Performative Authoritarianism

Although the administration's behavior makes no sense as law enforcement, it makes perfect sense as a new kind of campaign tactic.

Welcome to the world of performative authoritarianism, a form of politics that reached new heights of sophistication in Russia over the past decade and has now arrived in the United States. Unlike 20th-century authoritarianism, this 21st-century, postmodern influence campaign does not require the creation of a total police state. Nor does it require complete control of information, or mass arrests. It can be carried out, instead, with a few media outlets and a few carefully targeted arrests. [...]

But even if the courts eventually force the troops in jungle camouflage off the streets, the president who sent them there -- and who is now threatening to send similar troops to other cities -- might not care. That's because the purpose of these troops is not to bring peace to Portland. The purpose is to transmit a message. Americans should find this tactic familiar, because we've seen it before. When the Trump administration cruelly separated children from their families at the southern border, that was, among other things, a performance designed to show the public just how much the president dislikes immigrants from Mexico and Honduras. The attack on demonstrators in Portland is like that: a performance designed to show just how much Trump dislikes "liberal" Americans, "urban" Americans, "Democrat" Americans. To put it differently (and to echo my colleague Adam Serwer): The chaos in Portland is not an accident. The chaos is the point.

The chaos is also a tactic, and now it will be put to use. Now that it has been deliberately escalated, the violence will provide pictures, footage, video clips, and other material for Trump's media supporters, and eventually for his campaign advertisements. On Fox News, Sean Hannity has already denounced Portland as a "war zone." Tucker Carlson has spoken of protesters as "mobs" who keep liberal Democrats in power. The next stage will implicate Joe Biden in this same story: The president's aides have told journalists that Biden, if he wins, will "allow left-wing fascists to destroy America." Protesters, mobs, chaos, fascists, the left, the "Dems", Biden -- they're all one narrative. The Trump administration will show people pictures of its uniformed troops pushing back against them, restoring order with a strong hand. And it will use the kind of language that appeals to that part of the population that prizes safety over all else.

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22 Responses:

  1. Thomas Lord says:

    This is the worst take I ever see.

    The assertion that separating children and building concentration camps is "performative" is obscene. Thousands of kids of disappeared. Thousands will never be reunified. All of them are traumatized for life. That is the damn point. Look at the scale of the thing.

    The assertion that the shock troops are "performative" making only "selective arrests" -- and that this is "postmodern" in contrast to a "20th century" police state is just a stupid ignorance of how those "selective arrests" are selected, and how classical, ordinary, full police states work.

    Police states are always asymmetric. You are not always scrutinized by the hidden listeners - you just know that at any moment you might be. You also know that the bigger your perceived influence, the more likely a target you are. You also know that mass action is met with mass violence. You also know the state sometimes provokes mass action as a reminder.

    Calling this "performative" obscures the shear scale and actual harm done by our state police and para-police street thugs.

    Worst of all, attributing this to Trump in particular is to ignore the extreme continuity of our police state from 1945, through J. Edgar and COINTELPRO and MKULTRA, through the CIA drug pushing and state mass incarceration, through the repurposing of Silicon Valley from classical military to mass surveillance use, to today.

    Trump didn't add shit to this other than his clowning around on TV.

    Just NO to this take. NO.

    • jwz says:

      This take would be unnecessary if there wasn't a glut of articles saying "They say they're there to restore order but look at how bad they are at restoring order!" But, oops, here we are.

      • Thomas Lord says:

        That's just it. If those reports are saying:

        "They say they're there to restore order but look at how bad they are at restoring order!"

        the implication is that if the state succeeded at suppressing the entirely appropriate rebellions, that liberal / progressive press would be closer to:

        "Hey, right on. Law and order is good. Good job. We need respectful, peaceful protest. Something, something, MLK."

        • jwz says:

          Hypothetical bad take is hypothetically bad, but what many reports that I have seen are saying is "This administration is not accomplishing their goal and they are bad at the things", and it's important to note that, in fact, they are accomplishing their goal, and it is a mistake to believe that their stated goal is their actual goal.

          • Thomas Lord says:

            OK, I fully concede that the administration is not at all shooting self in the foot, but rather advancing its 2nd term chances (reelection or not).

            In general, the left-liberal side seems to think that when they feel (often incorrectly) more clever than a right wing power, that must somehow mean that they win.

