Trump has one of his most authoritarian weeks yet as president as the US surpassed 100,000 coronavirus deaths

President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order aimed at curbing protections for social media giants, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) Associated Press
  • The same week that the US surpassed 100,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths, President Donald Trump threatened protesters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with lethal force.
  • Minneapolis has been consumed by unrest in recent days over the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, who died after an officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes.
  • In tweets, Trump threatened to send in the National Guard and said, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
  • Between threatening deadly force against US citizens, spreading misinformation on the 2020 election, and issuing an executive order against social media companies, this has been Trump’s most authoritarian week as president yet.
  • “[Trump] has always preached violence for whites against others, and he will keep to this line as the election nears,” a New York University historian told Insider. “This is what American authoritarianism looks like.”

Barely a day after the US surpassed 100,000 reported coronavirus deaths, a grim milestone that no other country has come close to exceeding, President Donald Trump threatened the use of lethal force against American citizens.

In response to the unrest in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was catalyzed by the brutal police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd, the president threatened to send in the National Guard to shoot looters.

Floyd was killed in broad daylight after officers responded to a “forgery in progress.” An officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for roughly eight minutes, ultimately leading to his death.

“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way,” Trump tweeted. “Any difficulty, and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”

Twitter flagged Trump’s tweet as “glorifying violence.” The White House later shot back on – where else? – Twitter, claiming the social media site was trying to censor Trump. Hours after, Trump attempted to walk back his “when the looting starts the shooting starts” comment, claiming it was spoken as “a fact, not as a statement.”

But all this social media fury is smoke and mirrors: As the president seeks to deflect from his botched response to COVID-19, and runs for reelection with the US as the epicentre of the pandemic and the nation’s economy in shambles, his rhetoric and actions have become increasingly autocratic.

“This is what American authoritarianism looks like,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian and expert on authoritarianism at New York University, told Insider.

“Trump showed us his allegiances in 2015 and 2016 to white supremacy in America when he hired Steve Bannon, retweeted neo-Nazi memes during his campaign, and backed armed militias,” Ben-Ghiat said. “It’s entirely predictable that he would call protesters of police violence against African-Americans thugs but praise armed men who invade state capitals as ‘liberators.’ He has always preached violence for whites against others, and he will keep to this line as the election nears.”

Tear gas
Tear gas is fired as protesters clash with police while demonstrating against the death of George Floyd outside the 3rd Precinct Police Precinct on May 26, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Four Minneapolis police officers have been fired after a video taken by a bystander was posted on social media showing Floyd’s neck being pinned to the ground by an officer as he repeatedly said, ‘I can’t breathe’. Floyd was later pronounced dead while in police custody after being transported to Hennepin County Medical Centre. Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Trump’s threat of military force against US citizens came the same day he signed an executive order to crack down on social media, intended to curtail legal protections for major companies after Twitter fact-checked his false tweets.

Free speech experts said the order represented a fundamental misunderstanding of the First Amendment, which protects people and entities from the government – not the other way around.

The vindictive nature of Trump’s executive order aimed at social media companies has raised alarm among experts and former US officials.

“Trump targeting Twitter in executive order is analogous to spitting into a hurricane of 1st Amendment freedoms,” John Dean, former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon, said in a tweet. Dean described the executive order as an “authoritarian attack.”

“That Trump even has a desire to shut down @Twitter underscores his authoritarian proclivities,” Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, tweeted on Friday.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, said that Trump’s threat to “close down private sector businesses because he doesn’t like what they publish” represented the “words of an authoritarian” and asked how people would respond if a leader from another country went down this road.

The president on Thursday also shared a tweet featuring a video in which one of his supporters said the “only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” effectively endorsing violence against Americans who are not members of his party.

Meanwhile, Trump has disseminated blatantly false information on the 2020 election, misleadingly telling the public that if people are allowed to vote by mail, it will necessarily mean the election is “rigged.”

These repeated, erroneous assertions from the president prompted Ellen Weintraub, a Federal Elections Commissioner, to tweet: “There’s simply no basis for the conspiracy theory that voting by mail causes fraud. None.”

The president has long exhibited autocratic tendencies, but he’s taken this to new heights in recent days.

In free, democratic societies, it’s not normal for leaders to threaten deadly violence against their citizens in any context, nor is it routine for them to seek to undermine elections with misinformation about the voting process.

Our political system prevents Trump from realising his ambition of becoming a full-blown authoritarian, but his praise for dictators and the ways in which he’s mirrored their behaviour has already done immense damage to America’s democracy.

While Trump threatens violence against demonstrators in Minneapolis, some experts in recent months have called for the public to push back against the president and the erosion of democratic norms under his watch.

“There need to be mass protests,” Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor and author of “How Fascism Works,” told Insider. “The Republican Party is betraying democracy, and these are historic times. Someone has got to push back.”