Turn on Russian television any day of the week and you are certain to stumble upon a show in which a group of people who appear to be regular citizens (that is, they have no uniforms or government-issued documents) stage a raid of one sort or another. They barge into a store or a restaurant, for example, and demand to see employees’ identity documents, the storage area, or the cooking facilities. Without fail, they find violations of laws or regulations: the staff, natives of Central Asia, don’t have work permits! The store stocks vodka bottles with no alcohol-tax stamps affixed to them! The cook doesn’t cover her hair! At the end of the show, the raiders often pass their tearful, terrified victims to uniformed law enforcement officers, who sometimes appear less than enthusiastic about the task being handed to them.
These raiders have no official titles or legal powers. What directs their actions are the militant rhetoric and the promise of broad impunity that emanate from the Kremlin—and, of course, the glory and recognition of being on television. YouTube and RuTube contain a trove of other vigilante videos, including of self-appointed vice squads who beat up gay men or suspected drug dealers on camera.
Sometimes these vigilantes get in trouble with the law: occasionally a murderer of gay men is caught and jailed, and once in a while a vigilante-gang leader is reined in, though his partners in crime continue to roam free. But in general, the arrangement is low-risk for the perpetrators and convenient for the Kremlin. Vigilantes work fast. Russian law enforcement is not exactly subject to a lot of institutional constraints, but it can be sluggish, and it carries out violence in a dragged-out, bureaucratic way. The vigilantes, on the other hand, make a spectacle of their work, creating the sort of generalized dread on which autocracies thrive. At the same time, vigilantes, who work in small clumps, do not pose the sort of threat to the autocrat that powerful institutions of state sometimes can.
Putin did not invent vigilantes, of course: autocrats frequently rely on delegating violence to extralegal actors or, as in the case of Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, on the willingness of law enforcement officers to carry out extralegal violence in exchange for the promise of impunity. Duterte has made this promise explicit; more often, incitement to violence contains a tacit guarantee of protection.
Over the last two weeks, we have seen Donald Trump send out both kinds of signals to the vigilantes of his own choosing. His refusal to condemn the violent marchers in Charlottesville, in pointed and repeated break with political convention, was rightly interpreted by the white supremacists as a signal of encouragement. And his pardoning of former sheriff Joe Arpaio—before he was even sentenced—protected a law enforcement officer from facing any consequences for a long history of brutal violations of constitutional rights. Trump had encouraged extralegal violence in the past—like when he called on police not to be “too nice” to suspects. But the two weeks bracketed by the violence in Charlottesville and the pardon of Arpaio herald a definite turn away from the institutions of a government he despises.
Unlike an established autocrat like Putin, who delegates violence because he prefers his institutions ineffectual, Trump has been encountering some resistance from within his government. Grownups seem to be taking charge at the White House. Congressional Republicans have become more willing to criticize Trump, and he cannot contain his fury with them. His secretaries of state and defense have distanced themselves from him. In response, Trump now turns toward the gun-toting hoodlums who share his contempt for institutions.
None of this is entirely new, of course. Trump’s presidential campaign was built on disdain for Washington, for the very way American government is constituted. The vitriol he has directed against Mitch McConnell and, before him, the Freedom Caucus and, of course, Congressional Democrats, comes prepackaged. But now Trump appears to be getting hemmed in by the generals at the White House. He has been compelled to give up his most odious advisers, Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka. His new press secretary, unlike the old one, is not acting like a delusional attack dog—she is, rather, smoothing corners, projecting normality by framing the president’s tantrums as “policy differences,” as she did when asked about Trump’s fight with McConnell. In other words, the administration is starting to run like a large family-owned business after the patriarch has developed dementia: by creating a parallel, functioning hierarchy and keeping the workings of the place out of sight of the nutjob boss.
It would appear that this is what the institutions of American government do to resist the usurping force of a would-be tyrant: they default to bureaucratic mode. This is not a pretty sight—it’s certainly not what democracy looks like. Increasingly, the public cannot see who is making decisions, except that it’s not the president the public (technically) elected. That positions Trump perfectly to appeal for action on the part of his base.
Trump’s base shares his contempt for the Washington institutions that are once again exposing their duplicitous nature. Some of this base also happens to be armed. This includes Americans civilians who like guns (and Trump). It also includes the self-arming militia types. It includes Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who have for months now been encouraged to exert force indiscriminately. And it includes rogue law enforcement officers who see themselves in Arpaio. The elderly Arizona sheriff may be unemployed, but his pardon extends the promise of immunity to any cop who is fed up with being “nice” enough to stay within Constitutional constraints.
“Be wary of paramilitaries,” the Yale historian Timothy Snyder warned in his recent book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching with torches and pictures of a leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the end has come.
Back in February, when his book came out, this seemed perhaps a little far-fetched. Now that the men with torches have marched and the president has encouraged the police who would intermingle with them, Snyder’s words look prescient. And Trump’s apparent decision to lift Obama-era restrictions on the flow of surplus military equipment to local law enforcement appears like a predictable and easily decipherable signal to the police to seize all the extralegal power they can.