An outside agitator is stirring up violent protest in the streets of Portland, Oregon. His hand is at work in Seattle; Oakland, California; and Los Angeles, too. This agent provocateur set out to inflame protests simmering in these cities by making sure that armed hordes were in their midst, and it has worked: Many more protesters are out on the streets, throwing bricks at law-enforcement officers and engaging in vandalism. Blocks of these cities have been engulfed in tear gas. Mayors are pleading for calm.
When there’s upheaval like this, it’s sometimes hard to track down the culprit. But in this case it’s not hard to identify or find him: The outside agitator’s name is Donald Trump, and he lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
The president’s aim in deploying federal agents to Portland and elsewhere was barely concealed from the start: Send federal forces into liberal cities where they are unwelcome, wait for trouble to start, and then use it as both retroactive justification and political leverage for the president’s troubled reelection campaign. It’s been a roaring success. The provocation has been so effective that the Trump administration is now preparing to send more federal agents to Portland, to tamp down the violence that has been inflamed by sending federal agents to Portland.
Trump did not cause protests over police violence—they erupted in response to the deaths (most recently) of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, though those are only recent, prominent cases in centuries of violence against Black Americans by police. After initially expressing outrage at Floyd’s murder, Trump quickly turned against protesters, emphasizing sporadic incidents of violence. He threatened to send active-duty soldiers into several cities, though he was dissuaded by advisers. By early June, violence largely stopped, though protests continued in some places.
Then, starting roughly two weeks ago, Trump decided to cause some trouble. Noting that protests continued in Portland, the president began dispatching federal law-enforcement agents under the Department of Homeland Security to the city. Trump referred to the situation in Portland as “anarchy,” even though protests outside the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse were contained and largely nonviolent, despite vandalism to the courthouse.
There was never any question of whether protesters in Portland would react warmly to an influx of federal law-enforcement officers. This is the bind that I noted in May: When protesters are already upset about excessive use of force by police, deploying large numbers of heavily armed and armored police can only escalate the situation. This means the onus is on law enforcement to de-escalate these situations.
If the very presence of the federal agents was designed to incite, their methods were even more provocative. Ostensibly, they were there to protect the courthouse, which is federal property, from damage. In practice, they’ve been interpreting their mandate broadly, moving away from the building itself. As DHS noted in an internal memo obtained by The New York Times, the teams sent to Portland aren’t trained in policing city streets or riot control. They have roamed downtown in unmarked cars, refused to identify themselves or their agencies, and arrested protesters seemingly without reason, then released them without charges—an action advocates have reasonably likened to kidnapping.
The result has been an escalating sequence of tit-for-tat violence. Two weeks after Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf warned darkly of “mobs of violent protesters,” he delivered them to his boss. The occupying force of militarized police galvanized ordinary Portland residents who were appalled at the presence of a nascent national police force. It also attracted more violent protesters who were keyed up for a confrontation.
There’s no denying that officers are being injured in the protests, and no excuse for violence. Agents are likely genuinely scared, both because they are not trained for the situations they’re in, and because even if they are, they’re facing furious masses of people. “I can’t walk outside without being in fear for my life,” one U.S. marshal at the courthouse told the Associated Press. “I am worried for my life, every time I walk outside of the building.” Yet if the administration hadn’t decided to inflame the situation in Portland, these law-enforcement officers wouldn’t be facing nearly so dangerous a situation.
Meanwhile, the anger is spreading elsewhere. Activists in other cities have returned to the streets in large numbers, precipitating new clashes with law enforcement, especially in big West Coast cities. At the same time, the Trump administration is promising to deploy thousands of federal agents (as many as 75,000, the president claims) to other cities. In doing so, he is grouping together cities where anti-police protests persist, cities with long-standing gun-violence problems, and cities where police appear to have pulled back following protests, causing a spike in crime.
Trump wants the nation to believe that this is part of a huge surge in violence, but he is misrepresenting reality on crime, as he has done since the 2016 campaign. While the uptick in violence in some cities is troubling, America remains far safer than it was two decades ago. Meanwhile, Wolf has been bragging about agents “proactively” arresting protesters, which is another good way to drive up numbers.
In short, the surge of federal agents would be a failure if the goal were crime-fighting, but it never was. Since the Trump-incited turmoil in Portland began, the president, his allies, and his campaign have consistently drawn attention to it. The dustups provide a distraction from the president’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus, give Trump a chance to show the dominance he desires, and ideally scare some of the white suburban voters who have been drifting away from Trump and toward Joe Biden.
That possibility has upset some Democratic politicians, who are trying to persuade their constituents not to take what they see as bait. Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland warned that protesters getting into or seeking out confrontations with police only helped the president. “I’m furious that Oakland may have played right into Donald Trump’s twisted campaign strategy,” she told The New York Times.
Schaaf may be right, but Trump’s approach is risky. Inciting violence in Portland is a tactical win, insofar as it’s what the administration set out to do, but it may not be a strategic win. The president already tried something like this once, on a smaller scale. In June, he sent police and the National Guard to clear peaceful protesters from Lafayette Square, across from the White House, and then he erected a fortress around the White House. It was a political catastrophe. The secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff both had to distance themselves from the president. Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, blasted him.
More important, the move backfired with the public. Polls showed widespread disapproval of Trump’s handling of race and of protests, and polls of the presidential race showed Biden widening his lead. As I noted then, Trump ran for office promising to be a law-and-order president, but his term has seen a surge in chaos, including white-supremacist marches in Virginia, mass shootings, and the incident in Lafayette Square.
Apparently powerless to stop the chaos, Trump has now decided to embrace it, hoping that if he was unable to deliver the security he promised, perhaps heightened fear would motivate voters nearly as well. Officials in cities and states around the nation have spent the last week pleading with Trump to pull back his agents, saying he’s only making matters worse. What they may not grasp is that for Trump, that’s just proof of concept.
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