April 29, 2024

Trump Is the Ultimate Gang Leader

Trump and those backing him hope to disable enough of the political infrastructure to create the space for non-state actors to do his work for him.

John Feffer
An image of President Donald Trump looms over crowds of supporters before his speech from the Ellipse at the White House on Wednesday, January 6, 2021.

An image of President Donald Trump looms over crowds of supporters before his speech from the Ellipse at the White House on Wednesday, January 6, 2021.

(Photo By Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

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Haiti has descended into chaos. It’s had no president or parliament—and no elections either –for eight long years. Its unelected prime minister, Ariel Henry, resigned recently when gang violence at the airport in Port-au-Prince made it impossible for him to return to the country after a trip to Guyana.

Haiti is the poorest country in the region, its riches leached out by colonial overlords, American occupying forces, corporate predators, and home-grown autocrats. As if that weren’t enough, it’s also suffered an almost Biblical succession of plagues in recent years. A coup deposed its first democratically elected leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, not once but twice—in 1991 and again in 2004. An earthquake in 2010 killed hundreds of thousands, leaving 1.5 million Haitians homeless, out of a population of less than 10 million. In the wake of that earthquake, nearly a million people contracted cholera, the worst outbreak in history, courtesy of a contingent of UN peacekeepers. To round out the catastrophes, in 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall, pushing Haiti back even further.

And now the country has been overrun by gangs that emerged as practically the only groups capable of providing services, however meager, to Haiti’s long-suffering population. People have become the country’s largest export. Anyone who has money, connections, or sufficient courage has fled, even if those who somehow made it to the United States were all too often deported back into the maelstrom. Haiti doesn’t have the three things that might prevent the sort of vacuum into which gangs so eagerly rush: robust democratic governance, a strong civil society, and a sufficiently uncorrupt constabulary. As a result, it’s returned to what political theorist Thomas Hobbes once called a “war of all against all” in which violence and the urge for power prevail, as fist takes precedence over gavel—the perfect environment for gangs to flourish.

Political scientists often label places like Haiti “failed states.” With the breakdown of order, everything from political institutions to border controls disintegrates. In a comparable fashion, clans contested for power in Somalia in the 1990s and paramilitaries battled each other in the Democratic Republic of Congo during its repeated wars, while rebels and jihadis targeted the Syrian government beginning in 2011. In the end, such diverse groups seem to boil down to one thing: guys with guns.

In Haiti, the gangocracy is organized along the classic lines of criminal enterprises like the gangs that ruled New York City in the mid-nineteenth century (immortalized in the film The Gangs of New York) or the Chinese tongs that warred over San Franciscan turf in the years after the Civil War (featured in the current Netflix series Warrior). The two major Haitian gangs in the capital city Port-au-Prince, GPep and the G9 Family, have similarly hierarchical structures, roots in particular neighborhoods, and flamboyant leaders like the former police officer and current G9 head Jimmy “Barbecue” Chérizier.

But gangs aren’t simply criminal syndicates. The Haitian gangs have close connections to political parties and align themselves with business interests (or run businesses of their own). Sometimes such gangs even begin as anti-gangs, neighborhood self-defense groups meant to help locals survive in an era of lawlessness.

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Their mischaracterization resembles the overly narrow understanding of “terrorists.” Hamas, for instance, is on the US terrorism list, but it’s not just a bunch of guys with guns and a predilection for violence. It’s also been a political party, a government, and a service organization that provided food, health care, and other necessities to underserved communities in Gaza.

Don’t make the mistake of associating gangs like Haiti’s with a “primitive” stage of political development or only with countries on the geopolitical margins. What’s happening there today could prefigure the future of the United States, too. In place of the biblical succession of plagues that swept through Haiti, the United States might only need the tinder of climate change and the flint of Donald Trump to go up in similar flames.

Gangs R US

Today, Americans associate “gangs” with the Crips and Bloods, who developed a murderous rivalry in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s or, more recently, Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, a gang of young Salvadoran transplants to Los Angeles initially focused on protecting its members from other gangs.

