IT’S those gatherings of armed militia kitted out in paramilitary uniforms and openly carrying state-of-the-art assault rifles that I always find most chilling. Given the wars, revolutions and insurrections I’ve personally been eyewitness to as a correspondent these past decades, such sights are nothing new to me. Indeed sadly, I’ve almost come to expect them on the streets of places like Baghdad or Kabul.

But somehow seeing armed militia on the streets of US states and cities such as Michigan, Pittsburgh or Richmond still leaves me struggling to comprehend and reconcile it with the democracy that I understand America to be.

Right now there’s simply no escaping the disquieting parallels that exist between the United States and some police or rogue states elsewhere in the world.

Right before our global gaze this huge nation is slowly revealing its ugliest of faces. From behind a mask of democratic respectability, a scarred and misshapen profile is appearing, one wracked with anger and hatred.

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It’s a face that represents the contortion of a nation still twisted in part by its racist history, but exacerbated in the present by a president who has remorselessly robbed America of its standing and left it looking stunned.

“Is American becoming a banana republic?” asked a headline in The New Yorker on Thursday. It’s a question the answer to which makes a mockery of a leader who not so long ago promised he would “make America great again”.

Watching Donald Trump last week holding up a bible at a photo-op outside the boarded-up St John’s Church across from the White House, I found myself reminded of last year’s coup d’etat in Bolivia.

Back then, too, Christian right-wingers, including Bolivia’s interim President Jeanine Anez, triumphantly held bibles aloft as they celebrated the country’s overturning of democracy. In showing off their bibles they, like Trump, were keen to tell the world God was on their side. That the US helped orchestrate the coup there last year and Trump welcomed it should come, then, as no surprise.

For the US president the act of overturning the rule of Bolivia’s socialist leader Evo Morales served to “send a strong signal to illegitimate regimes … that democracy and the will of the people will always prevail”.

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The irony here is obvious enough.

After all, this is a US president determined to ride roughshod over domestic political and democratic norms, despite the will of many Americans who clearly have had enough of his authoritarianism.

For those same Americans and all of us looking on right now, the debate about what is happening in America is deepening before our eyes. It is there in the phalanxes of police and the National Guard on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a site meant to symbolise reconciliation and healing after the country’s civil war.

It is there, too, in the protest banners on which are written the last words of George Floyd, the African American man who died after Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, restrained him with a knee on his neck: “Please I can’t breathe.”

In a 40-minute eulogy at a memorial for family and friends of Floyd, civil rights icon the Rev Al Sharpton cast Floyd as an apt metaphor for the black experience in America for centuries.

“What happened to George Floyd happens every day in this country … in every area of American life,” Sharpton asserted. “It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say get your knee off our necks.”

Powerful and emotive as Sharpton’s speech was, collected data bears out what he says. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, as of 2016, the net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times greater than that of a black family.

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And although the US accounts for just 5% of the global population, it is home to 21% of the world’s incarcerated people, one third of whom are African American.

In many de-industrialised urban areas in the US, African Americans – including George Floyd – live in conditions that are closer to Brazil or South Africa than other rich countries.

On the face of it the current mass protests are obviously an expression of anger at America’s long history of racist law enforcement. But in exploding right now as they have, they are also about so much more that plagues the country.

“While the wealth and incomes of those at the very top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans struggle to afford healthcare, childcare, and other basic goods,” points out Jeffrey Sommers, a professor of political economy and public policy in the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

While this might now be a familiar

story, says Sommers, what often goes unremarked is how the responsibility for managing the social fallout of such an unfair system lands squarely on a police force so professionally unprepared for the task in hand.

As examples he highlights how most police in urban areas are white and have little or no experience interacting with the populations within their jurisdictions.

This communication divide is only made worse by the fact that one in five US police officers is a military veteran, people who most likely conducted violent pacification roles in conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, these are personnel trained and conditioned to see the urban populations they police as threats.

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SERIOUSLY problematic as this is, it still hasn’t stopped Trump from threatening to deploy even more heavy-handed militaristic options at his disposal. These include “federalising” the National Guard, which could give the president the power to send those troops where he wants, even over the objection of a state’s governor. In this option

he has the backing of his defence secretary Mark Esper, who has urged state governors to “dominate the battlespace”, which in fact is simply American cities when stripped of the war jargon.

Trump has also suggested invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act, a 213-year-old law that could allow him to bypass governors for the purpose of sending regular troops into states to put down revolts.

Not surprisingly, such talk, more akin to threats made by dictators in authoritarian states, makes many Americans uneasy. Among them are those who, unlike Trump, have experienced battle first hand or had to go toe-to-toe with autocrats elsewhere in the world.

