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Trump's tear gas photo-op was 'frightening' to authoritarianism experts, who warn that his behavior will only get worse without 'fierce opposition'

Published June 2, 2020

President Donald Trump on Monday threatened to deploy the military to quell nationwide unrest over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minnesota police officer knelt on his neck.

As Trump made these threats, a crowd of peaceful protesters were tear-gassed outside of the White House to clear the way for the president to walk to a nearby church for a photo-op.

Videos showed demonstrators being pushed, struck with batons, and tear-gassed. Democrats and critics of the president accuse him of employing authoritarian tactics.

Top experts on authoritarianism and fascism said this confrontation on live TV was "frightening," and warned that the president could continue to escalate the situation if left unchallenged.

Some experts say that it's too generous to label Trump an authoritarian or fascist, in the sense he doesn't have a coherent political philosophy, but they also say this doesn't make him "any less dangerous."

It was the type of story one might expect out of countries like China, Russia, and Iran, with well-documented human rights violations and regimes that use state-dominated media to convey the power and strength of the government and its leader.

A crowd of peaceful protesters demonstrating outside of the White House on Monday were tear-gassed and beaten to clear the way for President Donald Trump to take a photo at a nearby church.

Prior to the photo-op, Trump delivered a statement in the Rose Garden in which he threatened to deploy the US military if unrest that's been consuming the country over the past week is not stopped by state and local leaders.

"If a city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States Military and quickly solve the problem for them," Trump said on Monday.

While Trump was talking, the sound of projectiles being fired could be heard in the distance. Trump in his remarks said he was an "ally of all peaceful protesters," even as nonviolent demonstrators were targeted with a chemical agent on his behalf.

Experts who study authoritarian regimes say Trump is invoking an us-versus-them mentality that condones harsh, even military-style crackdowns on fellow citizens who are protesting, in what could be an effort to boost support among law enforcement and right-wing groups ahead of the November election. These experts warned Trump's behavior is weakening democracy in the US.

The White House, however, defended Trump's crackdown as a "lawful, decisive action," in a response to Insider.

"As President Trump has said, we cannot allow the voices of peaceful protestors to be drowned out by angry mobs, which is why the President will continue to take lawful, decisive action to stop the violence and restore the security of all Americans," Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson, told Insider in response to the experts who found Trump's actions troubling.

The US Park Police on Tuesday disputed using tear gas on the protesters, stating that "smoke canisters and pepper balls" were employed. In a statement, the Trump campaign accused the media of lying that tear gas was used, and Trump reiterated this in a tweet on Tuesday. Multiple reporters and bystanders who were present during the incident have said otherwise, and footage of the incident depicted a harrowing scene.

—Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) June 1, 2020

'He is putting his image ahead of any effort to provide constructive leadership'

Monday's events sparked outcry against Trump on a level that's perhaps not been seen since the president blamed "many sides" for deadly violence at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

Democrats were quick to accuse the president of employing authoritarian tactics.

"This is an abject failure of presidential leadership, an incendiary act of division, an escalation of tensions, and the type of actions undertaken by authoritarian regimes throughout the world," Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, a former CIA officer, said in a statement.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive 2020 Democratic nominee for president, on Tuesday said Trump was destroying "the guardrails that have long protected our democracy."

Ben Rhodes, who served as deputy national security adviser under former President Barack Obama, in a tweet described Trump as "an incompetent fascist" in response to Monday's crackdown.

—Reuters (@Reuters) June 2, 2020

Numerous scholars have long said that Trump has authoritarian tendencies, and have been alarmed by the ways in which the president has sought to exploit the coronavirus pandemic, and the nationwide protests over the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of police, for his own political benefit.

The tear-gassing of peaceful protesters and threat to use the military against US citizens is "frightening behavior," Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College with expertise in democracy, populism, and fascism, told Insider. But it's also not out of line with Trump's previous antics, Berman added, which appear to be motivated "by a belief that the world is divided into 'friends and foes,' rather than people with legitimate differences over policy."

"Once someone is considered a 'foe' rather than merely a political opponent, it becomes easy to anathematize and use methods of questionable legality and even violence against them," Berman said.