But shouldn’t we be more catholic in our definitions? After all, what are right-wing paramilitary forces, from the Three Percenters to the Proud Boys, if not gangs? They have their rituals, worldviews, indifference to the rule of law, even their own “Barbecues.” The gangs associated with far-right ideology and white supremacy today could claim a lineage stretching back to the European settlers of this continent who routinely engaged in the extrajudicial murder of indigenous peoples while expanding westward, or the vigilante mobs that administered “rough justice” to “disobedient” slaves before the Civil War, or even the Ku Klux Klan. As for real-world impact, the Crips or MS-13 never had the audacity to force their way into the US Capitol and trash the place, as Donald Trump’s informal gang did on January 6, 2021.

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But why stop there? The Pinkerton detective agency once functioned like a gang in its attacks on the labor movement. The Central Intelligence Agency developed distinctly gang-like behavior overseas with its assassinations, coups, and outright criminal activities. And what about all the deaths associated with corporate gangs like Philip Morris and ExxonMobil? These institutions of “normal” society have had a much higher kill count and a more debilitating effect on the rule of law than the institutions of organized crime.

When it comes to gang-like activities, much depends on geopolitics. The emergence of the “Washington consensus” and the birth of neoliberalism in the 1970s was an inflection point when it came to encouraging gang-like behavior. Previously, at least in advanced industrial countries, the state had been gradually assuming ever greater economic responsibility through the New Deal and its successors in the United States and the development of Europe’s market socialism. Neoliberalism, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in England and President Ronald Reagan in the United States, sought to roll back the power of the state through the defunding, deregulation, and privatization of government services.

That sustained attack on state functions ensured an increase in poverty and painful budget crises for institutions like school systems and hospitals, while corporate misconduct proliferated. In poorer countries, where states were already more fragile, the impact was far more devastating.

In Haiti, after the state borrowed money in the 1970s and 1980s to feed corruption and sustain autocracy, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) pushed subsequent democratic governments to privilege the free market, while opening ever more quickly to the global economy. Sensing opportunity, non-governmental organizations streamed into Haiti to provide food, housing, and health care, everything a cash-strapped government couldn’t do. The succession of catastrophes—coups, an earthquake, cholera, hurricanes—only strengthened the humanitarian sector but at the expense of effective government. In this century, the situation had become so dire that all too many parents were giving their children up to orphanages run by foreign charities. In other words, the road to Haiti’s hell was, in part, paved by good intentions.

Or take the case of Jamaica where, from the late 1970s on, similar IMF programs translated into disaster, especially in the capital, Kingston. Here, too, the state lost power as gang leaders, known as “dons,” expanded their territories. As Michelle Munroe and Damion Blake put it in Third World Quarterly: “Neoliberal policies not only paralyzed the state’s capacity to control and contain violence in the streets of Kingston, these changes also made dons and the gangs they command more lethal and powerful.”

Dons and the gangs they command: That language could soon seem all too eerily appropriate for the United States.

American Bloodbath

America’s ultimate Don is all too clear about what he expects come November, should he lose. “If I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath,” he told one of his rallies. According to that scenario, the crew that owes allegiance to Donald Trump—the right-wing militias, diehard conspiracy theorists, open-carry gun enthusiasts—will rise up in gang-like fashion in the face of another “stolen election.”

That, however, is an example of Trump’s magical thinking. The January 6 “insurrection” revealed the limits of his influence. What happened in Washington that day never came close to a coup d’état, thanks to the actions of the police and the National Guard, nor was it repeated, even in the reddest of states.

The real bloodbath would take place if Trump won the election. After all, he’s already promised violence as an organizing principle for his second term. As David Remnick has written in The New Yorker, Trump

makes no effort to conceal his bigotries, his lawlessness, his will to authoritarian power; to the contrary, he advertises it, and, most disturbing of all, this deepens his appeal. What’s more, there is no question that Trump has so normalized calls to violence as an instrument of politics that it has inflamed countless people to perverse action.

Trump has also promised a thorough purge of his enemies in the government and beyond, as well as the weaponization of the Justice Department to wage war on all MAGA opponents. As in his first term, he would destroy as many federal agencies as possible. Meanwhile, he would promote drilling über alles and roll back every Biden administration effort to create an industrial policy to guide the United States away from fossil fuels.

