When the legitimacy of the system itself is threatened

It might be touching to see the faith so many municipalities are placing in their local police to contain any militia activity threatening the 2020 election,[1] such as I (and others[2]) have warned about,[3] if police could even remotely be considered neutral.

As I drive around southwestern Pennsylvania, “thin blue line” flags often accompany those of Donald Trump’s campaign for reelection. The “Punisher” skull[4] is ubiquitous, especially on the monster pickup trucks I call “testerone trucks,” and I see it even on vehicles pulling out of police department parking lots. Thousands of police, military veterans, and currently-serving military personnel are either officially members of or unofficially aligned with right-wing and white supremacist militia groups and have too often espoused the ideology of these groups.[5] Police have been visibly friendly with militia groups even as the latter intervene in Black Lives Matter protests.[6]

And of course, there’s a reason that authorities emphasize that police will not actually be stationed at polling sites, but rather will be on hand to deal with any trouble,[7] a reason not at all unrelated to Black Lives Matter grievances and indeed the grievances of subaltern groups generally have with “law” enforcement authorities, where “law” serves as a reliable tool of wealthy interests against the poor and other subaltern groups.[8] Inescapably, police are agents of voter suppression, and thus in service to a longstanding—certainly not limited to the present election—conservative goal.

These are the same police that local authorities trust to maintain order in what may well be a very contentious election, the results of which Trump has threatened to resist and appears to be laying groundwork to resist with the full power of his office.[9] One might suggest that local governments have few other tools. Even if governors send in their national guards, these too are presumably suspect.[10]

This is a problem, really, that reaches to the heart of our authoritarian system of social organization. Rulers want to be recognized as ‘legitimate,’ because it’s a lot easier than having to deploy force to enforce their authority.[11] We are now at a point where this legitimacy is being challenged, even with armed force, and, with political polarization as bad as it is,[12] it seems unlikely that any side will back down. As long as this is the case, the situation can only get uglier.

