits near 60%.
To go through every U.S.-backed coup, invasion and covert election meddling would, even in brief summary, take up far more space than most readers would tolerate. But I do ask that we really sit with what happened in Iran and Guatemala for a short while longer. We helped destroy progress, democracy and civil liberties in these countries. And to anyone arguing that these events happened long ago and it’s time to move on, remember that slavery remained in the United States for 90 years after its inception and legalized segregation lasted for an additional century. We take certain freedoms for granted but it often required generations of struggle to make them possible even in a nation as prosperous and powerful as the United States. What we did to Iran and Guatemala condemned them to decades of dysfunction and suffering while our leaders droned on about being a “Shining City on a Hill,” the “one indispensable nation,” “The Greatest Country on Earth,” etc etc. This callous chauvinism didn’t begin with Trump. Unfortunately, I don’t expect it to end with him, either.
I titled this piece with a question: Fascism in America? What constitutes fascism? Are unaccountable government agencies arresting protestors off the streets engaged in sweeping fascist sentiments? What then of the NSA spying sanctioned by President Obama? As senator, Obama condemned the Patriot Act for its violation of civil liberties. As president, he renewed and expanded it. Under Obama’s watch, the NSA violated the 4th Amendment (the prohibition of unreasonable search and seizure) as a matter of course. They also spied on telephone calls made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Imagine the outrage over Putin doing the same to us. Rachel Maddow would levitate.
Our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were, at least initially, supported by Congress and formally legislated via Authorizations for Use of Military Force passed in 2001 & 2002. But the Bush, Obama & Trump administrations all lied about operations to the American people in order to maintain support. If we condemn Trump for unaccountable arrests (as we should), where was the outcry over the far graver crimes of his predecessors? The release of the Afghanistan Papers in the Washington Post last year produced the usual stirs from lefties and anti-Imperialists but no clear reckoning from political and media leaders. George W. Bush’s recent banal comments condemning racism drew praise from self-described progressives like Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. Of course, Kristof whitewashes war criminals as often as Joe Biden butchers a speech.
Trump’s worst offenses, whether in violation of the Constitution or basic ethics, warrant mass condemnations. My respect for him and his enablers doesn’t rise above my estimation of a cockroach. But most of these actions are either expansions of existing policies from Bush & Obama (drone warfare, Afghanistan, the Saudi arms deals, mass surveillance, Neoliberal fiscal policies, atrocities at the border, environmental deregulation) or endeavors currently enjoying bipartisan support (regime change in Venezuela & Iran, increased military budgets, hostilities toward Russia). How offended are we supposed to get over arrested protestors when men who dropped depleted uranium on children in Iraq and aided a genocide in Yemen remain welcome and even celebrated figures in the same circles now castigating Donald Trump? How can we wail over Trump’s disregard for supreme law when his predecessors treated the Constitution as little more than something to wipe their asses with? In an irrational world, brutality becomes standard. Trump isn’t an aberration. He’s a continuation.
Joe Biden supported the Patriot Act as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was part of the administration that engaged in illegal activities here and abroad. Leading figures from the Obama years, including Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Tony Blinken, Avril Haines and Michele Flournoy expect to enjoy vital roles in a Biden Administration. All are on record as endorsing violations to the U.S. Constitution in the service of foreign policy decisions that killed innocent people and destabilized regions. As my recent piece on Yemen outlines, their actions weren’t in service of “democracy” or “human rights” or “national security” or any other once-benign expression now trotted out to justify atrocities. Rather, they partnered with Saudi Arabia and invaded Libya in order to preserve America’s economic hegemony. Board rooms were prioritized above human life. The sheer horror of our government acting so callously and its leaders enduring no reckoning makes Trump’s heinous acts strike me as raindrops in a hurricane.
