The month after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Yale historian Timothy Snyder published the bestselling book “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From the Twentieth Century.” It was part of a small flood of titles meant to help Americans find their bearings as the new president laid siege to liberal democracy.
One of Snyder’s lessons was, “Be wary of paramilitaries.” He wrote, “When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.” In 2017, the idea of unidentified agents in camouflage snatching leftists off the streets without warrants might have seemed like a febrile Resistance fantasy. Now it’s happening.
According to a lawsuit filed Friday by Oregon’s attorney general, Ellen Rosenblum, federal agents “have been using unmarked vehicles to drive around downtown Portland, detain protesters, and place them into the officers’ unmarked vehicles” since at least last Tuesday. The protesters are neither arrested nor told why they’re being held.
There’s no way to know the affiliation of all the agents — they’ve been wearing military fatigues with patches that just say “Police” — but The Times reported that some of them are part of a Border Patrol group “that normally is tasked with investigating drug smuggling organizations.”
The Trump administration has announced that it intends to send a similar force to other cities; on Monday, the Chicago Tribune reported on plans to deploy about 150 federal agents to Chicago. “I don’t need invitations by the state,” Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said on Fox News on Monday, adding, “We’re going to do that whether they like us there or not.”
In Portland, we see what such an occupation looks like. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported on 29-year-old Mark Pettibone, who early last Wednesday was grabbed off the street by unidentified men, hustled into an unmarked minivan and taken to a holding cell in the federal courthouse. He was eventually released without learning who had abducted him.
A federal agent shot 26-year-old Donavan La Bella in the head with an impact munition; he was hospitalized and needed reconstructive surgery. In a widely circulated video, a 53-year-old Navy veteran was pepper sprayed and beaten after approaching federal agents to ask them about their oaths to the Constitution, leaving him with two broken bones.
There’s something particularly terrifying in the use of Border Patrol agents against American dissidents. After the attack on protesters near the White House last month, the military pushed back on Trump’s attempts to turn it against the citizenry. Police officers in many cities are willing to brutalize demonstrators, but they’re under local control. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, however, is under federal authority, has leadership that’s fanatically devoted to Trump and is saturated with far-right politics.
“It doesn’t surprise me that Donald Trump picked CBP to be the ones to go over to Portland and do this,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, told me. “It has been a very problematic agency in terms of respecting human rights and in terms of respecting the law.”
It is true that CBP is not an extragovernmental militia, and so might not fit precisely into Snyder’s “On Tyranny” schema. But when I spoke to Snyder on Monday, he suggested the distinction isn’t that significant. “The state is allowed to use force, but the state is allowed to use force according to rules,” he said. These agents, operating outside their normal roles, are by all appearances behaving lawlessly.
Snyder pointed out that the history of autocracy offers several examples of border agents being used against regime enemies. “This is a classic way that violence happens in authoritarian regimes, whether it’s Franco’s Spain or whether it’s the Russian Empire,” Snyder said. “The people who are getting used to committing violence on the border are then brought in to commit violence against people in the interior.”
Castro worries that since the agents are unidentified, far-right groups could easily masquerade as them to go after their enemies on the left. “It becomes more likely the more that this tactic is used,” he said.
On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted about what’s happening in Portland: “Trump and his storm troopers must be stopped.” She didn’t mention what Congress plans to do to stop them, but the House will soon vote on a homeland security appropriations bill. People outraged about the administration’s police-state tactics should demand, at a minimum, that Congress hold up the department’s funding until those tactics are halted.
Through the Trump years, there’s been a debate about whether the president’s authoritarianism is tempered by his incompetence. Those who think concern about fascism is overblown can cite several instances when the administration has been beaten back after overreaching. But all too often the White House has persevered, deforming American life until what once seemed like worst-case scenarios become the status quo.
Trump has established that his allies, like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone, are above the law. What happens now will tell us how many of us are below it.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.