Listening to Donald Trump describe the U.S. in 2016 was to hear a story of a nation in peril of losing its identity to waves of brown-skinned invaders. Immigration and the border, particularly the urgent need to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, dominated Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Once in office, the president’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, rammed through one punishing initiative after another, banning travelers from Muslim-majority countries, separating immigrant children from their parents to deter others from making the journey north, forcing tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to wait out their cases in the border’s most dangerous cities, and plowing through protected lands to stand up towering new sections of border wall. Today, asylum at the border is effectively dead, and Trump’s Department of Homeland Security is using the coronavirus as a pretext to boot immigrants out of the country — including families, children, and babies — as swiftly as possible.
So it may have come as a surprise to some that immigration hardly came up at all in the first presidential debate of 2020. This is at least partially due to the fact that the Trump administration’s framing of its priorities has evolved over the past several months, as waves of protests challenging the power and brutality of American policing have swept the country. Without question, the anti-immigrant machinery marches on. In July, the Migration Policy Institute catalogued more than 400 executive actions the administration has taken on immigration since Trump’s inauguration. Those policies continue to impact countless individuals and families across the country and around the world every day, and if the claims of a former top DHS official are true, Miller has an immigration campaign of “shock and awe” drawn up and ready to go should Trump remain in office. But with those efforts simultaneously in motion, the Trump administration has increasingly and prominently centered purported threats posed by leftists, anarchists, and anti-fascists in its bid to hold onto power. This widening of the threat aperture is straight out of the authoritarian playbook, said Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.”
“You begin with something that separates citizens from noncitizens,” Stanley told The Intercept, explaining how fascistic power grabs often take place. “You have your colonial war, your war on terror, your imperialist war that focuses on distinguishing between citizens and noncitizens, and then you direct that force inwards against your political opponents.”
The Trump administration has increasingly and prominently centered purported threats posed by leftists, anarchists, and anti-fascists in its bid to hold onto power.
In the case of Trump, the first three years of the administration featured talk of threats from MS-13 gang members, migrant caravans marching north through Mexico, Islamic State killers hidden among refugee populations and more — all were couched in terms of threats to the homeland, an “invasion” that posed a danger to national security and warranted decisive law enforcement and military responses. In some cases, such as the October 2018 migrant caravans that led to military deployments to the border during the midterm elections, the supposedly increased severity of the threat coincided with important electoral moments. From the outset, the White House has argued that certain jurisdictions, so-called sanctuary cities typically run by members of the president’s opposing political party, provide cover for dangerous outsiders. In response, DHS has launched high-profile blitzes into these cities, at times deploying militarized Border Patrol tactical units to support Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations deep in urban settings and often producing media-ready photo and video packages to illustrate the president’s resolve.
The administration’s framing of its adversaries entered a new phase with the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, as the country witnessed a challenge to the legitimacy of policing unlike anything in recent memory. While the vast majority of those protests followed the traditional nonviolent civil rights model, the uprising began with a police precinct being set ablaze, and to this day, a considerable number of protesters remain unapologetic when it comes to the militancy of their demands and actions. Against the backdrop of this upheaval, the Trump administration has embraced what Stanley would describe as the second phase of a fascistic power grab: the turn inward.
The president has described the leaderless anti-fascist movement known as antifa as a terrorist organization and the conservative media ecosystem has fallen in line behind him. As The Intercept reported in July and as a senior DHS whistleblower attested to last month, the nation’s top Homeland Security officials have downplayed the lethal threat from right-wing extremists and white supremacists amid the unrest, while boosting the president’s talk of threats from the left. A number of the Democrat-led communities that were sanctuary cities at the beginning of the year have now been declared “anarchist jurisdictions,” and Border Patrol tactical teams, among other specialized federal units, have deployed to those cities with a revised mission.
