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Nation contributor Sasha Abramsky thinks the wheels might be coming off, and discusses his articles “Where Does America Go From Here” and “Trump is Framing US Residents as Enemies to be Met by Force.”

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Mark Steiner: Welcome to the Real News. This is Mark Steiner. Good to have you all with us once again. You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Trump authoritarian and racist predilections were always there from his loud mouth real estate days to his insulting reality shows on TV, and they began to manifest themselves as soon as he became president. The perfect storm has arrived of a COVID pandemic, economic collapse, and the depth of racism rearing its evil and ugly head and it converged all together to heighten the Trumpian threat against our democracy and laid bare the authoritarian underpinnings of not just Trump, but the political forces around him.

There’s one man who’s been running a great deal about this for The Nation, for Truthout and other places is Sasha Abramsky and he joins us right now. He’s an author of eight books, the most was the one called Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream and the article he wrote in The Nation that got our attention was Where Does America Go from Here? and is about to have another article out in Truthout on militarization and the police. And welcome, good to have you with us once again, Sasha.

Sasha Abramsky: Always good to be on the show, Mark. Thanks.

Mark Steiner: Let me start from this one quote, which says a lot to me about where this administration is going and how they’re responding to the rebellions and resistance and demonstrations taking across the country. When he quoted Chief Walter Headley, this arch-segregationist police chief from Florida in 1967, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and that whole sentiment. I mean, when he speaks, when he says things, people think that because he’s a buffoon, it’s an accident. To me, this is no accident. This is who he is. This is what he’s pushing as a way of running this country.

Sasha Abramsky: No, absolutely. And one of the things that I’ve been doing is I’ve followed Trump’s political career over the last five years from when he was a candidate through when he first won the presidency through the last three and a half years is look at Trump’s language. And what you see is, time after time after time his borrowing a phraseology from authoritarian leaders. From Mussolini, from Adolf Hitler, the quote this week about when the looting starts, the shooting stars and then he sort of backpedals and says, “Oh, I didn’t know the historical references. I didn’t know who I was copying,” but coincidentally, everybody he accidentally copies is an authoritarian from the far right of the political spectrum. He never accidentally stumbles into quoting Martin Luther King or accidentally stumbles into quoting the Dalai Lama or accidentally stumbles into quoting Mother Teresa. The people he accidentally quotes are people who spew violence, racial division and hatred.

And so the thing that has just, I mean, it stunned me on one level, but on another level it’s been entirely unsurprising, has been that as this country faces this triple implosion, the implosion around the pandemic, the implosion around the loss of jobs that then accompanied the shelter in place measures and now the implosion around civic stability, as these three things have overlapped, trump has made zero effort to unify. He’s made zero effort to reach out, to try to calm the waters. He’s made zero efforts to hold summits at the White House with people to bring them into the political discussion, make people feel empowered, make people feel listened to. Instead, as the German foreign minister put it the other day, he has thrown oil onto the fire. But the thing is, if you throw oil onto a fire that’s already waging with this intensity, you lose all ability to control that fire.

And so what Trump is doing is, he’s trying to create such unrestrained chaos, such a fear of civic unrest and civic violence that he can militarize his administration. And you said at the beginning, militarize the police. It’s actually way beyond that. The police have been militarized for many, many, many years. That precedes Trump. That goes back to the use of surplus military equipment after 9/11 and the Iraq War, it goes back to the war on crime in the 1990s and 1980s. It goes back to Richard Nixon’s war on drugs. We have a half century of militarization of the police, pretty much from the Vietnam War period onwards. What we’re seeing now, and this is unprecedented, is the President of the United States backed up by his Attorney General and at least, in part, backed up by his Secretary of Defense, has tried to introduce US military personnel and US military equipment, helicopters, even apparently Trump asked if he could use tanks, onto the streets first of Washington, DC, which is where they have direct operational control of the National Guard, because there is no state system in place in DC.

But what Trump has asked for essentially, is the right to militarize a response from coast to coast. What he wants to do, and he said it very clearly, is use the military in a show of domination to reign in protesters. And he’s describing it as well, “I only want to rein in the moochers. I don’t want to rein in the good guys, the peaceful protesters.” If you look at what he did in DC the other day in pursuit of a photo op outside a church, they personally, Trump and William Barr, personally ordered heavily-armed US military personnel to violently clear a crowd of nonviolent protesters whose only sin was, they were standing in Trump’s path as he hoped to walk toward a photo opportunity outside a church.

And this is why, if you look at what’s happened over the last three days, this array of top military figures from General Mattis to ex-General Allen, too ex-head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, they have all published public letters saying that Trump is now a threat to the constitutional order.

And I don’t know if you and your audience have had time to read Jim Mattis’ piece in particular, but I doubt you will ever have encountered, in American history, an ex-cabinet minister talk about and write about the president he served in such language. Because what he did was, he compared the Nazi tactics of divide and conquer in the 1930s and ’40s to Trump’s tactics of divide and conquer today. [inaudible 00:06:14] was a threat to the constitutional order. He said we’ve had three years without mature leadership, and this is what we get to. And he basically said that Trump’s orders to the military are illegal and for those who uphold the oath of the constitution, they cannot be obeyed. That is a simply extraordinary public letter from the ex-Secretary of Defense to issue to the American people. It is a warning that lest we stop this madness now, we will slide into dictatorship.

