The authoritarian populist president embraces neoconservatism–to advance his own tyranny

See updates for July 22, 2020, and for July 29, 2020, at bottom of post

There is an irony in that, for me, Black Lives Matters protests had virtually disappeared from public discourse. “Nonviolent,” they posed no threat, therefore policymakers faced no pressure to enact change. They had become irrelevant.

The Trump administration changed that in Portland by deploying the Federal Protective Service, backed by other federal agencies, to drive around in unmarked vans, in fatigues without identifying insignia, to detain random people.[1] These forces apparently included Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams.[2] Acting Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli threatened to deploy these forces to other cities.[3] This threat has now been echoed by Donald Trump himself.[4]

So as I look at all this, I’m noticing that it appears to appeal to neoconservative “law and order” (whose ‘law,’ passed by whom, against whom, and whose ‘order,’ meaning exactly what?) sensibilities. Neoconservatism arose in reaction to the tumult of antiwar, counterculture, and liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s; neoconservatives believe that the U.S. system must be “defended,” even aggressively and proactively, at any cost[5] and this includes a refusal to accept that this country was built on genocide and slavery,[6] with social inequality baked in as a constitutional oligarchy.[7]

Indeed, to recognize that reality is, for neoconservatives, a “blame America [sic] first” mentality.

The question of relative popularity of various tendencies of neoconservatism was not a research question in my dissertation, but I had the distinct impression that neoconservatives were concentrated inside the Washington, D.C., beltway, especially within the national insecurity and State Department bureaucracies, and rather rare everywhere else—the likes of John Bolton and Bill Kristol are merely the tip of the iceberg here, visible above the water. But neoconservatives do well in appealing to social conservatives and authoritarian populists, the bulk of Trump’s base.

It turns out that Trump has been consulting John Yoo, the George W. Bush administration lawyer who supported torture in the neoconservative wars on Afghanistan and Iraq and supported something called the “unitary executive,” a neoconservative theory, applicable, of course, only when neoconservatives are in power, under which the executive branch enjoys virtually unlimited authority. Other constitutional scholars aren’t much impressed,[8] but it would appear that our authoritarian populist, verging on paleoconservative, delusional raging narcissist-in-chief is finding neoconservatism useful in advancing his own power—tyranny.

Update, July 22, 2020: The one thing we can say about the Trump administration sending in federal forces, which has drawn criticism even from within at least some agencies involved,[9] against Black Lives Matter protests is that the administration is being stupid.

It has drawn people in from the sidelines to join the protests[10] and numerous mayors are asking that the forces be withdrawn, saying that their activities exacerbate the situation.[11] One way of looking at this request might be that the mayors may be seeking to relieve pressure for change that they may have thought had been alleviated as the protests went “nonviolent.”

But really, now, local and state politicians are now caught between federal forces and their own populations. How they handle it is anyone’s guess.

Update, July 29, 2020: Oregon’s governor has capitulated, promising a stronger state and local police presence around federal property in exchange for a promise to withdraw federal forces.[12] This is the sort of move that state and local officials will likely expect to enable them to return to their earlier plan of allowing the Black Lives Matter protests to fizzle while they implement the least possible amount of change in response to those protests.

  1. [1]Jeet Heer, “Trump Unleashes His Secret Police in Portland,” Nation, July 17, 2020,; Katie Shepherd, “‘It was like being preyed upon’: Portland protesters say federal officers in unmarked vans are detaining them,” Washington Post, July 17, 2020,
  2. [2]Nick Miroff and Mark Berman, “Trump threatens to deploy federal agents to Chicago and other U.S. cities led by Democrats,” Washington Post, July 20, 2020,
  3. [3]Sarah McCammon, “DHS Official On Reports Of Federal Officers Detaining Protesters In Portland, Ore.,” National Public Radio, July 17, 2020,
  4. [4]Nick Miroff and Mark Berman, “Trump threatens to deploy federal agents to Chicago and other U.S. cities led by Democrats,” Washington Post, July 20, 2020,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Conservative Views on Undocumented Migration” (doctoral dissertation, Saybrook, 2016). ProQuest (1765416126).
  6. [6]David Benfell, “To escape ruthless criminality,” Not Housebroken, July 19, 2020,
  7. [7]David Benfell, “A constitutional oligarchy: Deconstructing Federalist No. 10,” Not Housebroken, June 7, 2020,
  8. [8]Julian Borger, “Trump consults Bush torture lawyer on how to skirt law and rule by decree,” Guardian, July 20, 2020,
  9. [9]Hamed Aleaziz, “‘Disturbing And Demoralizing’: DHS Employees Are Worried The Portland Protest Response Is Destroying Their Agency’s Reputation,” Buzzfeed, July 21, 2020,
  10. [10]Marissa J. Lang, “‘MomBloc’ and protest first-timers march into Portland streets, moved by the aggressive tactics of federal agents,” Washington Post, July 21, 2020,
  11. [11]Madeline Holcombe, “More than a dozen mayors join Portland in asking Trump administration to withdraw federal forces,” CNN, July 22, 2020,
  12. [12]Associated Press, “Oregon governor says U.S. agents will begin leaving Portland,” Los Angeles Times, July 29, 2020,

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