As The New York Times highlighted, a whole range of retired senior military officers are now saying in public what they previously said only in private. Among them is former defence secretary James Mattis, who last week issued a scathing rebuke of Trump.

“When I joined the military some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the constitutional rights of their fellow citizens – much less to provide a bizarre photo-op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside,” Mattis said in a statement to The Atlantic magazine.

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He was, of course, referring to Trump’s bible-brandishing moment in Washington last week flanked by senior serving officers and under the gaze of the media.

Among those senior officers was Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is Milley, Trump declared in a call with state governors, that he was placing “in charge”. As to what precisely Milley was being placed in charge of, Trump offered no detail.

According to the military newspaper Stars And Stripes, however, a White House official confirmed “the general would be part of a ‘central command centre’ meant to help state and local authorities deal with the uprisings”.

This would suggest, observers say, that Trump is assembling an alternative structure to overrule governors’ control of the National Guard.

And therein lies the real danger, say some senior military figures – one where Trump might regard the military, which historically has prized its nonpartisan, apolitical role in American society, as just another political force to be massed to his advantage.

One army officer cited by The New York Times, but speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid punishment from his superiors, highlighted the extent of Trump’s threat, saying he hoped “to make it though another day without having to cite his constitutional obligations to decline an illegal order”. He went on to tell the newspaper he would not be surprised, however, if he faced such a dilemma in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile on another tack, activists point out that it’s not only police officers and the National Guard that are being mobilised in Trump’s effort to contain the ongoing protests.

In Washington DC, for example, officers from at least 10 federal law enforcement units from different civilian agencies are on the streets of the capital. These include units from the FBI, the Secret Service, the US Park Police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection, among others. Many rights activists and others are concerned that some of the officers among these “support elements” bear no identification.

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PETER Singer, a military strategist, said law officers wear insignia and nameplates to reassure the public their orders are lawful and to ensure accountability should they abuse power. Speaking to the Financial Times, Singer criticised the presence of unidentified officers on the streets of the capital as akin to “little green men”, a reference to unmarked troops that invaded Ukraine who answered, it was later discovered, to Russia.

As if all this were not concern enough, there remains the thorny question of what Trump might do should his efforts fail to curtail the current protests or opposition demonstrations during the run-up to

November’s presidential election.

Time and again he has shown a disturbing willingness to use social media to galvanise and mobilise those loyal supporters, be they from within the ranks of right-wing extremists, white supremacists or armed militias.

It’s worth recalling that it was only last year, during an interview with the far-right news syndication outlet Breitbart, that Trump alluded to the support he could muster from such ranks.

“I can tell you I have the support of the police, the support of the military, the support of the Bikers for Trump – I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad,” Trump warned.

As the Washington Post, responding to his remarks at the time, pointed out, there’s no particular reason to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on this.

Interpreted in the most charitable way, Trump could merely mean that people in those groups tend to support him as individuals, not that he wants them to think of themselves as belonging to institutions that support him.

“But even if he did intend it in this somewhat less disgusting way, he’s still saying that the ranks of his armed supporters could at some point feel provoked to violence,” the newspaper warned.

It’s quite a thought in a country with almost 400 million owned firearms and where Trump has deepened his organisational ties to white supremacist groups, armed militias and other fascist-oriented groups.

According to Just Security, a think tank that monitors security law, even prior to Trump’s entry into office, the FBI investigated the sway of white supremacists in police departments, occasionally revealing officers with organisational ties to neo-Nazi groups.

It produced a file called the Known Or Suspected Terrorist File, which included information on racist extremists and militias who claimed “active links to law enforcement officers”.

As civil unrest continues to grip America and the heavy-handed police response only inflames the situation, Trump continues to have one eye on the forthcoming election.

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No doubt he believes he is on solid ground in continuing to reflect the sentiments of his base supporters with his hard-line and scarcely veiled threats.

But as every day passes and Trump continues to pursue that line, his policies smack more of the autocrat than the democrat.

Abroad Trump has already all but turned America into a pariah state. At home he seems hell bent in turning it into a police state or rogue one in the eyes of many of its citizens,

“The clock is ticking on the future of America’s democracy,” David Blight, a civil war historian at Yale University, told The New Yorker last week, comparing the current crisis with the 1850s, when the country was ripped apart and tipped into disunion.

“This unrest – it’s more than unrest, it’s a revolt – is truly astonishing,” said Blight. “We have to find some way for electoral politics ending just five months from now to harness this, or where does it go? What’s left?” he asked.

With a malign force remaining in the White House, no doubt many Americans will be asking themselves those same questions. By embracing both politics and protest, here’s hoping they get a positive answer soon before Trump does something even more rash. For should that happen, America’s divisions could take another lifetime to heal.