Mark Steiner: So let me pick up on that point here. It’s interesting to me. I mean, I was thinking about this tweet that Tim Shorrock from The Nation, the Washington correspondent put out. He said, “The numbers of US military security forces in DC right now, it’s just ridiculous. This is pure intimidation. Trump is,” he capitalized, “Very afraid. The longer we stay in the streets, the more frightened he gets.” So picking up on that point and what you just said. There’s one aspect here that’s really interesting to me and I’m very curious as to your analysis. So Jim Mattis and the others who are former generals in the United States Armed Forces, military leaders, are not exactly, they’re not neo-liberals, they’re not on the left. They’re not liberals. They’re not part of the spectrum beyond the left side of the political spectrum. What does it mean to you, with this seeming contradiction here? When you have these forces around Trump that I’ve referred to as these kind of white racist mobs, like the ones who took over the capitols in a couple of states armed and the neo-conservative lead who’s getting their way through Trump to change the entire nation, environmental laws, laws around voting rights and more. And then you have the generals who clearly are conservative, and many of them on the right, saying enough is enough. So there’s a lot of contradictions to go around here. I mean, how do you put that together?

Sasha Abramsky: The contradictions have reached their breaking point. So you had a sort of uneasy alliance of convenience holding Trump’s presidency together. So you had the white nationalists who have some institutional power, I guess, within some of the uniformed forces in particular, but by and large they’re on the outside. They’re the militias, they’re the people who take to their weapons and intimidate Gretchen Whitmer, et cetera, et cetera. Then you have the economic neo-liberals who want nothing more than deregulation and tax cuts. And that’s probably more where Mitch McConnell stands. And then you have the people who care sort of all about the courts. It’s about abortion. It’s about getting conservative justices in. Trump’s been able to hold that circus ring together in some ways.

And what’s happening now is the tensions are so overwhelming. The sheer level of economic misery that’s been sort of suddenly thrust on the country is so vast and has no end point in sight. But when you have 43 million people unemployed, you’re essentially looking at a situation where one in three in the American public, and now, if you think there are 43 million unemployed, that’s probably a hundred million people all total [inaudible 00:09:09], you’re looking at a level of economic destitution worse even that the height of the great depression. So you have all the makings of a sort of societal crisis.

You then add in the conflagration that’s emerge over race relations and over this just stunningly brutal video of police essentially lynching a black man in Minneapolis, and you throw all that into the mix. And even with the most skilled rhetoric coming from the White House, you’d have an almost uncontrollable crisis. When you add into that, that Trump has no desire to control the crisis, but every desire to make it worse so that he can then impose a sort of authoritarian answer and try and sort of recreate Nixon’s silent majority, that’s when people start getting really scared.

And so someone like Mattis, you’re absolutely right. He isn’t some sort of political radical, liberal, subversive blah, blah, blah. He’s as much a part of the establishment as any other human being in this country. And he’s right at the top of that power nexus. But the fact that so many ex-generals yesterday felt compelled to say this, the fact that the active head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Milley, felt compelled to send a memo to every head of the different branches of the armed forces yesterday saying, “Remember, you have all sworn an oath called the constitution and the laws of this country, and people have a right to rightful protest and peaceful protest.” The fact that the current head of the armed forces was compelled to say that tells you where we are and what they fear is about to be unleashed by the president.
The fact that all four surviving ex-presidents, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama at pretty much the same time, all felt compelled to come out and warn of the dangers of conflagration and warn of the necessity to listen to the voices of the disempowered. The fact that that is all happening at once, tells you everything you need to know about how much people who really are on the inside, not outside, just like me and you, but people on the inside with an understanding of what is meant by the unleashing of presidential emergency powers, the fact that they are all now compelled to go public in the way they are, tells you how dangerous this moment has become.

Mark Steiner: So let’s pick up on that point. I mean, in the piece you just wrote for The Nation, I love this line, you write, “The country claims to be the great exception has revealed itself to be something of a Greek tragedy instead.” And so when you look at this other thing when you, and then you talked about these kind of white racists marching down your street, saying “go after the jungle bunnies,” as they put it. And you wrote about how the breakdown of order and the collapse into warring gangs and tribes and the militarized police response. So picking up on that point and pushing it further, but it… You have to ask the question from the things you’ve been writing and what you just said, does your analysis say that Trump isolated and therefore not a danger? Or is he not isolated with all these kind of armed groups around the country who support him, plus parts of the armed forces, other places, and police who also support him? I mean, it’s just so…

Sasha Abramsky: The answer is Trump is in some ways, extraordinarily politically weak. He’s been impeached. He’s sagging in the opinion polls. He’s lost his core support bases. He’s now trailing among older voters. By most traditional measures, Trump is hobbled beyond repair. The thing about Trump is, the weaker he gets the more dangerous he gets and this has been true throughout his presidency, but it’s been this sort of operating principle throughout his entire life, that he is a street fighter of the worst sort. He plays dirty, not for any greater good, but he plays dirty simply for personal self advancement. It’s gangster politics. It’s mafia politics.