Stanley’s argument is not that the U.S. currently has a fascist government — at least not yet. Instead, he draws attention to the concerning features of Trumpism. “It’s a cult of the leader, all about Trump,” he said. “It’s a fascist social and political movement.” The identification of enemies is central to such movements, he argued, and quite often involves creating linkages between criminalized immigrant populations and the political left. “It’s the KKK ideology,” Stanley said, explaining the roots of Trump’s line of argumentation. “The Ku Klux Klan says Marxist Jews are trying to provoke a race war with Black Americans and they’re trying to bring immigrants and destroy the white race.” Variations on this argument have become known as the “great replacement theory,” and it has made its way into the manifestos and online rants of murderous racist terrorists from El Paso and Pittsburgh to Norway and New Zealand. “The idea is that leftists are bringing immigrants in to destroy the white race,” Stanley said. “Immigration is a communist plot to destroy the racial character of the nation so that the communists can take over.”
“The idea is that leftists are bringing immigrants in to destroy the white race. Immigration is a communist plot to destroy the racial character of the nation so that the communists can take over.”
In the United States, the DHS, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency by far, would present an attractive tool to any would-be authoritarian looking to stem this takeover. Customs and Border Protection alone, one of the department’s nearly two-dozen component agencies, has an aircraft fleet roughly the size of the Brazilian air force. DHS operates a nationwide network of law enforcement “fusion centers” designed to inform state and local partners about the threats officers might face in the field. As The Intercept reported in July, the DHS intelligence shop distributing much of that information — the same office that top DHS officials are accused of manipulating in Trump’s favor — has repeatedly disseminated reports describing opponents of the president’s border and immigration policies as domestic terrorists.
“We have this massive quasi-military organization devoted to targeting noncitizens and vilifying them as terrorists,” Stanley said. “All you’ve got to do is move that over one little notch to focus on political opponents.”
Targeting the Left
In the face of the recent protests, the politicization of DHS operations that defined Trump’s first three and a half years in office, primarily through immigration enforcement, has soared to new heights. Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli, the two men leading the department — both illegally occupying their posts, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office — have repeatedly leaned into Trump’s argument that antifa poses a profound danger to national security, despite evidence produced by their own office and other federal law enforcement agencies that groups on the far right present the most persistent and ongoing domestic terror threat in the country. Under their leadership, DHS immigration enforcement personnel, including Border Patrol and ICE agents, were deployed to Portland, Oregon, a site of ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, against the wishes of local elected leaders. The move was repeatedly criticized for exacerbating rather than calming the unrest.
The ascent of Wolf and Cuccinelli is part of a broader hollowing out of leadership at DHS, which has effectively left in place only those who are loyal to the lone survivor of Trump’s original 2016 brain trust: Stephen Miller.
“The Democratic Party for a long time historically has been the party of secession — what you’re seeing today is the Democratic Party returning to its roots,” Miller told Fox News talk-show host Tucker Carlson in July, when asked about the protests in Portland. “The mayors of these cities that have engaged in these kinds of lawless rebellions against federal law, against immigration enforcement, have engaged in unprecedented activity, and this administration, for the first time in history, has taken action to restore immigration enforcement after five decades of bipartisan betrayal of the American worker.” He added: “This is about the survival of this country and we will not back down.”
Though best known for his war on immigrants, Miller’s political awakening is in fact rooted in bone-deep anti-leftism. “One of Stephen Miller’s main strengths and his original philosophy was about attacking the left,” Jean Guerrero, an investigative journalist and author of “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda,” told The Intercept. “The focus on the left is the logical conclusion of Miller’s ideology.”
“The focus on the left is the logical conclusion of Miller’s ideology.”
In her account of Miller’s upbringing in southern California, Guerrero details how a teenage Miller came up under David Horowitz, a man who renounced his ties to groups like the Black Panthers in the 1960s and 1970s and devoted the rest of his life to a war on the political left. In college, Guerrero explains, Miller’s anti-leftism became bound up in great replacement theorizing, which in turn laid the foundation for his views on immigration and border security. “It boils down to the idea that the United States faces an existential threat in the form of the Democratic Party partnering with Muslims and other people of color,” Guerrero said. “He saw the immigration system as a way of realizing this white nationalist agenda.” In 2015, as an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Miller encouraged reporters at Breitbart’s right-wing news site to write about “The Camp of the Saints,” a racist French novel rooted in great replacement theory.