  1. [1]Megan Guza And Paul Peirce, “Western Pa. police ready for any election-related shenanigans, as report warns of possible militia violence,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 30, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/westmoreland/western-pa-police-ready-for-any-election-related-shenanigans-as-report-warns-of-possible-militia-violence/; Danielle Moran, Laura Bliss, and Sarah Holder, “Cities Gird for Election Day Unrest,” CityLab, October 26, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-26/cities-gird-for-election-day-unrest
  2. [2]Megan Guza And Paul Peirce, “Western Pa. police ready for any election-related shenanigans, as report warns of possible militia violence,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 30, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/westmoreland/western-pa-police-ready-for-any-election-related-shenanigans-as-report-warns-of-possible-militia-violence/; Danielle Moran, Laura Bliss, and Sarah Holder, “Cities Gird for Election Day Unrest,” CityLab, October 26, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-26/cities-gird-for-election-day-unrest
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Bloody November,” Not Housebroken, October 13, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/08/bloody-november/; David Benfell, “Donald Trump’s ‘brown shirts,’” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/30/donald-trumps-brown-shirts/; David Benfell, “The very scary way to four more years,” Not Housebroken, October 16, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/25/the-very-scary-way-to-four-more-years/
  4. [4]See David Masciotra, “The Punisher skull: Unofficial logo of the white American death cult,” Salon, April 28, 2019, https://www.salon.com/2019/04/28/the-punisher-skull-unofficial-logo-of-the-white-american-death-cult/
  5. [5]Ryan Devereaux, “The Thin Blue Line Between Violent, Pro-Trump Militias and Police,” Intercept, August 28, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/08/28/kyle-rittenhouse-violent-pro-trump-militias-police/; Mike Giglio, “A Pro-Trump Militant Group Has Recruited Thousands of Police, Soldiers, and Veterans,” Atlantic, November 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/11/right-wing-militias-civil-war/616473/; Rory Laverty, Mark Berman, and Tim Elfrink, “Police chiefs are cracking down on misconduct — including brutality and overt racism — and losing their own jobs, too,” Washington Post, June 25, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/police-chiefs-crackdown-racism-misconduct/2020/06/25/41b6af1e-b70a-11ea-aca5-ebb63d27e1ff_story.html; Mary B. McCord, “Armed Militias Are Taking Trump’s Civil War Tweets Seriously,” Lawfare, October 2, 2019, https://www.lawfareblog.com/armed-militias-are-taking-trumps-civil-war-tweets-seriously; Joshua Partlow, “Politics at the point of a gun,” Washington Post, July 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/07/28/conservative-armed-militias-protests-coronavirus/; Jeremy Stahl, “Kenosha Police Chief Blames Protesters for Their Own Deaths, Defends Vigilante Groups,” Slate, August 26, 2020, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/08/kenosha-police-chief-daniel-miskinis-blames-protesters-for-own-deaths.html; Jason Wilson, “Proud Boys are a dangerous ‘white supremacist’ group say US agencies,” Guardian, October 1, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/01/proud-boys-white-supremacist-group-law-enforcement-agencies
  6. [6]Ryan Devereaux, “The Thin Blue Line Between Violent, Pro-Trump Militias and Police,” Intercept, August 28, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/08/28/kyle-rittenhouse-violent-pro-trump-militias-police/; Fred Kaplan, “Is America in the Early Stages of Armed Insurgency?” Slate, September 8, 2020, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2020/09/america-insurgency-chaos-trump-violence.html; Joshua Partlow, “Politics at the point of a gun,” Washington Post, July 28, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/07/28/conservative-armed-militias-protests-coronavirus/
  7. [7]Megan Guza And Paul Peirce, “Western Pa. police ready for any election-related shenanigans, as report warns of possible militia violence,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 30, 2020, https://triblive.com/local/westmoreland/western-pa-police-ready-for-any-election-related-shenanigans-as-report-warns-of-possible-militia-violence/; Danielle Moran, Laura Bliss, and Sarah Holder, “Cities Gird for Election Day Unrest,” CityLab, October 26, 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-26/cities-gird-for-election-day-unrest
  8. [8]David Benfell, “On police,” Not Housebroken, August 12, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/08/10/on-police/; David Benfell, “On the pretense of ‘law and order,’” Not Housebroken, September 11, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2020/09/11/on-the-pretense-of-law-and-order/
  9. [9]Max Boot, “What if Trump loses but insists he won?” Washington Post, July 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/07/06/what-if-trump-loses-insists-he-won/; Rosa Brooks, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Washington Post, September 3, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/09/03/trump-stay-in-office/; Chris Cillizza, “What happens if Donald Trump refuses to admit he lost in 2020?” CNN, May 6, 2019, https://amp.cnn.com/cnn/2019/05/06/politics/donald-trump-2020-election/index.html; Democracy Now!, “What If Trump Refuses to Accept a Biden Victory? A Look at How Electoral Chaos Could Divide Nation,” August 3, 2020, https://www.democracynow.org/2020/8/3/nils_gilman_2020_election_scenarios; Barton Gellman, “The Election That Could Break America,” Atlantic, September 23, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/11/what-if-trump-refuses-concede/616424/; Colby Itkowitz, “Trump won’t commit to a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ if he loses,” Washington Post, September 23, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-transfer-of-power/2020/09/23/be6954d0-fdf0-11ea-b555-4d71a9254f4b_story.html; Ed Kilgore, “How Trump Is Trying to Ensure an Early Election Night Lead,” New York, August 13, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/08/trump-voters-could-vote-in-person-and-give-him-early-lead.html; Eric Lach, “What Happens if Donald Trump Fights the Election Results?” New Yorker, August 21, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/campaign-chronicles/what-happens-if-donald-trump-fights-the-election-results; Robert McCartney, “Here’s one way Trump could try to steal the election, voting experts say,” Washington Post, August 17, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/heres-one-way-trump-could-try-to-steal-the-election-voting-experts-say/2020/08/16/b5bf0c2a-de66-11ea-b205-ff838e15a9a6_story.html; Peter Nicholas, “Trump Could Still Break Democracy’s Biggest Norm,” Atlantic, June 16, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/06/when-does-trump-leave-white-house/613060/; Greg Sargent, “On Hannity’s show, Trump reveals his corrupt, panicky endgame,” Washington Post, October 9, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/10/09/hannity-trump-reveals-his-corrupt-panicky-endgame/; Felicia Sonmez, “Trump declines to say whether he will accept November election results,” Washington Post, July 19, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-declines-to-say-whether-he-will-accept-november-election-results/2020/07/19/40009804-c9c7-11ea-91f1-28aca4d833a0_story.html; Timothy E. Wirth and Tom Rogers, “How Trump Could Lose the Election—And Still Remain President,” Newsweek, July 3, 2020, https://www.newsweek.com/how-trump-could-lose-election-still-remain-president-opinion-1513975
  10. [10]Mike Giglio, “A Pro-Trump Militant Group Has Recruited Thousands of Police, Soldiers, and Veterans,” Atlantic, November 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/11/right-wing-militias-civil-war/616473/
  11. [11]Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  12. [12]Marc Fisher, “The end of democracy? To many Americans, the future looks dark if the other side wins,” Washington Post, October 25, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/end-of-democracy-election/2020/10/25/3b8c0940-13d0-11eb-ba42-ec6a580836ed_story.html