The very idea seems, on the face of it, sheer madness. In Portland, Oregon, federal security officers dressed for combat—wearing jungle-camouflage uniforms with unclear markings, carrying heavy weapons, using batons and tear gas—are patrolling the streets, making random arrests, throwing people into unmarked vans. The officers do not come from institutions that specialize in political crowd control. Instead, they come from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Coast Guard. These are people with experience patrolling the border, frisking airline passengers, and deporting undocumented immigrants—exactly the wrong sort of experience needed to carry out the delicate task of policing an angry political protest.
Unsurprisingly, these troops are making rudimentary mistakes. Instead of working with local leaders, they have antagonized them. Instead of coaxing people to go home, their behavior has caused more people to come out onto the streets. Instead of calming the situation, they are infuriating people. They have escalated the violence. They have made the situation worse.
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.
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.
Students of modern dictatorship will find these tactics wearily familiar. Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump admires, has deployed performative authoritarianism, alongside other tools, in order to keep himself in power for many years now. In 2014, during a political crisis in Ukraine, he created an elaborate media narrative that equated Ukrainian democracy protesters with 1940s fascists. Russian state television showed scenes of violence over and over again—scenes that Putin himself had helped create, first by encouraging the former Ukrainian president to shoot at demonstrators, and then by invading the country. He sent troops in unmarked uniforms—the infamous “little green men”—into Crimea and eventually eastern Ukraine to “dominate” the situation, to use Trump’s own word for his tactics in Portland. Or at least that was the way it was meant to look on TV.
Russian media also went a step further and added some fake elements to the real tragedy, inventing, for example, a preposterous story about Ukrainian forces crucifying a child. Will this be the next stage of the Trump administration’s program too? Just this week, Trump’s official Facebook page published an advertisement purporting to show yet another scene of American urban violence. The slogan reads public safety vs chaos & violence, and the ad contrasts a photograph of a somber, concerned Trump with another showing demonstrators pummeling a police officer. But the latter image was not taken in Portland. Sourced from the internet, it was taken in … Ukraine. In 2014. In the ad, which is attributed to Evangelicals for Trump, the insignia on the officer’s shoulder includes a Ukrainian Orthodox cross.
You can see the appeal of this method. If the lawsuits become a problem, if the courts stand in the way, or if local mayors find ways to prevent customs officers from policing more American cities, this could be the Trump campaign’s solution: Don’t bother using photographs or footage of Americans at all. Just borrow the pictures directly from the Kremlin’s own arsenal, along with its playbook.