This week Washington state Republican Senator Doug Ericksen introduced a bill intended to outlaw illegal protests, a move that seems patently unnecessary (if the protests are already illegal, there’s no reason to outlaw them). This is neither the first attempt to curtail the First Amendment rights of citizens, nor will it be that last in Trump’s America.
But it is Ericksen’s desire to create a new crime, “economic terrorism,” that should cause the most concern. This particular effort may not prove successful, but Republicans are poised to keep winning the messaging battle, and this will have disastrous consequences. The creation of a crime of “economic terrorism” will be a devastatingly effective tool of the state as it seeks to delegitimize and squash opposition.
I respect the right to protest, but when it endangers people’s lives and property, it goes too far. Fear, intimidation and vandalism are not a legitimate form of political expression. Those who employ it must be called to account. [Emphasis added]
The appeal to economics is not only useful for its broad applicability, but it also resonates with a supposedly economically disenfranchised portion of the country, namely white Americans who see the progress of black Americans and (brown-skinned) immigrants as detrimental to America’s “greatness.” It is no surprise, then, that Trump’s newly appointed white nationalist “chief strategist,” Steve Bannon, describes himself as an “economic nationalist.”
I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist.
Appeals to economics are increasingly nothing more than cover for white nationalism.
Moreover, because it simultaneously lacks nuance and specificity, “economic terrorism” will be applied broadly to chilling effect. By unabashedly co-opting the category of terrorism, the state intentionally puts its protesting citizens into the same category as figures like Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Protesters are not terrorists, you may think, even if they do sometimes destroy some property or stop traffic. Yet, in an authoritarian state, opposition to the ruling class is the worst possible crime, so such categorization is more than justified in the eyes of the state. This is merely a new front in the war on terror.
Trump is already filling his cabinet not with the most qualified people for the position (sounds familiar) but with Trump loyalists. As Matthew Yglesias wrote in Vox this past week, we are seeing the start of a new kind of American corruption. “We are used to corruption in which the rich buy political favor. What we need to learn to fear is corruption in which political favor becomes the primary driver or economic success.” Trump’s team began plotting their revenge on political opponents and those who opposed him on election night. There is already a suggestion from at least one source close to Trump that they would “steer business away from Republicans who were involved in the #NeverTrump effort to block Trump from the GOP nomination.”
Ericksen does not make it a secret that his bill is not just about those who may destroy property or stop traffic during a protest. It is about squelching all voices that would oppose the impending regime.
In Ericksen’s measure, the penalties apply not just to participants, but also those who either give money or help organize, or otherwise encourage others to commit “economic terrorism.”
Not only is Ericksen adopting the category of terrorism, he is also adopting the structure in which terrorism is seen and combatted. Just as it is not enough to capture or kill those who carry out a traditional terrorist attack, so too must those who sponsor, support, and encourage “economic terrorism” be held to account.
This will likely prove to be wildly successful messaging. The charge is unequivocal, taps into already held ideas about the heinous nature of terrorism, and can be applied to a multitude of activities of which the state disapproves. Success on this messaging front, however, will come at the expense of people’s lives and livelihoods. Our already militarized police force overwhelmingly supports the new regime and those who don’t will quickly be sidelined. Much of this apparatus of state violence has been emboldened in the wake of the election and they are already equipped, if not trained, to engage in combat in our soil. If Trump has his way and Jeff Sessions becomes the Attorney General, the situation will only grow more dire.
We need not ask whether largely white crowds rioting after their sports team wins (or loses) will also be charged with “economic terrorism.” For we already know the answer. Surely we have not so quickly forgotten the scenes from Tahrir Square. Surely we know that authoritarian regimes do all that they can to outlaw dissent while excusing violence and destruction committed by regime loyalists.
Even Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims from entering the country and to require Muslims to register stem not just from racism and Islamophobia — though these are very real roots — but also from his belief that the Muslim community is not loyal, that they are not doing their part to root out the supposedly many terrorists among their ranks.
Trump’s initial statement in December 2015 suggesting a ban of Muslims entering the United States plays on these fears of disloyalty.
Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. According to Pew Research, among others, there is great hatred towards Americans by large segments of the Muslim population. Most recently, a poll from the Center for Security Policy released data showing “25% of those polled agreed that violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad” and 51% of those polled, “agreed that Muslims in America should have the choice of being governed according to Shariah.” Shariah authorizes such atrocities as murder against non-believers who won’t convert, beheadings and more unthinkable acts that pose great harm to Americans, especially women.
Here’s Trump this March saying even more explicitly that Muslims are not loyal to America:
It’s like they’re protecting each other. . . . I would say this to the Muslims, and in the United States also: When they see trouble, they have to report it. And they’re not reporting it. They’re absolutely not reporting it. And that’s a big problem.
This is why one Trump loyalists thinks Japanese internment camps during WWII are an apt “precedent” for a Muslim registry. With the loyalty of a group cast into doubt, their rights can be steadily stripped away.
The right has long been much more effective at messaging than the left. For the left cannot quit nuance. This is why the right has been so successful moving the entire conversation to the right for decades now. This is why America’s left looks a lot like Europe’s center-right. The supposedly liberal Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has its roots in a Heritage Foundation plan, and its core tenet — that citizens must take personal responsibility and purchase health insurance — is borne of a fundamentally conservative philosophy.
By going after protesters who stop traffic and destroy property and framing it in economic terms, Trump and his loyalists are creating an “other” that whites will seamlessly and quickly unite against. The negative sentiment already exists in a nascent form; Trump will merely fan the flame. The white moderate will not hesitate to surrender a right they have never had to exercise so that others can be taught a lesson. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that the white moderate was the greatest hindrance to racial equality. The white moderate today will be the greatest hindrance to combating the rise of authoritarianism. He will be followed surprisingly quickly by the white liberal who fears being accused of ignoring “real America.”
One need not necessarily win the messaging war to enact authoritarian policies, but having a hoi polloi who has already bought into the propaganda makes it that much easier. The current proposal is to label protesters and those who support their cause as “economic terrorists” making them class C felons, which in Washington state can carry up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Were this proposal to spread to other states, those found guilty of “economic terrorism” in Florida, Iowa, and Virginia would also conveniently be permanently stripped of their right to vote. But why stop there?
Why shouldn’t those who call for boycotts of Trump businesses or those of his loyalists also be labeled “economic terrorists”? What about undocumented immigrants who “steal jobs from Americans”? City council members who vote for regulations on businesses favorable to the Trump administration?
This will not end with labeling unruly protesters “economic terrorists.”
First they came for the protesters.
Image via Gage Skidmore