July 23, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The Republican Party’s paramilitary
If you can't beat 'em, beat 'em.
The president announced Wednesday that his administration will send federal agents to Chicago, Albuquerque and other cities to “help combat rising crime,” according to the AP. “There has been a radical movement to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police departments,” Donald Trump said at the White House. He blamed that for “a shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence.”
Crime has indeed risen recently but the reasons are associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, soaring unemployment, social unrest and even the weather. (Summer heat often correlates with homicide rates, for instance.) Make no mistake, however. Mass protests demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd did not cause an increase in crime. Calls for reforming police departments across the country did not cause it either. Moreover, cities are not hotbeds of rioting, looting, disorder and discord. With exceptions here and there, the country’s crime rate has been falling for two decades.
The president is doing what authoritarians do.
The president is doing what authoritarians do. He’s creating a problem, hyping the sense of imminent doom based on the thinnest of rationales, in order to solve the “problem” using means totally unacceptable under normal circumstances. In another time, it would have been scandalous to dispatch federal agents to “combat rising crime,” because that’s not the federal government’s proper role. Doing that, even suggesting that, violates our common understanding of the principles of federalism, state sovereignty and local control, values the Republicans used to say they cherished. Trump is creating an image of American cities that is so dire and so dangerous that the conservative principles of the past must be set aside to restore “law and order.”
It seems the president believes he’s suffering politically. The pandemic is eating into his base. The economy, once the stimulus money runs out at month’s end, is careening toward a cliff. Senate Republicans, who acquitted him of treason, now seem to be hedging. Maine’s Susan Collins, in a tight race, won’t endorse him. Her colleagues seem to think he’s in trouble, too. They are make-believing concern for debts and deficits in anticipation of a Democratic president. States like Texas seem competitive, forcing his campaign to buy television ads there. Trump does not have a good political answer to these political problems. So he’s doing what authoritarians do: solving a political problem using the power of the state. In a sense, he’s militarizing politics.
I’ve called these federal agents “secret police,” and I still think that’s accurate, but another term, perhaps a more accurate term, to describe nameless and badge-less federal agents representing Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement is “paramilitary.” The “para” is important. These people are not regular military. They did not sign up voluntarily to serve their country. They did not answer the call of duty and do not live by a code of conduct. They do not believe in honor or sacrifice. They do not believe they are accountable to the Congress. Those are traditional military values.
The president’s paramilitary is loyal to one thing, above even patriotism. That’s Donald Trump. Jenn Budd is a former Border Patrol agent who’s now a civil rights activist. Early this year, she reported a conversation she had with a former senior CBP official: “Border Patrol believes it is not required to answer to local police, FBI, CIA or any other law enforcement agency,” Budd tweeted on Feb. 12. “They claim to be the ‘premiere’ law enforcement agency, superior to all others. They say they will become a ‘national police force’ to be used by a president to enforce laws even among citizens.”
In a republic, partisans compete according to an agreed-to set of rules by means of persuasion. If I persuade a majority to vote for me, I win. If I can’t, I lose, and live to fight another day. In an autocracy, persuasion is a dead end, because what I want, few others want. So I rewrite the rules in my favor or, the easier way, I use force. Most American cities are run by Democrats. If I can’t beat my opponents fair and square, I can send in the paramilitary in order to occupy “the battle space” under the guise of maintaining order as well as combating the crime of voter fraud. With just enough paramilitary action, a president suffering politically can have a good Election Day.
It’s common for political parties to have paramilitary wings, which make up for the absence of electoral power with violence. Sinn Féin, for instance, is a legitimate party in Ireland. The Irish Republican Army was its illegitimate paramilitary. (Sinn Féin denied officially for decades any connection to the IRA.) And it’s common for those paramilitary wings to be loosely organized, consisting of people inside and outside the government, but who are all dedicated to the purpose of serving a party or individual. Pashtun warlords wield more than kalashnikovs. They wield Afghani bureaucrats, too.
It’s uncommon in the United States, but we are getting there. In addition to the US Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Border Patrol and other agencies, the president has influence over hundreds of small informal citizen militias armed to the teeth thanks to the Republicans pushing guns into all quarters of civic life. Given all this, it’s starting to appear as if the Grand Old Party has its own paramilitary wing.