Echoing these sentiments, Columbia University historian Robert Paxton told Insider that Trump's "current language seems to me to constitute more of the same bluster and aggressivity that we have seen all along."

"But the tense circumstances of the present moment give Trump's current bluster greater resonance. He seems to fear most of all being considered weak or conciliatory, so he is taking an aggressive line that he thinks will make him look strong to his base. He is putting his image ahead of any effort to provide constructive leadership," Paxton, author of "The Anatomy of Fascism," added.

Trump in recent days has likened the protesters with terrorists and called on governors to "dominate" them. Last week, the president echoed an infamous segregationist, George Wallace, in tweeting that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

The president was virtually absent as a leader in response to the unrest as it reached disturbing heights over the weekend, hiding in a White House bunker and tweeting away. When he finally emerged to make his first national address on the disarray on Monday, Trump threatened US citizens with a type of force rarely seen in democratic countries, prompting allusions to Tiananmen Square from Democratic senators.

'Fierce opposition straight away'

Trump has shown "strong authoritarian impulses and a fundamental disregard for liberal democratic values and institutions" since the start his 2016 presidential campaign, Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia who's an expert on populism, extremism, and democracy, told Insider. The president treats the US government as if it's his business, Mudde said, believing that everyone within it works for him and are "under only his authority."

"What is most worrying is that Trump often suggests an outrageous proposal, which he walks back a few days later, but implements in slightly moderated forms later," Mudde added. "This is why fierce opposition straight away, and continued vigilance afterward, are crucial. While some leading Republicans often join in the former, they usually fail in the latter."

There has been little to no criticism of Trump from Republicans in recent days, with Democrats in Congress and the people out on America's streets as the only substantial form of opposition. Meanwhile, Trump has surrounded himself with partisan advisers and appears to value loyalty above all else, and in recent weeks has purged a number of inspectors general (independent watchdogs) from the ranks of the federal government.

With "would-be authoritarians" like Trump, the country should always be "concerned about their misuse of crises to violate norms, solidify authority over the security branches of government, and threaten the media," Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor who wrote "How Fascism Works," told Insider.

Trump is trying to exploit the protests as a means of pushing the boundaries of executive power, Stanley said, and to "bond ever more closely with law enforcement and racist armed supporters in advance of the 2020 elections."

There's widespread agreement among experts that Trump's language resembles that of fascist dictators, authoritarians, or autocrats; Twitter recently warned one of his tweets was "glorifying violence." But there is still a reluctance among many scholars to ascribe a specific political term or philosophy to Trump.

Trump's nationalism, rhetoric, and intolerance of dissent "all recall fascist models," Paxton said, but he wouldn't go as far to explicitly attach the label "fascist" to Trump. The independence with which the Trump administration grants to businesses, including tax privileges, relief from environmental rules, and support in trade conflicts, among other freedoms, leads Paxton to lean toward calling the Trump administration "plutocratic rather than fascist."

"Somebody who is totally erratic and has no ultimate vision, and is basically knee-jerking all the time, it's almost a misuse of the term to flatter them with a political science term, because it gives their behavior a sort of Machiavellian subtlety, which it lacks in the case of Trump," Roger Griffin, author of "The Nature of Fascism" and emeritus professor in modern history at Oxford Brookes University, told Insider.

"He resembles to me, a sort of late Roman emperor, one of these half-breeds who got in through the backdoor through a murder or marriage ... with no strategy or vision or institutional ideology," Griffin added of Trump, stating he's not "intelligent enough" to be called a fascist.

Griffin said Trump is an authoritarian to "the extent that he ignores the fundamental principles of liberal democracy."

"But, again, it's flattering him," Griffin added. "He's got an adolescent, teenager, tantrum-type approach to power."

Though Trump does not appear to have any tangible goals beyond maintaining power, it does not make him "any less dangerous," Berman said, as the president continues to exacerbate the "incendiary" situation the country currently finds itself in with a pandemic and racial tensions colliding in a devastating fashion.

"His interpretation of becoming president is that of a narcissist, egomaniac who thinks that because he's been voted in he doesn't need to devolve power or consult in any meaningful sense with anybody else," Griffin said, going on to say that when the history of this era is written, Monday's teargas photo-op might turn out to have been "one symbolic gesture too far."

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