The Trump administration is what an incipient American dictatorship looks like. You can see it in the abdication of congressional oversight, and the rapid concentration of political power into a hierarchical executive branch characterized by corruption, intrigue and paranoia. You can see it in the transformation of Fox News into a party-aligned organ of state propaganda, and the cult-like way its viewers regard the current president. It’s visible in the swift and sudden exchange of America’s traditional international allies for new relationships with the world’s most repressive regimes. It’s there in the stacking of hyper-factional judges across federal and state judiciaries. The alteration of the census and purging of the voter rolls. The transformation of ICE and the Border Patrol into an American secret police, working not on behalf the state or its citizens, but Trump himself. You can see it in the Trump regime’s constant efforts to remold facts and reality around predetermined and obviously false narratives, and the way it consciously works to undermine any sense of shared American identity or common weal.
These are all known and well-theorized waypoints on the road to despotic government. So what lies ahead is even more worrisome. Because eventually, all tyrannies resort to systemic violence and terror against their own citizens. Eventually, they all use the machinery of the state to methodically hurt and kill as an instrument of rule.
The so-called “zero-tolerance” policy of separation and imprisonment of the children of asylum-seekers on the southern border is a major milestone on the road to authoritarianism, and a preview of the Trump regime’s malign trajectory. (Not for nothing, but “zero tolerance” also happens to be a popular slogan on the Russian far right.) As usual, the origins and purpose of this terroristic policy are obscured in a thick fog of lies and contradictions. The Trump administration has claimed that it is merely following existing law. But seeking asylum here is not illegal and has never resulted in the separation of families until now. The president has blamed the Democrats in congress, but “zero-tolerance” for asylum-seekers is a policy-level change coming directly out of Trump's Justice Department. Attorney General Sessions claims that the rending and imprisoning of children separately from their parents is necessary to discourage others from seeking asylum here. But even if there were any public benefit to punishing asylum-seekers—and there is not—Sessions is also lying about the purpose of this policy.
The intended audience for this terror-theater isn’t the people fleeing violence in their own countries. It’s the people watching Fox News—Trump's Republican base. The policy's purpose is to enshrine, through cruelty and violence, the conspiracy theories and fictions that undergird the Trump regime. Specifically, the fiction that aliens are trying to sneak in and destabilize the country, and that they are aided by Democrats, who are trying to undermine Trump himself.
Witness Fox’s coverage of the family separations this week, for which a uniformed Border Patrol official was brought onto the set of Fox and Friends to falsely assert that it is illegal to seek asylum in the United States. A bold-faced, easily-debunked lie, but it’s all Fox viewers will ever hear. “Those people” are different and have done something bad, so we are justified in putting their children into concentration camps, and anyone who criticizes the policy is just trying to damage our Leader." The bloody simple-mindedness of this narrative turns the entire episode into an ideological weapon. This, they are being told, is what you voted for. This is what you want. Each fresh outrage radicalizes Trump’s supporters a bit further. Every howl of protest elicited from progressives is proof that their team is winning. Is there any reason to believe that their response will be different when the Border Patrol just starts shooting people?
In The Origins of Totalitarianism (still one of the most important treatments of the rise of fascism and Stalinism in the mid-20th century) political theorist Hannah Arendt tried to distinguish between despotic systems (which have existed for millennia) and totalitarian systems, examples of which can only be found in the 20th century. One of the key differences between these systems, Arendt contends, lies in how they use political violence. Authoritarian regimes use measured violence as a tool to force compliance and liquidate rivals. But totalitarian regimes require unending and unreasoning democidal savagery to bolster the fictions on which they rest. The goal of totalitarian political violence, according to Arendt, is a citizenry of willing executioners and victims: “as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions.”
It doesn’t matter whether the targets of that violence present any real threat, or whether the regime’s rationalizations for violence against them make sense. “Practically speaking,” Arendt writes, “the totalitarian ruler proceeds like a man who persistently insults another man until everybody knows that the latter is his enemy, so that he can, with some plausibility, kill him in self-defense.” Does that sound familiar?
Donald Trump’s natural style of leadership is totalitarian—charismatic, fraudulent, arbitrary, terroristic and depraved. He frequently demands "loyalty" of his subordinates, by which he means blind obedience and total self-abnegation. So his henchmen are every bit as craven as he is. His regime expertly serves up a constantly changing buffet of political targets (primarily ethnic communities) upon which his supporters can train their rage and frustration. He has suborned entire federal law enforcement agencies into the Trumpist project, particularly ICE and the Border Patrol, and possibly the FBI. With the help of his media propagandists, congressional enablers, and autocratic clients overseas, Trump's cult of personality is growing in both size and strength. These are tremendous assets for any aspiring dictator. And Trump has a major incentive to operationalize them, in order to stave off the outcomes of future elections and the Mueller probe.
Terroristic violence is inherently attractive to Donald Trump as an instrument of power and control. His family separation policy is a trial balloon to gauge the political costs of using it. If the Democrats don't manage to win at least one house of Congress this fall, that violence will have fulfilled its purpose as an electoral strategy, and 2018 will likely have been the last free election in the US for quite some time. After that, the Trump regime will broaden and escalate these kinds of terror-based policies to target a wider range of communities and populations. That's what dictators do.