US President Donald Trump looks on during the first presidential debate at Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020.
Avlon: Proud Boys see Trump's comments as an endorsement
03:07 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

One day, when I was reporting from Cuba in the late 1990s, I received a message from a dissident group about a protest for democracy and human rights they were planning to hold at a public park. Despite the obvious risks, they had decided to go forward with the protest, given that Havana was about to hold a major international gathering and the Castro regime had promised to ease up on repression.

Frida Ghitis

The next morning, tensions at the park were high despite the salsa music blaring from loudspeakers that authorities deliberately installed to drown out the protesters. Suddenly, glancing toward the end of the street, I spotted several dump trucks disgorging dozens of men in civilian clothes. The pro-Castro brigades had come to do their job.

Every time a dissident tried to speak, Castro’s civilian enforcers brutally pummeled him into silence and pushed him into the back of a car that had pulled up next to the melee, then quickly sped away.

I have witnessed moments like these in numerous undemocratic countries throughout my career. These memories have come to mind in recent months. The flashbacks were nearly incandescent after I heard President Donald Trump telling the extremist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate this week. Two days later under public pressure, Trump condemned the group, saying, “I condemn all White supremacists. I don’t know much about the Proud Boys, almost nothing, but I condemn that.”

My memories had resurfaced repeatedly upon seeing images of federal forces beating protesters and shoving them into unmarked cars in Portland, Oregon; watching armed Trump supporters, encouraged by the President’s calls to “liberate” states from coronavirus restrictions, protesting public health interventions; seeing Trump cheer on his supporters by calling them “great patriots” on their way to taunt anti-racism protesters; and hearing Trump defend the 17-year-old charged with killing two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in an episode even more disturbing after recently leaked documents show the Department of Homeland Security instructing officials to speak sympathetically of the alleged killer.

I’m not the only one seeing the parallels between Trump’s actions and those of autocratic rulers intent on maintaining their grasp on power. After Trump addressed the Proud Boys, the Iranian-born Middle East analyst Meir Javedanfar likened the group to Iran’s Basij Resistance Force, a volunteer paramilitary group that attacks protesters when they dare to criticize a regime that brooks no dissent.

The Basij – civilian volunteers run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, controlled by Iran’s supreme leader – was instrumental in suppressing the mass 2009 demonstrations that followed a disputed election and continues to brutally enforce the regime’s rule over the people.

Ironically, Trump is painting himself as the defender of America against an impending socialist takeover. The claim that Democratic candidate Joe Biden will bring socialism to America or that the Democratic nominee is a Marxist or a Marxist sympathizer, as some Trumpists insist on telling me, is absurd. But it is Trump who is stealing pages from both the extreme left and the extreme right, although ideology is not the point. The point is to hold on to power, which is the driving obsession of all autocrats.

Authoritarian leaders abuse the tools of power within reach in their official position. And when government rules or public opinion place constraints on just how far they can go to stifle their foes, they often go outside the system to bolster their ability to silence their critics, building muscle beyond the formal confines of the state. This is true on the left and on the right.

Iran’s Basij are not very different from Venezuela’s colectivos, volunteer paramilitary forces loyal to socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who has dismantled any semblance of democracy in his country. The colectivos have terrorized anti-government protesters, and are a key element of Maduro’s strategy to stay in power. Opposition leaders described the colectivos to CNN as part motorcycle club, part death squad.

A few weeks after an opposition leader declared himself Venezuela’s interim president, Maduro declared, “I call on the colectivos: the hour of resistance has arrived.” I remembered those words when I heard Trump tell the Proud Boys to “stand by.”

The United States is certainly not Cuba, Venezuela or Iran. There is a massive structure of democracy still standing between America and tyranny. But Trump’s increasingly alarming statements, as a clean victory in the November 3 election threatens to slip out of his reach, make the echoes of authoritarianism impossible to ignore.

Among those who hear them with complete clarity are America’s far-right extremists.

After Tuesday’s debate, the Proud Boys were jubilant, with some members incorporating the President’s instructions into the group’s logo on social media.

Trump’s words also spoke to Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer – named after a German Nazi propaganda newspaper. After hearing Trump’s words, Anglin wrote, “I still have shivers. He is telling the people to stand by. As in: Get ready for war.”

Anglin, who is well known to hate group watchers, once explained how he makes decisions. “I ask myself this, in all things: WWHD? (What would Hitler do?).”

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Most Trump supporters – I fervently hope – would be horrified at the beliefs of some of these far-right groups. But Anglin and other extremists are hearing Trump’s call. And they are getting ready.

On Tuesday, Trump claimed there is rampant voter fraud – something even his own hand-picked FBI chief says is not true – and exhorted his backers to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.” His comments have raised fears of voter intimidation, or worse, violence. Already, Trump supporters have been disrupting activities at early voting sites.

With every passing day, Trump’s tactics look more ominous. We cannot wait until November 3 to come up with a strategy to defend against Trump’s latest ploy.

Americans must demand their national, state and local leaders explain exactly how they intend to go about preventing armed groups from intimidating, blocking and abusing them as they seek to exercise their right to choose their next president. This, after all, is supposed to be a free country.