In one of the most alarming developments of Trump’s presidency, dozens of federal agents in full camouflage seized protesters and threw them into unmarked cars, taking them to locations unknown without specifying a reason for arrest. It appears that at least some of the agents involved belonged to the US Customs and Border Protection (colloquially known as Border Patrol), an organization that obviously has no business whatsoever conducted counterinsurgency tactics against peaceful American protesters in Portland, Oregon. Neither the mayor of Portland nor the governor of Oregon wanted them there; in fact, they specifically requested that they leave. And now a U.S. Attorney for the State of Oregon is calling for an investigation into the arrests, even as the Acting head of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, is vowing to ramp up these actions both in Portland and reportedly elsewhere.
Needless to say, this is a chilling step toward police state authoritarian rule in the United States, one that was presaged by Attorney General Barr’s approval of an pre-curfew assault on protesters instigated in Lafayette Square to clear the way for a presidential campaign photo op. Few took it seriously when leftist organizers were warning that the border patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were being culturally and structurally converted into stormtroopers for the Trump regime, equally ready to be deployed against politically inconvenient American citizens as against undocumented immigrants seeking a better life. Those warnings should be heeded now.
We should not allow ourselves to become numb to this. It is helpful psychologically–even if tired and stale as a rhetorical device–to remind ourselves what the reactions would be if a Democrat were acting similarly. Imagine if President Obama had sent in in military-garbed federal stormtroopers to round up Tea Party protesters into unmarked cars, over the top of the objections of local governors and mayors. It’s unthinkable. It’s the sort of thing that drove bizarre right-wing conspiracy theories like Jade Helm, but that if any shred of them were true would instantly have embroiled the country in a civil war.
So why is Trump doing it?
Many theories abound—none of them entirely convincing on their own, but all of them deeply disturbing. One explanation is that it’s a trial run for future police state actions, partly to push the window of the possible, partly to desensitize the public to further abuses, and partly to see precisely what they can get away with and what Americans will tolerate.
This is no doubt true to a certain extent, but the challenge is that it also carries enormous downside risk. If Trump doesn’t win re-election he has less than six months left in his presidency–hardly time enough for a deeply unpopular and divisive president to engineer a police state coup. And just as with the outrage in Lafayette Square, the mere action itself will likely make Trump even more unpopular with the few undecided voters who remain.
Another convergent explanation is that making a show of supposed toughness in conducting military counterinsurgency in Democratic-controlled cities that want no part of it will thrill Trump’s base. This is reasonable to assume, since Trump’s base takes no greater joy than in seeing authoritarian cruelty exercised against their political enemies. And it’s likely true, since Trump is obsessed with his base to the exclusion of all else beyond his own personal profit. But the problem is that almost everyone in the Trump campaign’s immediate orbit beyond the president himself knows that Trump must expand beyond his shrinking base to have any chance of winning re-election. The more Trump gives aging bigots dopamine hits, the more the rest of the country falls away from him. Camouflaged stormtroopers used against American citizens will almost certainly lose him more votes than he gains.
But there is a third explanation, simultaneously dumber and yet more convincing: the Fox News effect. Trump spends endless hours watching garbage cable television, specifically One America News (OAN) and Fox News. Judging from Trump’s tweets, his entire political universe revolves around Fox News–and, more recently, the even more bizarrely propagandistic OAN when even Fox News fails to adequately toe the line.
Ever since the beginning of the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Fox News has been portraying liberal American cities as hellscapes of violence in which the police and the Trump Administration played the role of hero against rampaging hordes. Most Americans, of course, didn’t see it that way. But if you live entirely in the Fox News bubble, then this narrative is as self-evident a truth as the rising of the sun in the east. Most recently, Fox News has been describing Portland in particular, in the words of former Media Matters for America contributor Oliver Willis, as if it were Baghdad circa 2003. This is not the case, of course. Crime rates in Portland have been on a steady decline for decades, with the last month being no significant exception. In fact, the worst Acting HHS Secretary Wolf could point to was literally a few instances of graffiti. No kidding.
But if Fox News were the sum of your reality, you would believe that emergency action needed to be taken before the residents started to erect a Thunderdome and the services of Snake Plissken would be required. You would send in the troops despite the potential cost out of a belief that relieved Americans would be desperately grateful for your embrace of “law and order” (even if it were heavy on the “order” and light on the “law.”) You would do whatever it took to bring the situation to heel, and figure the public approval would follow from the new Pax Trumpiana. After all, Fox News declared it must be so.
This last scenario is admittedly ridiculous. But it’s also likely closest to the truth. While figures like Stephen Miller no doubt have a laser focus on instituting an authoritarian apartheid regime to save white supremacist Republican rule the demographic tsunami preparing to overwhelm them, they are not the president. Donald Trump is. Trump is a man of impulse, not of plans. His head is not set on the next 20 years of power, but on tomorrow’s cable news ratings. The constructed reality of Fox News is his reality. The rest of the authoritarian project follows from there.
And that more than anything else likely explains why the president is precipitating a constitutional crisis by sending stormtroopers into Portland.