In addition to describing immigrants in grotesquely dehumanizing terms, the book argues that the downfall of Western civilization can be traced to the political left, particularly the “anti-racists,” “agitators” and “anarchists,” who stand in solidarity with refugees. For Guerrero, it is these passages that sound increasingly relevant today. “A lot of people talk about how it demonizes people of color, which it does,” she said. “But one of the most striking things to me is the echoes in the rhetoric about anti-racists in the book and what we now see in Trump’s reelection rhetoric, describing anti-racist protesters as agitators and anarchists and trying to paint the entire left as a mob that wants to destroy this country, which is essentially the white genocide theory.”
The Proud Boys, a far-right pro-Trump group, gather with their allies in a rally called “End Domestic Terrorism Against Antifa” in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 26, 2020. Photo: John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Stand Back and Stand By
Among the most troubling of the president’s actions is his courting of armed, right-wing paramilitary groups and his confidence that the nation’s security forces are not apolitical institutions, but rather eager and engaged supporters of his “law and order” agenda.
“Stand back and stand by,” Trump told the Proud Boys, a neo-fascist street-fighting gang, during Tuesday night’s debate. The comment was widely seen as an order from the commander-in-chief to an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as a hate group, including among the group’s own leaders and members. Trump also weighed in on the killing of Michael Reinoehl, a self-described anti-fascist, by law enforcement in Oregon last month. In an interview published by Vice News shortly before his death, Reinoehl said he shot and killed Aaron J. Danielson, a supporter of far-right group Patriot Prayer, days earlier in an effort to defend a friend. An eyewitness has claimed that Reinoehl was gunned down without warning. Referencing the killing in Tuesday night’s debate, Trump said law enforcement “took care of business.” He previously called the killing an act of “retribution.”
Trump has similarly defended Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old fan of the president and the police accused of murdering two Black Lives Matter protesters and wounding a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Echoing the president’s line, documents obtained by NBC News this week revealed that DHS personnel were directed to make sympathetic comments about the accused shooter and told that the media was falsely painting Patriot Prayer as a racist organization. Both Danielson and Rittenhouse have achieved martyr status on the far right. Their names were invoked again and again at a Proud Boys rally in Portland last weekend. Though small in numbers, the rally was drenched in the rhetoric of civil conflict and allegiance to the president and the nation’s security forces. “Thin Blue Line” flags were ubiquitous at the event, as were the letters “RWDS,” short for the words “right-wing death squads.”
The blurring of lines between his support in right-wing paramilitary groups and law enforcement agencies has been a consistent feature of Trump’s presidency. In July, Vice President Mike Pence’s visit with Philadelphia’s police union also featured members of the local Proud Boys chapter. Meanwhile, violent “Back the Blue” protests in Arizona have featured participants fantasizing about the murder of their leftist political opponents. In an exchange Tuesday night, Trump pressed Biden to name one law enforcement agency that’s come out in support of his campaign. Biden did not. Trump, meanwhile, has enjoyed extensive support from law enforcement unions across the country, from those representing Border Patrol agents and ICE deportation officers, to the Fraternal Order of Police.
“He’s been wooing the security forces his entire term,” Stanley said. As Tuesday night’s debate wrapped up, Trump explicitly encouraged his supporters to head to election polls and be on the lookout for suspicious activity in what he predicted would be “a fraud like you’ve never seen.” Courting paramilitary groups and loyal security services, calling the integrity of the election into question, and urging his supporters to take it upon themselves to respond are “classic fascist tactics,” Stanley argued.
“He’s been using fascist tactics, unquestionably, and he’s already transformed many of these things into policy, particularly around immigration,” he said. “Now he’s turning to his political opponents, so now we’re really facing the concern about transformation into a fascist regime.”