            The right wing, meanwhile, just picks up that vulnerability, joins it to an overt commitment to hierarchies of domination (which for the left-wing is mostly implicit) -- and runs with it, taking advantage of the fact that most people are perfectly enthusiastic about hierarchies of domination.

            I don't think, by the way, that the left-liberal top players are that naive, by the way. They cynically let the right-wing win unchallenged, often, for various reasons.

    • Zyni Moë says:

      If are trying to say that this is as bad as 20th century police state. Well, I have lived in 20th century police state and you are fucking idiot if you think that.

      • Thomas Lord says:

        Well, I have lived in 20th century police state...

        So has every American. Millions locked up and tortured. Many assassinations and mass murders. Widespread paranoia and division. Good fries, though.

      • Christian Molick says:

        That is the whole point. This stuff has a rich, wholesome vibe to it. Strong hands do the work of God. You will be fine and stay healthy as long as your soul is pure and you commit yourself to obedience. We don't need a 20th century police state as long as we have Fox and Facebook. And Instagram and Pinterest. Just look at that midcentury modern dinette! And move along, citizen.

    • Dude says:

      Trump didn't add shit to this other than his clowning around on TV.

      Reading the above sentence, I couldn't help but think of Orson Scott Card's "Unlikely Events". You remember "Unlikely Events," don't you - that blog post/op-ed by Card in which he insisted that Obama (whom he called "by character and preference, a dictator") would use an "urban gang" to create a police-state?

      Obama will claim we need a national police force in order to fight terrorism and crime. The Boston bombing is a useful start, especially when combined with random shootings by crazy people.

      Where will he get his “national police”? The NaPo will be recruited from “young out-of-work urban men” and it will be hailed as a cure for the economic malaise of the inner cities.

      In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama’s enemies.

      This, obviously, never came to pass... yet here we are: Trump playing up to RWNJ militias, defending Confederate statues, and using his new "Operation: Legend" (yes, that's the actual name) crackdown on peaceful protesters under the bullshit pretense of "We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it. Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators."

      That is not Trump being, as you suggest, some unknowing cog in the wheel of a machine that's been running before he was born; that's him actively operating the machine to his advantage. It's the same thing wife-beating racist Nixon did when he initiated the bullshit "War on Drugs" for the specific purpose of "[his administration's] two enemies: the antiwar left and black people".

      Trump is desperately flailing, so the only thing he has left is to unabashedly become the treasonous shit-heel we've always known he was.

      • Thomas Lord says:

        Obama will claim we need a national police force ...

        Why? He had several.

      • Thomas Lord says:

        Guyz (excepting JWZ who I think knows): C'mon now. This is almost your "and then they came for me" moment of realization.

        • Dude says:

          Oh, don't stop there, Dale Gribble - go ahead and call us all "sheeple" already.

          • MattyJ says:

            At this point it should be Rusty Shackleford.

          • Jim says:

            So, one click away from your linked site is a post about how your grandfather join in beating up hippies as a police officer at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, but refused to join in assassinating black panthers with his colleagues.

            ... We live in a world where the members of the NYPD would rather turn their backs on their mayor than listen to his pleas for peace with the populace both he and the officers serve. This is a world where police officers can fire 137 rounds into a vehicle of two unarmed suspects and only get a slap on the wrist. This is a world where the people in whom we should have the most trust are adopting an attitude of “Us vs. Them”....

    • phuzz says:

      "The assertion that separating children and building concentration camps is "performative" is obscene"
      Well that's the point isn't it. They're not separating kids because it's a useful way of restricting immigration, it's purely a performance to show they're being "tough on immigration".
      The obscene part is they just don't give a fuck about the children. They don't give a shit that these kids might never see their parents again. They are completely unconcerned that some of the kids will die in custody. They don't give two hoots that these kids are going to be fucked up for life.
      That's the obscene part, that the people responsible (many of whom probably have kids themselves), just don't see immigrants as human beings.

      • Thomas Lord says:

        "They're not separating kids because it's a useful way of restricting immigration, it's purely a performance..."

        What has happened on the ground? The administration has facilitated building out and deploying a large capacity of public and private resources for mass incarceration, mass disappearing of people, and housing people in easily terminal conditions.

