Why has this been allowed to happen? Any rank amateur could have predicted that unprepared troops with guns would increase tension and prolong the crisis. The people in the White House and the Department of Homeland Security who have sent employees of ICE and the Coast Guard into Portland surely knew that they would make people angrier. But although the administration’s behavior makes no sense as law enforcement, it makes perfect sense as a new kind of campaign tactic.
Welcome to the world of performative authoritarianism, a form of politics that reached new heights of sophistication in Russia over the past decade and has now arrived in the United States. Unlike 20th-century authoritarianism, this 21st-century, postmodern influence campaign does not require the creation of a total police state. Nor does it require complete control of information, or mass arrests. It can be carried out, instead, with a few media outlets and a few carefully targeted arrests.
That these tactics are not “totalitarian” doesn’t make them legal, acceptable, or normal. I repeat: Citizens’ rights are being violated in Portland. People have been hauled off the streets into unmarked vehicles. Long-standing precedents about the relationship between states and the federal government have been overturned. Lawsuits have already been filed.
Adam Serwer: Trump gave police permission to be brutal
But even if the courts eventually force the troops in jungle camouflage off the streets, the president who sent them there—and who is now threatening to send similar troops to other cities—might not care. That’s because the purpose of these troops is not to bring peace to Portland. The purpose is to transmit a message. Americans should find this tactic familiar, because we’ve seen it before. When the Trump administration cruelly separated children from their families at the southern border, that was, among other things, a performance designed to show the public just how much the president dislikes immigrants from Mexico and Honduras. The attack on demonstrators in Portland is like that: a performance designed to show just how much Trump dislikes “liberal” Americans, “urban” Americans, “Democrat” Americans. To put it differently (and to echo my colleague Adam Serwer): The chaos in Portland is not an accident. The chaos is the point.
The chaos is also a tactic, and now it will be put to use. Now that it has been deliberately escalated, the violence will provide pictures, footage, video clips, and other material for Trump’s media supporters, and eventually for his campaign advertisements. On Fox News, Sean Hannity has already denounced Portland as a “war zone.” Tucker Carlson has spoken of protesters as “mobs” who keep liberal Democrats in power. The next stage will implicate Joe Biden in this same story: The president’s aides have told journalists that Biden, if he wins, will “allow left-wing fascists to destroy America.” Protesters, mobs, chaos, fascists, the left, the “Dems”, Biden—they’re all one narrative. The Trump administration will show people pictures of its uniformed troops pushing back against them, restoring order with a strong hand. And it will use the kind of language that appeals to that part of the population that prizes safety over all else.