Prospects for State Violence in Trump’s America

President-elect Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo via Gage Skidmore.

Guest post by Daniel W. Hill, Jr.

Donald Trump’s candidacy and unexpected victory in the presidential election has prompted a public discussion about the possibility of political violence in the United States. This discussion isn’t surprising since Trump has, on many occasions throughout and after his campaign, implied or stated outright that he favors using various forms of violence to achieve political and social goals. He has agreed with calls to imprison his political opponent, stated that he would prosecute her if elected, hinted that citizens who oppose her could use violence to settle disputes over policy, suggested that it may be legitimate to forcibly overturn the results of party nomination processes and election results, publicly encouraged and considered offering legal support to people who assault protesters, praised police practices found to violate the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure, suggested that increased surveillance of Muslim communities (which is likely to result in more frequent uses of force by law enforcement in those communities) is necessary, pledged to forcibly remove millions of immigrants which would inevitably result in many violations of individual rights, called for the return (and intensification) of interrogation tactics that violate domestic and international prohibitions on torture, and indicated that he would violate international and domestic law by killing the family members of people suspected of using terror tactics. Markets indicate that imprisonment and detention are expected to increase under a Trump presidency, which would place more people at risk for abuse by state agents.

All of these statements should be cause for concern. My impression is that people were especially shocked by Trump’s apparent willingness to prosecute and imprison Hillary Clinton and his suggestions that the use of force might be necessary to counter election fraud when no credible evidence of fraud existed. In a pair of New York Times articles, Max Fisher and Brenda Taub asked scholars that study autocratic politics to comment on these statements. In a response on his blog, Christian Davenport points out that the use of violence is not limited to autocracies, that there is academic research on democracies that is relevant to Trump’s statements, and also that the history of the US provides many examples of state violence in a democratic setting. My reading of the situation is that the strong reaction to those two particular statements is related to the inherent connection between the concept of democracy and the kind of violence Trump advocated in those statements.

In a recent article in the Journal of Politics, I discuss the fact that, as democracy is commonly defined, using violence to restrict or punish peaceful political opposition or to seize and maintain power makes a government less democratic. So although we know that democracy and low levels of violence (with some caveats) go hand in hand, this empirical fact exists partly because democratic governments that use violence to suppress political competition can no longer be considered democratic. The prospect of this kind of violence in the US evokes a strong emotional response from many people because the erosion of democracy would negatively affect most of the people who live in this country.

While governments cannot imprison members of the opposition or otherwise use violence to suppress peaceful political contestation and still be considered democratic, many of the other forms of violence Trump has publicly supported are not inherently related to democracy as we commonly define it. Because research on the relationship between democracy and state violence typically lumps together many different kinds of violence, more research is necessary to determine whether and how democracy reduces violence used for purposes other than suppressing political competition – violence that does not indicate the complete unraveling of political institutions but that nevertheless violates individual rights protected by domestic and international law.

The few systematic studies we have suggest that democracy doesn’t do much to reduce torture during periods of violent dissent, or to reduce torture by the police or against socially marginalized groups. And to reiterate a point Davenport makes in his response to Fisher and Taub, there was (in the distant and recent past) plenty of state violence in the US before Donald Trump became a presidential candidate. Relatively recent examples that predate Trump include police violence at the local level that amounts to kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killing, extralegal killing by the federal government that targets dissidents linked to violent groups and their family members, and the torture and extralegal killing of dissidents suspected of using or abetting violence.

Suggesting that the state should use tactics like extrajudicial killing and torture as a matter of policy is at least as appalling as suggesting that one’s political opponents should be imprisoned or that using force to seize political power is legitimate. But violence that targets members of organized political parties or individual voters potentially affects most of the people who live in the US and so is likely to be strongly opposed by a large segment of the public. The other forms of violence discussed above target groups to which most of the general public does not belong — criminal suspects, immigrants, dissidents, and members of ethnic and religious minorities. We know, based on theoretical work in political science, that a willingness among the public to speak out against and resist abuses of power that do not directly affect them is a necessary condition for liberal democracy and the rule of law to function effectively. We would do well to keep that in mind over the next four years.

Daniel W. Hill, Jr. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia.

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