        They have successfully activated large federal forces, defiant of any kind of due process, sweeping people up from every major metro.

        It ain't a joke. It's not a performance. Those things are real.

        The obscene part is they just don't give a fuck about the children.

        They don't share your values, sure. There are some indications they've trafficked or sold some.

        They are completely unconcerned that some of the kids will die in custody. They don't give two hoots that these kids are going to be fucked up for life.

        And they have been building out capacity to do things like that - not limited to this cohort of children - at large scale. Not a drill. Not PR stunt. Not a "performance".

        just don't see immigrants as human beings.

        Trust me, they don't see anyone you likely know as human.

        • jwz says:

          You seem to think that using the word "performative" means "it's not real".

          It doesn't mean that.

          Let it go.

          • Thomas Lord says:

            Well, my last word, then: I bet you can't cite any example of 20th or 21st century authoritarianism that is not "performative" in the same sense. It is a redundant, distracting label that encourages dismissing the phenomenon as passing and mainly political. You can find historic examples of this same error, such as by the left in 1930s Germany.

    • dcapacitor says:

      Just NO to this take. NO.

      No because it makes the current events even more awful to think about?

      Trump didn't add shit to this other than his clowning around on TV.

      This clowning around is called populism, and we as a species have been there before with even more dire consequences.

      Worst of all, attributing this to Trump in particular is to ignore the extreme continuity of our police state from 1945, through J. Edgar and COINTELPRO and MKULTRA, through the CIA drug pushing and state mass incarceration, through the repurposing of Silicon Valley from classical military to mass surveillance use, to today.

      The fact that similar events have been going on and are going on throughout the world today doesn't make Trump's actions neither better nor worse.

      Calling this "performative" obscures the shear scale and actual harm done by our state police and para-police street thugs.

      Au contraire, it highlights the absurdity, criminality and horror of such men and their actions. Every authoritarian regime and dictator in history absolutely loved theatrics and grandeur. Even the Aztecs made great performances out of their mass human sacrifices. Ignoring the performative aspect obscures just how much influence these grim theatrics have on people's minds.

      The assertion that the shock troops are "performative" making only "selective arrests" -- and that this is "postmodern" in contrast to a "20th century" police state is just a stupid ignorance of how those "selective arrests" are selected, and how classical, ordinary, full police states work.

      The "postmodern" part is that we have a reality show host as the president who no longer even needs to pretend he's not a reality show host. Arnie and Ronnie at least pretended to leave their old careers behind them when they became politicians.

      And Russia has ambitions to rebuild the Soviet Union, only this time they're not even going to mask their lust for power as liberating the oppressed workers of the world. They want an empire because they think they're worth it.

      • Thomas Lord says:

        No because it makes the current events even more awful to think about?

        No. Because it understimates what has already happened and what is happening.

    • bq Mackintosh says:

      Thomas: the police actions are "performative" in the same sense that briefings by the Press Secretary have been "performative" since beginning of the Trump administration. The goal of the briefings is no longer to inform the public — and thus, it can't be (and isn't) measured by, "How well was the public informed?"

      Instead, the goal of the briefings is to impress on the MAGA base that the President and his entire administration holds journalism in contempt and will perform acts intended to be offensive and provoke outrage. He also wants the non-MAGA population to understand that same contempt, and for a significant number of the non-MAGA population to be offended and outraged.

      The point here is that nobody at the White House is assessing the situation in Portland and saying, "Hey, crimes and protests haven't gone down so I guess this isn't working?" That's because there is no legitimate law enforcement purpose. The purpose is to demonstrate to the MAGA base that the President and the Justice Department is willing to literally crack down on, tear gas, intimidate and menace, and take into custody the non-MAGA population, utterly unfettered by habeas corpus and absent any actual statutory offense.

      And it's to put active, tangible fear into the non-MAGA population, making clear that actual crack downs, tear gas, intimidation and menacing, abduction, and secretive non-warranted arrest and custody is what we get for disagreeing, and to demonstrate that the federal police are finally not constrained by habeas corpus, statutory offense, or probable cause.

      We all get it. Nobody is mystified by this, just like nobody is mystified when the gay kid gets the snot beat out of him at the high school in the midwest. We get it.

      And that's why the folks in the White House are saying, "Yeah, this is going great, let's roll it out nationwide."

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