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The Suppression of Dissent Has Already Begun

December 19, 2016


via Truth Out 


The Suppression of Dissent Has Already Begun

Under Trump leadership, a war culture, a culture of aggression and state violence are set to intensify. There will almost certainly be a widespread suppression of dissent -- a suppression similar to the police violence used against those protesting the Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, along with the arrests of journalists covering the protests.

It is reasonable to assume that under the Trump administration there will also be an intensification of the harassment of journalists similar to what happened to Ed Ou, a renowned Canadian photojournalist who has worked for a number of media sources, including The New York Times and Time magazine. Ou was recently detained by US border officers while traveling from Canada to the US to report on the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. According to Hugh Handeyside, "Ou was detained for more than six hours and subjected ... to multiple rounds of intrusive interrogation. [The border officers] questioned him at length about his work as a journalist, his prior professional travel in the Middle East, and dissidents or 'extremists' he had encountered or interviewed as a journalist. They photocopied his personal papers, including pages from his handwritten personal diary." In the end, he was refused entry into the US.

Given Trump's recent insistence that protesters who burn the American flag should be jailed or suffer the loss of citizenship, his hostile criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and his ongoing legacy of stoking white violence against protesters, it is reasonable to assume that his future domestic policies will further legitimate a wave of repression and violence waged against dissenters and the institutions that support them.

For instance, his tweeted threats regarding the burning of the American flag can be read as code for threatening dissent, or worse, unleashing the power of the state on them. How else to explain the motive behind Trump's consideration of Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke as a potential candidate for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security?

Clarke has referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as "Black Lies Matter" and compared it to ISIS. Grace Guarnieri reports in Alternet that Clarke has "proposed that terrorist and ISIS sympathizers in America need to be rounded up and shipped off to Guantanamo, and has stated that 'It is time to suspend habeas corpus like Abraham Lincoln did during the civil war'.... He guessed that about several hundred thousand or even a million sympathizers were in the United States and needed to be imprisoned." It is difficult to believe that this type of egregious call for repressive state violence and a disregard for the Constitution supports rather than disqualifies somebody for a high-ranking government office.

Expanding what might be called his Twitter battles, Trump has made a number of critical comments regarding what he views as dissenting criticism of either him or his administration. For instance, after Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor in the Broadway play Hamilton, addressed Vice-President-elect Mike Pence after the curtain call, stating, in part, "We are diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable right," Trump tweeted that Pence was harassed by Dixon and that the actor should apologize. Trump also took aim at a "Saturday Night Live" episode in which Alec Baldwin satirized a post-election Trump in the process of trying to figure out what the responsibilities of the presidency entail. Trump tweeted that it was "a totally one-sided, biased show -- nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?"

As cyber-bully-in-chief, Trump has taken to Twitter to launch tirades against the cast of the play Hamilton, against "Saturday Night Live" and against Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999. Trump's verbal takedown of the union chief was a response to Jones accusing Trump of lying about the number of jobs he claimed he prevented Carrier Corporation in Indiana from shipping to Mexico. Actually, since 350 jobs were slated to stay in the US before Trump's intervention, the number of jobs saved by Trump was 850 rather than 1,100.

To some, this may seem like a trivial matter, but Trump's weaponizing of Twitter against critics and political opponents functions not only to produce a chilling effect on critics, but also gives legitimacy to those willing to suppress dissent through various modes of harassment and even the threat of violence. Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, is right in stating that "Anybody who goes on air or goes public and calls out the president has to then live in fear that he is going to seek retribution in the public sphere. That could discourage people from speaking out." Such actions could also threaten their lives, as Chuck Jones found out. After the president-elect called him out, he received an endless stream of harassing phone calls and online insults, some even threatening him and his children. According to Jones, "Nothing that says they're gonna kill me, but, you know, you better keep your eye on your kids. We know what car you drive. Things along those lines."

I am not convinced that these tweets are simply impetuous outbursts from an adult who has the temperament of a bullying 12-year-old. It seems more probable that his right-wing advisors, including Stephen Bannon, view the tweets as part of a legitimate tool to attack their perceived political foes. In this case, the attack was not simply on Jones but also on unions that may rebel against Trump's policies in the future.

Trump is at war with democracy, and his online attacks will take place not only in conjunction with ongoing acts of state repression but also with the production of violence in the culture at large, which Trump is seeking to orchestrate as if he were producing a reality TV show. At first glance, such responses seem as thoughtless as they are trivial, given the issues that Trump should be considering, but Frank Rich may be right in suggesting that Trump's tweets, which amount to an attack on the First Amendment, are part of a strategy engineered by Bannon to promote a culture war that riles "up his base and retains its loyalty should he fail, say, to deliver on other promises, like reviving the coal industry."

In addition, such attacks function to initiate a culture war that serves to repress dissent and divert the public from more serious issues, all the while driving up ratings for a supine media that will give Trump unqualified and uncritical coverage. Referring to the Dixon incident, Rich writes:

It's possible that much of that base previously knew little or nothing about Hamilton, but thanks to Pence's visit, it would soon learn in even the briefest news accounts that the show is everything that [the] base despises: a multi-cultural-ethnic-racial reclamation of "white" American history with a ticket price that can soar into four digits -- in other words, a virtual monument to the supposedly politically correct "elites" that Trump, Bannon, and their wrecking crew found great political profit in deriding throughout the campaign. Pence's visit to Hamilton was a sure-fire political victory for Trump even without the added value of a perfectly legitimate and respectful curtain speech that he could trash-tweet to further rouse his culture-war storm troopers. The kind of political theater that Trump and Bannon fomented around Hamilton is likely to be revived routinely in the Trump era.
Trump's trash-tweeting mimics the hate-filled discourse and threats of violence in which he often engaged during the presidential primary campaign -- only now he has a much broader audience. Americans are already witnessing a growing climate of violence across the United States, spurred on by Trump's previous support of such actions aimed at Muslims, immigrants, Black people, foreign students and others deemed expendable by Trump's white ultranationalist supporters. Of course, none of this should seem surprising given the long legacy of such violence, along with the decline of the welfare state and the rise of the punishing state since the 1970s. What is distinctive is that the formative culture, organizations and institutions that support such violence have moved from the fringe to the center of American politics.