By Branding Protestors “Terrorists,” Trump has Crossed the Rubicon

President Donald Trump stands with First Lady Melania Trump, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh in 2017. All three leaders have used terrorism charges to target protestors and political opponents. (Flickr)

As has become all too common, the last two weeks have felt like two years, and crucial bits of news that seemed earth-shatteringly important at the time have fallen away into the distant reaches of the world’s collective memory as the days have dragged on. One such moment came during Donald Trump’s June 1 speech from the Rose Garden, when he stated in no uncertain terms that he would seek to designate violent demonstrators and petty vandals alike as domestic terrorists.

Even though his pronouncement carries no legal weight (yet), and although news narratives have largely moved on from this crucial moment, Trump’s rhetoric that day dramatically changed the equation of the George Floyd protests — the president chose to openly embrace a well-worn tactic of authoritarians around the world who have used the terrorism label to quell popular movements and challenges to their rule in their own countries for years.

“These are not acts of peaceful protests. These are acts of domestic terror,” Trump stated on June 1. He had ostensibly been referring to acts that ranged from a police killing to the defacement of monuments in Washington, DC. Yet his alleged commitment to protecting peaceful demonstrators literally went up in smoke moments later, when his security forces infamously unleash clouds of tear gas against peaceful protestors in Lafayette Square to make way for a photo opportunity.

The American president had taken to Twitter a few days before, vowing to name Antifa, a loose coalition of left-wing groups, a terrorist group due to their alleged role in organizing the riots and looting that had taken place amid the protests — even though there seems to be no evidence at all this was the case. But facts did not stop Attorney General Bill Barr from issuing a Department of Justice statement doubling down on the president’s designation the same day, nor did it deter Senator Ted Cruz from loyally parroting Trump’s words condemning all rioters as terrorists either.

Trump doesn’t have the authority to designate Antifa or any other group of protestors as terrorists — but by making this rhetorical jump, Trump has already done everything he needs to in order to justify the use of overwhelming force against demonstrators in the eyes of his supporters. In the logic of the War on Terror, nothing is off the table, and many strongmen before Trump have exploited this reality against political challengers to deadly effect, especially in the Middle East.

In an echo of his father’s brutal tactics of suppression, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began referring to the entire opposition movement against him as terrorists in 2011, well before the Syrian opposition was infiltrated by jihadist groups, and long before the arrival of the Islamic State on the Syrian scene. The result was the most horrific conflict the world has seen since the Second World War.

In 2014, Egyptians officials started insisting that the “terrorism” label be applied not only to the Islamic State insurgency they were fighting against in the northern Sinai peninsula, but also to any acts of political opposition against the state. After President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power that year, Egyptian authorities conducted mass arrests of anti-government activists, journalists, and others, trying many of them on terrorism charges.

Similar terrorism-related crackdowns on anti-government protestors have taken place in Saudi Arabia, and more recently in Iran and Iraq after demonstrations swept both countries last year. Last week, the Philippines moved closer to adopting a sweeping new terrorism law that would allow the government, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, to arrest political opponents and activists.

The pronouncements of terrorism coming from the Trump camp are certainly not yet on par with these examples — the president’s statements have differentiated between violent rioters and peaceful protestors for the time being. Nevertheless, Trump has unmistakably opened the door for similarly extreme measures to take place.

Turkey’s recent political history provides a useful case study in how such a scenario could play out. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had made statements that were remarkably similar to the US president’s in 2013, when protestors had occupied Gezi Park in Istanbul to protest a range of grievances. After several weeks of demonstrations in the park, Erdogan ordered “sincere” protestors to leave the area so that authorities could “deal with the fringe terrorist groups” there. Soon afterward, riot police entered the park and cleared it of all demonstrators — most of whom were camped there peacefully.

Years later, in 2019, several activists involved in the Gezi movement were put on trial for terrorism related charges, despite their reportedly peaceful dissent. Thousands of Erdogan opponents had previously been jailed for similar reasons since the 2016 coup attempt against his rule, and in 2018, he famously referred to several anti-war demonstrators in Istanbul as “terrorists” as well.

In similar ways, Trump’s rhetorical bravado may seem quaint, especially given his often comically over-the-top Twitter rants about anyone who crosses him. Yet his terrorism accusations seem to be already bearing fruit — a Republican Congressional candidate in Georgia released a video on June 2 threatening “ANTIFA terrorists” with an assault rifle.

The president’s half-hearted distinction between peaceful and non-peaceful protesters would be more convincing were it not for the fact that police departments across the country have already failed to uphold it, and day after day, videos have emerged of them assaulting peaceful protestors and creating violence where there had been none previously. What solid evidence do we have that blanket charges of terrorism would not be applied across the board in the same way?

Fundamentally, for Trump, Barr, Cruz, and other politicians jumping on board the president’s wagon, branding protestors “terrorists” is purely political. Trump believes that upping the ante during this pivotal moment will bring rewards at the ballot box — after all, creating divisive “us vs. them” dynamics is his bread and butter. Ted Cruz, another specialist in division, has long tried to designate Antifa a terrorist group, and the senator released a charged Twitter video about the group’s “domestic terrorism” on June 4.

Virulent attacks on opponents are nothing new in America. But in this highly volatile and unprecedented moment in American history, reckless accusations of terrorism have led Trump and his lapdogs into unknown territory. In light of everything that has transpired so far during this unrest, and given Trump’s appetite for displays of strength, it would be foolish to ignore what looks at best like a precedent for eroding the First Amendment, and at worst like the prologue to a wider crackdown. It may not happen tomorrow, or even during the course of this protest wave, but sooner or later the hammer will drop.

Freelance writer/reporter constantly in transit. Middle East & Eastern Europe | National Security | Foreign Affairs

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store