History teaches that mass protests against oppression can lead either to liberation or brutal repression.

This past week, Donald Trump bet his political future on repression. Much of the rest of America, on the other hand, wants to liberate black people from police brutality and centuries of systemic racism. As of this writing, it looks like Trump is losing and America winning, but the contest is hardly over.

Trump knows he can’t be re-elected on his disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic or on what’s likely to be a tepid economic recovery. But he must believe a racist campaign could work. After all, stoking racism got him into the White House in the first place.

The protests against George Floyd’s brutal killing by Minneapolis police seemed like a golden opportunity. 

“The nation needs law and order,” Trump responded immediately, repeating the phrase that propelled Richard Nixon to the presidency after a summer of black unrest across the country.

His trump card was threatening to send federal troops into American cities. Trump called on states to bring in the military to combat “lowlifes and losers”, promising “total domination” of protesters and telling governors “if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.” Previous presidents haven’t even used this language to describe invading other countries.

But Trump overplayed his hand.

He looked like a deranged dictator, an impression made all the more vivid as officers in riot gear used flash grenades and chemical spray (a weapon banned in war) on peaceful protesters to clear a path for Trump to walk from the White House through Lafayette Square to a photo op in front of St John’s church.

It was too much even for Trump’s own top military brass. The defense secretary, Mark Esper, insisted military personnel “be used as a matter of last resort and only in the most urgent and dire of situations”. Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, reminded the armed services of the rights of their fellow citizens to free assembly, adding: “We all committed our lives to the idea that is America – we will stay true to that oath and the American people.”

But it was Trump’s own former secretary of defense, James Mattis, whose rebuke cut deepest.

“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people,” Mattis said. “Instead he tries to divide us … We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our constitution.”

It was an “emperor-has-no-clothes” moment that prompted the Republican senator Lisa Murkowski to admit she was considering not voting for Trump and suggest other Senate Republicans felt the same way. 

“Perhaps we’re getting to the point where we can be more honest with the concerns that we might hold internally and have the courage of our own convictions to speak up,” she said.

Trump expected white voters to recoil from the rioting and looting. Over the past week, Fox News obliged by mentioning rioting or rioters six times as much as CNN. But 64% of Americans sympathize with the protesters and appear receptive to stopping police brutality and 55% disapprove of Trump’s response.

Black Americans are now more committed than ever to defeating him in November. More than 80% believe he’s a racist. If black voters return to the polls at 2012 levels, Joe Biden would win the electoral college 294-244, according to the Center for American Progress.

College-educated white people and younger voters have also been galvanized against Trump. The most racially diverse generations in American history, millennials and Gen Z voters could make up as much as 37% of the electorate this year.

But although Trump’s response to the protests seems to have backfired, it also raises a troubling question. If Trump loses and refuses to give up the presidency, will the military support him?

The possibility is hardly far-fetched. As Trump’s former bagman Michael Cohen warned in congressional testimony in March 2019, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” After winning in 2016, Trump claimed without evidence that 3-5m votes were illegally counted for Hillary Clinton.

A former chairman of joint chiefs of staff, Adm Mike Mullen, wrote recently that although he remains “confident in the professionalism of our men and women in uniform”, he is “deeply worried” they “will be co-opted for political purposes”.

If that happens, the mass protests against decades of harsh policing and unjust killings of Black Americans will be followed by another uprising, this time against Trump’s murder of American democracy.

Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a columnist for Guardian US

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