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Scott Lemieux Trump's responses to the George Floyd protests shows the small government mantra was a lie

Calling out the military on peaceful protesters isn't smaller government. But conservatives always just used that as a catch phrase to justify lower taxes.
U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after delivering remarks on immigration reform, accompanied by Senator Tom Cotton in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington
President Donald Trump leaves after delivering remarks on immigration reform, accompanied by Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Aug. 2, 2017.Carlos Barria / Reuters file

Republicans like to claim the mantle of being the party of “limited government” and individual liberty. As the recent #BlackLivesMatter protests have thrown into sharp relief, however, nothing could be further from the truth. The Republican Party might want government to be “smaller” when it comes to providing essential services, but it wants the violent authority of the state to be a constant intrusion into the day-to-day lives of many Americans, particular the lives of people of color, women and/or poor people.

The op-ed that Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., widely seen as a rising star in the party, wrote last week for The New York Times is a much better reflection of what American conservatism is really about than their mantra of “small government.” A nearly fascistic call for the military to be called in to violently suppress the mostly peaceful protests spurred by the ongoing, unjustified and unjustifiable killings by police of multiple Black men and women, it has deservedly cost the opinion editor of the Times his job. (Cotton is reportedly raising big money off both the piece and the fracas.)

There is no bigger government than one that can kill its citizens at will for protesting the government killing them at will. It’s one reason the right to protest is our First Amendment.

But President Donald Trump certainly reflects the Republican spirit of that type of big government. Sure, the signature achievement of the Trump administration was an upper-class tax cut, and they nearly passed a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which they proclaimed a victory for smaller government. (Our national debt is the highest on record, and government spending as a share of GDP has not returned to the lows of the Clinton era by any stretch of the imagination.) But the tax cut does nothing to materially enhance the “liberty” of the American people, unless one counts as “freedom” the ability of Jeff Bezos’ heirs to never have to work for a living. Similarly, taking away health care from people is a net negative loss to their freedom — not least because there’s nothing “free” about extremely ill or dead.

When it comes to the police, on the other hand, Trump infamously told police officers in 2017 “please don’t be too nice” to suspects, despite years and years of court rulings that suggest officers being too nice to suspects is not the problem with law enforcement in the United States. It’s probably not a coincidence that Bob Kroll, the head of the Minneapolis police union — George Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police — is a major Trump supporter who appeared with him at a rally last year.

And Trump’s applause for authoritarian policing isn’t just empty rhetoric: his Department of Justice has dismantled many of the consent decrees the Obama administration made with police departments to reduce brutality and abuse.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the support for a vast and brutal police state to exercise ultimate power over the American people is just a Trump problem. As Cotton’s endorsement of violent attacks on protesters makes clear, this is a partywide problem. Consider Trump’s Attorney General William Barr, who previously worked for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and briefly served in the administration of Republican Virginia Gov. George Allen. In a chillingly authoritarian speech last year, he talked approvingly about local law enforcement as if it was a protection racket: “if communities don’t give that support and respect, they might find themselves without the police protection they need.” In other words, nice city you have there, wouldn’t want us to have to let it burn down because you protest our abuses.`

Barr recently put his revolting theory into practice, at the very minimum giving his tacit approval to law enforcement for the use of chemical weapons and extremely dangerous rubber bullets to clear peaceful, lawful protesters from Lafayette Square so that Trump could do a photo-op featuring him awkwardly holding someone else’s Bible. The protesters weren’t even in violation of Washington, D.C.’s 7:00 p.m. curfew; Barr and Trump had them violently removed although they had every right to be there. Barr, notably, is as establishment as they come, suggesting that Trump reflects the basic authoritarian stance of the Republican Party rather than causing it.

With some all-too-rare exceptions, conservative Supreme Court justices have also helped liberate police officers from accountability. For instance, George W. Bush’s then-newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito – the most conservative justice on civil liberties to have served on the court in decades – was the swing vote in the 5-4 Supreme Court decision Hudson v. Michigan, which loosened the rules and created incentives for police to engage in the kind of “no-knock” search that resulted in the recent senseless killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville in her own bed.

Arbitrary police violence isn’t the only way in which Republicans like big government, either — as long as they can assure themselves that people similarly socioeconomically situated to Republican public officials will be exempt from its reach. If Republican public officials get their way, the Supreme Court later this month will allow states to make it essentially impossible for women to obtain abortions in those states. (Those with means, of course — like the women anti-abortion Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., helped and pressured into getting abortions on his dime, will still be able to just go elsewhere.)

There’s nothing new about the kind of intrusive government favored by contemporary American conservatives either. While high schoolers are taught that the American Gilded Age as the age of “laissez-faire” government, the historian Richard White observes in his magnificent recent history of the era that local sheriffs and other law enforcement officials were dependent for fees and fines for most of their revenues, and thus engaged in the constant, day-to-day harassment of ordinary people, essentially extorting money for minor and sometimes made-up offenses. The result was a government that was an overbearing presence in the lives of many people while providing little-to-no practical benefits — and which we somehow now valorize as “hands off.”

This is the kind of system that was revealed to still exist in municipalities like Ferguson, Missouri, during the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests; the arbitrary harassment by police officers will always be disproportionately directed at Black residents. And it’s the kind of system Trump’s Republican Party wants to make national – a state that constantly unleashes arbitrary violence at the nation’s most vulnerable populations while doing little to provide them with essential social services.

So when Republicans claim to be the party of freedom and limited government, don’t believe them. It’s the protesters on the streets, not their opponents at every level of government, who are standing up for everyone’s most basic liberties and attempting to hold those who violate them accountable.