As Americans grow increasingly accustomed to life under an authoritarian regime, the temptation is to examine every action by the regime through its designated prism. President Donald J. Trump’s summit with the dictator Kim Jong-Un is viewed through the foreign-policy lens; his horrific “zero tolerance” policy toward people seeking asylum is viewed through the windows of immigration policy and human rights.
But you really have to zoom out to see the larger pattern of the authoritarian actions consistently taken by the Trump administration.
The administration’s current policy of taking children from their asylum-seeking parents as they arrive at the U.S. border after an arduous journey through Central America and Mexico is no doubt animated by the animus of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has apparently never met a non-white person deemed worthy of basic human dignity. And those general sentiments find sustenance among the Trump base. But there’s a larger construct at work here: the message these actions send to the population at large.
While the outcry has been loud against this policy, and even Republican lawmakers are condemning it, in the long run it may not prove to be as harmful to Trump in the midterm elections as it is a useful tool for chilling a broader dissent. The demonstrated brutality of taking these children from their parents and sending them to internment camps also serves as the authoritarian’s dominance display. If he would traumatize children and babies in order to make a point (even if the stated point shifts daily), imagine what he could do, without conscience, to any one of us.
It’s the bully’s trick of targeting the weak, in full view of his community. The fear and revulsion evoked in onlookers by the bully’s display of cruelty serves notice on them: “Don’t mess with me,” it says.
The recording obtained by ProPublica of wailing children, crying for their parents, in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention facility feeds this fear. It is important that it be released and reported, but it must be understood that while that auditory horror motivates human-rights activists, it also reinforces the narrative of dominance among less politically engaged people, people who want to believe they will continue to live their lives in the manner to which they have become accustomed. And it warns us to be careful; people who would do such a thing to babies are very dangerous.
Every week, it seems, ever-more obvious signs of the authoritarian trajectory of the Trump administration emerge, be they in the president’s barrage of attacks on the press, the president’s gaslighting regarding the Russia investigation, the president’s praise for dictators, or the attorney general’s wink and nod to police departments with histories of profiling and abusing African Americans.
As the chaos instigated by this administration defines the news cycle, people tune out. There’s too much to understand. How do you know what’s true? And do you really want to know?
Repelling this authoritarian trend, and the American people’s acceptance of it, will take more than electoral organizing, though it will take plenty of that. It also requires the dissemination of knowledge about the tactics of authoritarians and how to counter them. Mere resistance will not do the trick. Leaders who are willing to call this what it is—an authoritarian takeover of the U.S. government—are urgently needed. But they’d better have a strategic plan for how to pry the nation out of the hands of the despots.