A mural at Union Square in New York City
It is not the first time that angry protesters and activists on social media demand autonomy for their cities or states. Before Seattle protesters made the demand recently in protest over the murder of George Floyd last month, some in California were demanding sovereignty in protest of Donald Trump winning the White House in 2016. President Trump retorted in anger at events in Seattle, accusing the radical left in the Democratic Party of spearheading these calls. He tweeted: “Domestic Terrorists have taken over Seattle, run by Radical Left Democrats, of course. Law and order.” He also warned: “Take back your city now. If you don’t do it, I will. This is not a game. These ugly anarchists must be stopped [sic] immediately. move fast.” He was addressing Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, whom he said were playing a risky game, unlike any other in the history of the US.
Trump’s agitation is justifiable. If these calls for autonomy were made by protesting anarchists, they would have no impact on Trump. However, they came from officials in government positions — whether elected or not. This pushes grave political divisions in the US since Barack Obama’s tenure to disturbing depths. But why are there calls for autonomy, or what anarchists call self-rule by the street, without oversight? And what will Trump do to carry out his threat to end calls for autonomy if the governor and mayor cannot, or decide to join the autonomy demand?
The US Constitution does not contain language that allows any state to hold a referendum among locals asking if they want to stay or leave the federation of the United States, therefore the only path to autonomy will be through violence and combat. In 2011, anarchists attempted this during the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, which resulted in extensive violence. In the wealthy state of California, which is also a Democrat stronghold, some party activists and radical left dissidents such as ANTIFA mobilised protesters to demand autonomy for California after Trump took the presidency in 2016. They called it Calexit, meaning exit of California inspired by the term Brexit used for Britain’s exit from the EU.
Calexit was very popular on Twitter and the movement’s leaders called for a state-wide referendum in 2019 for California to become autonomous if the results were in favour. Trump was not too upset back then because it was a call by activists, not California officials, and the constitution does not give these rights to States in the Union. The recent call could have passed without much notice but the similarity today between anarchists who want to overthrow all powers by any means and officials in government positions is disturbing. These similarities can soon greatly challenge the US, since this new unprecedented trend may not stop at protesting Trump’s presidency — who has a unique style of governance — but will extend to become a staple means of protest in the US. The lack of trust in political institutions, including the two major parties, Republicans and Democrats, has opened the floodgates for radical groups at both ends of the spectrum to lead the streets towards violence and calls for autonomy.
Even more dangerous is that Democrats do not understand the catastrophic outcome of flirting with radical leftist groups. Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi exaggerated her pandering to those leading the violence on the street by supporting the destructive attacks on statues from a bygone era, demanding that 11 statues of confederate soldiers be removed from Capitol Hill. In a letter to the Joint Committee on the Library, Pelosi said: “Monuments to men who advocated cruelty and barbarism to achieve such a plainly racist end are a grotesque affront to the ideals of democracy and freedom.” She added that statues of men who participated in a failed secession war during the Civil War must be removed. “I believe that there is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol or places of honour across the country,” she wrote.
Pelosi was not just pandering to anarchists and their supporters for electoral reasons, but indirectly oppressing many Americans, especially White Americans, who take pride in their country’s history without necessarily adopting the same racist ideals of that bygone era. This all adds fuel to the ongoing fire of division in the US which will gradually evolve from a political fissure to an ethnic chasm.
Democrats believe in removing Trump in the upcoming elections by any means, even if it results in political and social catastrophe in the country. Some commentators in the US media point out how Democrats manipulate slogans according to occasion. For example, in Newsweek on 12 June, Boris Epshteyn wrote an opinion piece titled “Democrats’ hypocrisy on riots reveals political nature of coronavirus lockdowns.” He noted how Democrats defend the shutdown of the economy to contain the Covid-19 pandemic and condemn protests calling for lifting the lockdown and restarting business, claiming these protests are not freedom of expression but a violation of the right of Americans to protect against the pandemic. Meanwhile, they defend protests led by left-wing groups denouncing anti-racism, as if these protests do not threaten the safety of Americans in a pandemic. Preventing these protests is seen as an assault on the First Amendment.
Meanwhile, Trump is using risky methods in facing his adversaries, including attempting to involve the military in political quarrels. It seemed that when he threatened the governor and mayor that he had means to end calls for autonomy, he was referring to using the army to quash these calls if they continue or evolve into a threat of domestic unrest. Trump already knows that Defence Secretary Mark Esper opposes using the military against protesters after the president suggested they intervene to stop rioting after Floyd’s death. Also, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed his regret for appearing in uniform in a photo op with Trump during a stroll around the White House to show he is in control in Washington DC after clashes two weeks ago.
Trump’s actions were an exaggerated response to anarchist calls for autonomy in Washington and Seattle, even though they pose a serious threat in the near future. Also, the hasty call on the army to become involved in political conflicts can be manipulated by Democrats to portray the matter as a clear violation of the US Constitution, and a serious threat to the checks and balances of power in the United States. This could seriously hurt Trump at a time when the race for re-election is approaching quickly.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly