The Insidious Workings of the Political Ratchet


Why Democrats Are Joining Trump and DHS in Demonizing Anti-Fascists


On September 9, the news came out that a whistleblower within the Department of Homeland Security had filed a complaint about the department’s Trump-appointed leadership instructing him to downplay the threat represented by white supremacists and play up the dangers posed by anarchists and anti-fascists. Yet it has largely escaped notice how Joe Biden and other Democrats have embraced Donald Trump’s talking points about anarchists and anti-fascists. It is convenient for centrist Democrats that they can pose as Trump’s moderate critics while appropriating his talking points about protesters, letting him do the dirty work of establishing the narratives that justify state repression.

In remarks on July 28, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden grouped “anarchists” with “arsonists,” asserting that “arsonists and anarchists should be prosecuted,” endorsing Trump’s repeated allegation that adherence to anarchist ideas is itself some kind of crime on a par with arson. On September 7, when Barbara Barr asked Biden “Do you condemn antifa?” he answered, “Yes, I do,” associating “antifa” with “violence, no matter who it is.” This endorses a narrative Trump has been avidly promoting for years, especially since his May 31 tweet that “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”

Trump and others on the far right have long sought to establish opposition to fascism as sufficient cause to justify state surveillance and intervention. This is one of the steps on the road to totalitarianism. The US two-party system functions like a ratchet, with the Republican Party steadily pulling public policy and permissible discourse to the right while Democrats, in seeking to acquire power by chasing the political center, serve as a mechanism that prevents policy and discourse from shifting back. As the Democrats follow the Republicans in steadily countenancing more and more authoritarianism, the work that Trump is doing to frame anarchists, anti-fascists, and other protesters as legitimate targets will also be useful to Biden’s party. We need to understand how this works now, lest the continuation of current state repression after a potential Biden victory catch us flat-footed.

DHS Focuses on Anti-Fascists while Ignoring White Supremacists

According to a complaint filed by whistleblower Brian Murphy, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and “Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security” Ken Cuccinelli instructed officials at the DHS to alter intelligence reports to reflect Trump’s fear-mongering talking points about anarchist and anti-fascist violence while downplaying the threat that far-right and white nationalists pose to the general population. From the text of the complaint:

During multiple meetings between the end of May 2020 and July 31, 2020, Mr. Murphy made protected disclosures to Messrs. Wolf and Cuccinelli regarding abuse of authority and improper administration of an intelligence program with respect to intelligence information on ANTIFA [sic] and “anarchist” [sic] groups operating throughout the United States. On each occasion, Mr. Murphy was instructed by Mr. Wolf and/or Mr. Cuccinelli to modify intelligence assessments to ensure they matched up with the public comments by President Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and “anarchist” groups.

In addition, Cuccinelli instructed Murphy to modify reports about white supremacist organizing in order to make “the threat appear less severe,” and to add “information on the prominence of violent ‘left-wing’ groups.”

One DHS report was edited so that references to white supremacists “presenting the most lethal threat” were replaced with the words “Domestic Violent Extremists,” a catchall term used to create a false equivalence between those who promote and carry out racist attacks and those who organize to defend their communities against them.

After these revelations, when Democrats like Biden and corporations like Facebook continue to frame anarchists and anti-fascists as a threat to the general public, it must be clear to everyone that they are willfully advancing a false narrative Donald Trump concocted to target his enemies.

If they continue to promote this narrative, it will be because, like Trump, they wish to preserve the tremendous disparities of capitalism and white supremacy, which anarchists and anti-fascists seek to undo. They too want tyranny—a kinder, gentler, more sustainable tyranny. They just don’t want to be the ones held responsible for escalating it.

Protesters outside Chad Wolf’s home in Alexandria, Virginia.

But What Should We Expect from DHS?

Since its establishment, the Department of Homeland Security has always targeted protest movements—but much more so, it has played a fundamental role in intensifying Islamophobia and other forms of systemic oppression. From the perspective of those who desire to live in a free and egalitarian society, there is no right way for DHS representatives to assess the terror threats facing the United States. The department itself exists for the sole purpose of carrying out surveillance and directing lethal force against anyone who might threaten the ruling order. The considerable attention Murphy’s complaint has received from self-professed leftists indicates the degree to which many leftists are willing to join centrists in legitimizing representatives of the institutions that the left otherwise ostensibly opposes, so long as those representatives are taking a stand against Trump specifically.

This shows us how much ground radicals stand to lose by focusing on Trump alone—one of the insidious tendencies of the aforementioned ratchet effect. Liberal centrists already experienced the disastrous consequences of this approach in the disappointments that awaited the millenarian cult around former FBI director Robert Mueller. Biden is just the latest beneficiary of this tendency to seek a “legitimate” representative of entrenched power to counter Trump’s ascendancy in the name of the law. The problem is that the law is not something above the US government, that Mueller or Biden can use to bring Trump to order; the law only has force by virtue of the same government that Trump already dominates.

