We recently watched President Donald Trump’s attempt to demonstrate what a great, strong leader he is by bringing his brand of law and order to Democratic-run cities.  He also delivered messages he did not intend. He also showed he could turn mostly peaceful demonstrators into mostly violent ones.  When he sent federal agents into Portland, Oregon, who were dressed for battle in Afghanistan, the unintended consequences of his actions created a cause that reached beyond racial demonstrations and protests.  He has now made combatting “autocracy” a more publicly burning matter that affects all lives, not just black ones.

 Before our very eyes on the TV and social media, we saw heavily armed uniformed military types dressed for anticipating or provoking violence,  attempting to frighten unarmed protestors into submission. Instead of bringing calm by forceful suppression, the reaction to the  “agents”  increased the level of violence and the size of the demonstrations. We got a taste of what Trump’s second term would look like as he promoted dominating the streets and suppressing protests. What was once a criticism of Trump’s autocratic tendencies, a dry “political science” argument that the public was not able to touch, feel, or see, was now right in front of our eyes

Trump chose one of the whitest cities in America, Portland to show how he would dominate the streets and put down protestors, tear-gassing and clubbing both peaceful and violent, white or black, moms and veterans. Initially, only media friendly to him covered the story and their film footage was turned into campaign ads. A few days later mainstream media began covering civil rights abuses they saw. The Trump administration used the federal agents outfitted for war.to do much more than just protect federal real estate. Trump looked like he was using dictator’s thugs to foment street violence so he could show how he could fix civil unrest he himself helped provoke. What he did accomplish instead was to show how easy it was to turn mostly peaceful demonstrators into mostly violent ones by using an aggressive force untrained, unrestrained, and unsuited for the task of calming angry waters.  Ignoring any constraints of civil rights laws, federal agents were  “reportedly pulling protestors into unmarked vehicles” and firing rubber bullets into crowds of protestors per a Forbes reporter. Even those not near or even threatening the federal property the agents were supposed to protect were spirited away to be interrogated . One protestor wielding a boom box message amplifier lifted over his head was shot with a rubber bullet, fracturing his skull. 

For days Trump ignored state and local officials’ requests to withdraw his forces because they were making a bad situation worse.  July 31 the battle geared federal agents were withdrawn after negotiation with state and local officials and Trump’s favorable polling numbers continued to sink.

What we saw in Portland was not my mother’s, father’s, or our founder’s version of democracy. It is the opposite, an autocracy. The way most modern autocrats gain power is the use of fear and force and abusing the power they had been given by voters. The history of autocrats from the left or right is to take the power away from people, convincing them to delay elections on some pretext as Trump just attempted, refusing to honor election results as Trump has threatened he would, and using suppression and intimidation as he just demonstrated he could use in Portland.  It does not have to be this way. The alternative is supporting the small d democracy, the kind we have had for the past 240 years.  It calls for allegiance to the rule of law instead of being forced to obey the rule by a person. In small d democracies, the laws should be written by a freely elected representative government and upheld by an independent judiciary. A small d democracy protects freedom of the press, the right to peacefully assemble to present grievances, an orderly transition of power. All of those concepts the President has challenged including stacking the judiciary, and favoring friendly media while denying critics access as punishment. The only obstacle standing between democracy and autocracy is words on a  piece of paper, the  Constitution, The only sure power left to defend the Constitution and to continue it as we have known it in practice still lies in the hands of the voters in 2020.

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