Now, the thing about our moment that makes that even more dangerous is the fact that all these different groups are ready for a fight. So when I was writing about the white vigilantes on my street, my area is in midtown Sacramento and there were these huge peaceful protests over the weekend, but then late at night, as the police broke up the peaceful protests, smaller groups that probably were sort of more concerned with looting stores than any political analysis, smaller groups peeled off into the midtown area, breaking into and destroying shops and restaurants and pharmacies and so on. And it was really quite hair-raising. I mean, I, in no way, shape or form want to romanticize what was happening. It was really destructive. But by about midnight or 1:00 in the morning, there was sirens everywhere. There were helicopters overhead. You could hear from my front door, you could hear the stun grenades going off. You could hear the volleys of rubber bullets being fired.

And then by about 1:00 in the morning, I was seeing two things. I was seeing groups on bicycles that looked to me like they were probably sort of riding through the residential neighborhoods, looking for looting opportunities. But I also saw these young white men patrolling. And when I went out and asked one of them stuff, he started talking, as you said, about jungle bunnies or old ghetto bunnies. He was using really inflammatory language. And it made me really realize something. I knew it already, but it brought it right onto my front doorstep. The sort of realization that you have these sort of colossal clashes, not necessarily of ideological vision, though that’s part of it. But colossal clashes of warring tribes almost at this point, of gangs, of people out looking for trouble.

It sort of reminded me in a way of the football hooligans that you’d see in England when I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s where you’d these very organized groups. There was nothing spontaneous about the football riots. They were organized, they were tribalistic, they were based around region. They were based around football affiliation. Sometimes they were based around what pub you drank in, and they’d sort of clash together. It was almost social entertainment. They’d both come at each other and there’d be bottles thrown and knives thrown. And it was a Saturday evening on the town.

The problem with extending that analogy to 2020 America is you’re talking about 300 million people in this country and more than 300 million guns in this country. You’re talking about the most heavily armed civil society on earth. And people are increasingly taking those guns with them to political protests and to rallies and to their public expression. If you bring in guns and other armor into an already tense situation, there’s the potential for a calamity. And when you then have the president basically egging on the rioters or egging on the fighters or egging on whatever you want to call these different groups, you have the president essentially using his bully pulpit, not to calm things down, but to make things worse.

And the only way you can understand that is, he has to think at this point, it’s just his political advantage to cause as much chaos as possible and scare as many suburbanites as possible back into his camp, despite the economic collapse, despite the completely inept response to the pandemic. It’s his only survival mechanism. And if he has to invoke martial law to do it, if he has to invoke emergency powers to do it, if he has to bring US military tanks onto the streets, he has shown every indication he will do that. And again, coming back to what I was saying, that is why this moment is not just a moment that we can sort of say, “Oh, well, it’s like this previous moment, or this previous moment.” It’s pretty much unprecedented. The overlap of all of these simultaneous crises at the same time as Trump is doing all that he can to stir up trouble, makes it an unprecedented moment.

And I think it is a moment when every American of good conscience has to be out on the streets to protect democracy. And I know we’re in a pandemic, we have to do it with masks on. We have to do it with as much social spacing as we can, but of all the things on earth, it is worth risking getting sick for, preserving American democracy and preserving American community has to be at the top of that list.

Mark Steiner: I have a great deal more I could ask and continue this conversation with Sasha, but I want to conclude it on that last comment you made, because I think it was a very powerful and very important for us to understand. As we look calling out the military, the militarization of the police, the armed nature of our society, we are facing a really dangerous moment. And I think you articulated it better than I’ve heard before. So thank you once again for joining us, it’s always a pleasure talking to you, Sasha. Good luck to you. Good luck to all of us.

Sasha Abramsky: Thank you, and stay safe and stay healthy.

Mark Steiner: You, too. We’ve been talking to Sasha Abramsky, writes for The Nation, Truthout, is a noted author as well, and has joined us before and hopefully will join us again. And I’m Mark Steiner here at the Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Please stay safe and masked as much as you can, and we’ll be covering this with some depth to save what we have in this country and to move it forward. So thank you so much for joining us. Again, Mark Steiner here for the Real News Network. Take care.

Production: Genevieve Montinar, Will Arenas, Andrew Corkery
Studio: Will Arenas

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Marc Steiner

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Marc Steiner is the host of "The Marc Steiner Show" on TRNN. He is a Peabody Award-winning journalist who has spent his life working on social justice issues. He walked his first picket line at age 13, and at age 16 became the youngest person in Maryland arrested at a civil rights protest during the Freedom Rides through Cambridge. As part of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, Marc helped organize poor white communities with the Young Patriots, the white Appalachian counterpart to the Black Panthers. Early in his career he counseled at-risk youth in therapeutic settings and founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system. He also taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. From 1993-2018 Marc's signature “Marc Steiner Show” aired on Baltimore’s public radio airwaves, both WYPR—which Marc co-founded—and Morgan State University’s WEAA.