What Trump proposes is fundamentally different from the now shopworn Republican strategy of reducing the federal government to the size of something that can be “drowned in the bathtub” (as anti-tax activist Grover Norquist once so memorably put it) in favor of “states’ rights.” Trump has nothing but contempt for the politics that advance such a perspective. Like the gang leader he is, he’d rather concentrate federal power in his own hands as an instrument of personal vengeance emphasizing loyalty above all. Instead of the empowerment of state legislatures, Trump prefers chaos, for in fraught times people look to autocratic leaders.

When it comes to starting fires in the American system, Trump is distinctly the Barbecue type. He admires leaders who slaughter people indiscriminately (Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines), change the Constitution multiple times to bypass legislative and judicial opposition (Viktor Orbán of Hungary), or kill their political opponents wherever they might live (Vladimir Putin of Russia). He likes the bad boys who have transformed their parties into gangs and their countries into fiefdoms. In short, he’s the ultimate gang leader.

Of course, he won’t do it alone. There are plenty of true believers and opportunists to staff his administration and implement his whims, but that’s not enough. As his first term revealed, the guardrails of democracy—opposition politicians, bureaucrats, even certain Republicans who continue to have qualms – can still prevent the country from tumbling over a cliff.

This time around, Trump and those backing him hope to disable enough of the political infrastructure to create the space for non-state actors to do his work for him. In The Donald’s first term, the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” as Trumpophile Steve Bannon so infamously put it, was a strategy meant to empower actors like corporations and religious institutions to grab power for themselves. Next time around, he’s likely to surround himself with advisors pulled from the think-tank crowd that produced the nightmarish Project 2025 blueprint in order to “free” all MAGA-oriented non-state and (often) anti-state actors to do their damnedest.

But even ruthless think tanks, corporations, and apocalyptic preachers aren’t likely to go far enough for Donald Trump, since they also remain the bedrock of America’s more traditional right wing, the coalition that put Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush into the White House. Trump needs genuine mayhem-makers. By removing restrictions on firearms, he aims to deputize every American citizen in his camp to MAGAfy the United States.

Trump’s repeated exhortations to violence—“lock her up,” “punch him in the face,” “be there, will be wild”—may well take a more specific form in a second term. Like McCarthyites at the height of the Cold War, Trumpists have imagined “Marxists” under every bed, even in the Pentagon. It’s not far-fetched to think that the reelected president might issue a coded call to his supporters to round them all up and dispatch them in some grim fashion.

Trump often accuses his opponents of exactly the sins—attempting to steal elections, having distinctly senior moments—of which he is supremely guilty. In the MAGA echo chamber, complaints about witch-hunts targeting Trump should be considered just a preface, should he win this November, to a genuine witch-hunt that could make the Red Scare of the 1950s look like a garden party.

After Autocracy

Haiti has no government, much less a strong-armed autocrat like Donald Trump. So, it might seem ludicrous to compare the crisis there with the prospective “bloodbath” Trump promises here. But remember, Haiti suffered under two ruthless dictators from 1957 to 1986: Papa Doc Duvalier and his son, Baby Doc. Between them, they ensured that Haiti would never easily establish democratic institutions.

Donald Trump is nearly 78 years old. He doesn’t have a long political future. Yes, were he to win in November, he would surely do what he could to destroy democracy. Still, the true nightmare scenario is likely to come later, as climate change sends yet more migrants surging toward US borders, generates more fires that sweep across the land, and heats politics to the boiling point. That’s when future versions of the gangs Trump has encouraged to “stand back and stand by,” the insurrectionists he’s promised to amnesty, and the loyalists who have shared images of Joe Biden tied up in the back of a pickup truck could assault the citadels of power in an attempt to destroy once and for all the rule of law that Trump has spent his life undermining.

Cue the ominous music: From sea to shining sea, the war of all against all may be just around the corner.

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John Feffer

John Feffer is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands (a Dispatch Books original); its final volume, Songlands, was published in 2021. He is  the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is a TomDispatch regular.

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