It’s foolish to argue that in targeting protesters rather than fascists, the DHS is focusing on the wrong threat. The important thing to understand here is that there is a shakeup taking place inside the state institutions of repression—a shakeup aimed at expanding the targets of “anti-terror” operations to include an ever-increasing number of anarchists, anti-fascists, leftists, and other dissidents, especially those from demographics that are already targeted on account of ethnicity, class, and religion. At the same time, the space that is allocated for extra-legal action to defend white supremacy is continuing to expand—witness Trump’s praise of Kyle Rittenhouse. Rather than offering the DHS an opportunity to re-legitimize itself by promising to protect us from white supremacists—which would simply provide another rationale for politicians to allocate resources to the DHS that will inevitably be directed against targeted communities and protest movements—we have to point to the systemic factors that ensure that as long as it exists, DHS will always serve to oppress people and crush movements for freedom and equality.

DHS has been expanding the scope of its targets while giving white supremacists a free pass since its inception, well before Trump came to power. At the opening of the Obama years, another DHS employee, Daryle Johnson was pushed out of the department for sounding the alarm about far-right activity ahead of a wave of killings. More recently, fusion centers have served to transmit far-right conspiracy theories to local police departments, ensuring that local police prioritize targeting anti-fascists while often working hand in glove with Trump supporters, militias, and other far-right groups. The recent wave of Blue Leaks has only confirmed the degree to which federal officers are embracing far-right priorities in focusing on repressing anarchists and anti-fascists.

Once the latest shakeup in the DHS is complete, there will be no more revelations of the sort we see in Murphy’s complaint. Both parties will accept that the department exists to attack anarchists, protesters, and others who oppose fascism and police violence. White supremacists will have acquired even more leeway to organize and carry out attacks without facing pushback from the state.

And this process can take place under Biden as well as under Trump.

The Ratchet

Chad Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli are both serving unlawfully as a result of Donald Trump’s machinations to avoid the mandated appointment process. Wolf especially is already infamous for drafting a policy to snatch children from their parents at the US border and for sending federal officers from a variety of DHS departments to Portland in an attempt to suppress protests. Many analysts interpret the deployment of federal officers to Portland and elsewhere as a test run to prepare to use federal forces countrywide to impose Trump’s authority should he win, suspend, or steal the 2020 election.

Wolf has staked his career on supporting Trump’s efforts to consolidate power, emphasizing that the wishes of local authorities are utterly beside the point. “President Trump has made it abundantly clear that there will come a point when state and local officials fail to protect its citizens from violence, the federal government will have no choice but to protect our American citizens,” Wolf wrote in a letter to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler on August 31. Wolf emphasized this point again on September 9, asserting that DHS has a “moral and legal duty” to “protect” cities from “rioters.”

Democrats and leftists have responded to this escalating situation the same way they have responded to four years of the Trump program: by spreading information, “speaking truth to power,” and the like. None of this has done anything to compel Wolf or Cuccinelli to step down from their posts or to change the trajectory of the DHS or the white supremacists who support Trump. Chiefly, it just gives Democrats an alibi to tell voters that they are not to blame for the authoritarian turn of the state. If Democrats really believed in the rules that forbid Wolf and Cuccinelli to govern DHS, they would do something about it, not register complaints.

Arguably, the only reason left-leaning Democrats have any leverage on the ruling class whatsoever is that the poor, desperate, and politicized are prepared to go to great lengths to interrupt business as usual and make great swaths of the United States ungovernable. Like all reformists, the Democrats derive their leverage on other elements of the ruling class from the unrest that they promise to quell—but in order to maintain that leverage, they have to show that they can quell the unrest without making too many concessions. The ratchet, once again.

So perhaps it is naïve to attribute the weakness of the Democrats to naïveté. While Trump encourages his supporters to prepare to help him secure power in a contested election, while the police who support him go on carrying out extrajudicial murders of people of color and the occasional white anti-fascist as well, Democrats are intentionally not seeking to mobilize the kind of force that could prevent Trump from seizing and maintaining power.

If Trump does try to hold on to power in defiance of electoral protocol, Democrats are counting on protesters to risk their lives to make this untenable. Anarchists, anti-fascists, and participants in the fiercest aspects of the anti-police uprisings and the Black Lives Matter movement are the only social force that could accomplish this. But the Democrats offer no allegiance to the people they expect to risk death on their behalf. Indeed, they are already selling them out ahead of the election.

In the long term, centrists like Biden likely aim to establish a new social peace by rallying a critical mass of voters—and capitalists—behind them, then sacrificing Black demonstrators, anarchists, and anti-fascists on the altar of “homeland security” as a concession to placate the far right. Trump’s laughable talking point that Biden represents the “rioters” who compelled our society to grapple with the senseless murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many more Black people barely conceals the fact that the opposite is true: Biden represents another strategy for maintaining the same state of affairs that Trump intends to, the same status quo that resulted in all those murders. This explains Biden’s embrace of Trump’s talking points about anarchists and anti-fascists and “violence” itself, which is a code word for anything that interrupts the unceasing violence that is necessary to maintain the grievous disparities in privilege, property, and power that characterize our current social order.

Should Biden win the election, we will have to be prepared to fight just as hard against repression from the Department of Homeland Security and other state agencies as we will have to fight if Trump wins. The only distinction is that under Trump, the repression will be brutal but widely unpopular, whereas under Biden, it will be more discreet but broadly accepted as legitimate.

This is why we must not grant a millimeter to Biden’s rhetoric about “violent” anarchists, nor trust that Biden will do anything to rein in DHS. Don’t grease the ratchet. Break it.