You’ll often hear progressives or libertarian-leaning Republicans call for an end to America’s role as “The World’s Police.” I agree with the sentiment, but what often gets lost is the why & how we became the sole global patrol force. These coups and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the sanctions against vulnerable countries, the arms deals to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Ukraine…they’re not blundering mistakes or isolated incidents but instead decisions made within a much broader mission going back to the 1940s. The United States become the world’s police because multinational businesses needed to combat communism and America was the lone western power strong enough after the war to fill that role.
Just as domestic police protect property, the U.S. government & its military protect capital. Threats to our domination, whether via Saudi Arabia abandoning the Petrodollar, Soviets pulling more nations into their orbit, Venezuela partnering with Iran against U.S. interests, charismatic black men talking about socialism…represent direct strikes against the supremacy of multinational corporations reliant on the stability provided by American-backed hegemony. We call this the Liberal World Order, “liberal” used in the classical sense of free markets controlled by the United States and our allies.
Defenders of this order throw around the terms I mentioned earlier, particularly “democracy.” America’s big on democracy, an admirable enough ideal except, as our look at Iran and Guatemala illustrates, a complete fairy tale in practice. What America actually supports is subservience. Democracy within one’s borders is fine so long as governments ultimately follow the will of American-driven capitalism. Our coup to oust the, yes, democratically-elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende, led to the ascent of General Pinochet, a right-wing authoritarian who went on to kill and torture tens of thousands of leftists upon taking power. Not very democratic of him. But Pinochet was a good capitalist (Allende was a socialist who wanted to reduce poverty, the bastard), influenced by the work and guidance of trickle-down guru Milton Friedman and thus a valued member of the Liberal World Order. Who cares about some dead leftists when American corporations like ITT can reign supreme in the Global South once again?
Hmm, I said I wouldn’t go through every coup and here I am playing the hits once again…But it’s absolutely critical to understand that America in the post-War age isn’t a “good” country prone to some little mistakes made by decent & civil patriots who misread some data. The role we serve is, in total, a sinister one that makes these travesties inevitable. That’s not an indictment of the American people or our founding principles but rather a castigation of the continued failures to live up to those principles and our inability to understand why.
Change won’t happen just because we get Trump out of office. Biden’s fundraising efforts and connections with global financial institutions make him an ideal figure to retain the Liberal World Order semi-waylaid by Trump’s instability. When liberal leaders speak of restoring our alliances with other nations, they’re not looking to reform wholesome, mutually beneficial bonds designed to spread peace, prosperity and *shudder* democracy. They’re strengthening an international cartel driven by Imperialism and the exploitation of any and all vulnerable parties. The Obama Administration fought to keep the Haitian minimum wage at 31 cents an hour – let me repeat– 31 cents an hour so U.S. corporations like Hanes and Levis could continue to reap immense profits off cheap labor. Meanwhile, Barack and Michelle got a $65 million advance from Penguin Random House to write their memoirs. That’s how it works. Let’s not kid ourselves.
Whether we call Trump a fascist or not doesn’t really matter. It’s a term used to sooth Democrats’ rage or stoke ire in aggrieved MAGA supporters. So long as as our country maintains its present role in the world, the despair we spread will far outstrip anything Trump does to protestors. NAFTA alone cost 950,000 Americans their jobs and the ripple effects on communities throughout the country are devastating. But the corporate leaders who pushed for it only prospered. So did Bill Clinton, who went from destroying the Rust Belt and sanctioning 500,000 Iraqi children to death to giving $25 million worth of paid speeches to the Saudi regime. Hillary brokered a $29 billion sale of Boeing fighter jets to the Saudis as they donated $10 million to the Clinton Foundation. Yemenis starve, the Clintons prosper. Our country sees Trump as an oppositional figure to the Clintons, to Biden, to Obama. In reality, they all serve the same purpose.
A Los Angeles native, Jesse Crall graduated from UCLA’s English Department before working as a copywriter, script reader and project manager for an engineering firm. Now pursuing a master’s degree in writing at NYU, he splits his time between Studio City and Manhattan. https://linktr.ee/jessecrall