The Trump administration has escalated tensions, argue local officials, by sending camouflaged officers to confront activists, most of whom have practiced nonviolence. The president, while devolving control of the coronavirus response to state and local authorities, has vowed to replicate the federal crackdown in Chicago, New York and other Democratic-controlled cities seeing sustained protests after the police killing of George Floyd. And he is being cheered on by provocateurs online and in the media pointing to the backlash against federal mobilization as a sign that a still more severe response is needed.
Video posted by conservative activist Andy Ngo, showing a scuffle with armed agents in military fatigues, became fodder for Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire website to label protesters “rioters.” Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, thundered, “The president’s right. This is a war zone.”
The decision to insert the federal government into spasms of racial unrest so close to a national election — as the Trump administration strains to respond to a pandemic that has claimed close to 140,000 American lives — resembles efforts to arouse fear of the migrant caravan heading to the U.S. border in the lead-up to the midterm election in 2018. Those efforts sputtered, with suburban voters propelling Democrats to a House majority.
Similarly, the administration’s moves now to “dominate” the streets, as Trump characterized his vision, risks backlash in both parties.
“If there is something that is perceived as too strong and bordering on totalitarianism, that’s not right, and I don’t think people in the heartland want government crackdowns, if you want to call it that, going too far,” said Scott Frostman, the Republican chairman in Sauk County, Wis., a political bellwether an hour from Madison.
Trump’s quest to magnify urban violence comes as his campaign seeks to denigrate Joe Biden as weak on crime. The line of argument, backed by millions of dollars boosting television ads painting a grim portrait of Biden’s America, is at odds with criticism of the presumptive Democratic nominee as an advocate for the 1994 crime bill, which is frequently blamed for mass incarceration.
Recently, the president has portrayed his opponent as a vessel for rules intended to combat housing discrimination, which Trump asserted would “abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs.” And he has falsely accused the former vice president of supporting calls to defund the police. Biden has embraced reforms but has not endorsed cutting funds for law enforcement.
Biden on Tuesday denounced Trump’s tactics in Portland, while also taking pains to show he sees a role for federal authorities.
“Of course the U.S. government has the right and duty to protect federal property,” the former vice president said in a statement. “The Obama-Biden administration protected federal property across the country without resorting to these egregious tactics — and without trying to stoke the fires of division in this country.”
That measured view found little purchase within the Web’s fractured information ecosystem, which privileges the most extreme positions. Among the highest-performing Facebook posts on Tuesday about Portland were by conservative media or activists lambasting Democrats for resisting the president’s moves.
“The attacks are escalating and they’re going to kill people,” claimed a “Blue Lives Matter” page, linking to a video of protesters barricading a county courthouse. Mark Levin, the talk radio host, mourned, “Another city goes to hell,” earning more than 12,000 shares.
Neither the chaos depicted in conservative media nor the president’s caricature of protesters as extremists who “hate our country” is reflected in what the city’s leaders describe as mostly peaceful assemblies, including by dozens of women who this week formed a “wall of moms” around demonstrators. Local officials have condemned the presence of federal forces, who have struck a protester in the head with a less-lethal round and whisked others away in unmarked vans.
Members of the Trump administration have justified the deployment in the name of safeguarding federal property, while also pointing to dangers to federal personnel. Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told Fox News he does not require “invitations by the state, state mayors or state governors to do our job.”
Tactical teams from Immigration and Customs Enforcement as well as Customs and Border Patrol are on the ground in Portland, those agencies confirmed, while the full extent of the deployment prepared for other cities, as well as the underlying legal justification, was not clear. Democratic governors and other officials vowed to pursue litigation to halt what they condemned as a violation of constitutional rights and a slide into authoritarianism.
“Portland will not be a proving ground for fascism,” said Chloe Eudaly, a city commissioner, adding in an interview that “the arrival of federal forces has done nothing but escalate tensions.”
Graffiti has been scrawled on the federal courthouse and on a nearby county jail, Eudaly said. There have been scattered acts of property destruction and vandalism visited on nearby properties, she added. But Portland, she said, has not been seized by violence, a point brought home by residents who undertook a social media campaign to depict everyday life unfolding in the riverside city.
The justification offered by the Trump administration represents “an excuse rather than a real reason for these deployments,” said Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan who served as an officer for civil rights and civil liberties at the Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama. “If the courts don’t put it down, we should be very worried,” she said, condemning in particular accounts of protesters being detained without justification by unidentified tactical teams.
Any identification beyond an “insignia indicating that they’re law enforcement” would put agents at risk, maintained White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who began her Tuesday briefing warning of “violence, chaos and anarchy” in Portland.
Trump’s allies in Congress blanketed the airwaves with similar talking points. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) went on Fox News to argue Trump bore no blame for unrest unfolding during his presidency because the violence was concentrated in cities governed by Democrats. As he spoke, tape rolled of federal agents beating a Navy veteran who had approached them with a question, “Why are you not honoring your oath?”
The conservative messaging, even when it clashes with video evidence, resonates with activists across the right-wing spectrum, said Heidi Beirich, co-founder and executive vice president of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. “Whether we’re talking about white supremacist groups or militias closer to the mainstream, they view cities as hellscapes where black protesters and antifa are out of control and Trump’s moves are protecting real Americans.”
But in some of the places that could decide the November election, uncertainty marked reactions to the show of federal force, which upended principles of limited government long claimed by conservatives.
“Typically conservatives favor less government intervention,” said Frostman, the Republican chairman in Sauk County. “So the idea that the federal government is coming in to cities — does that make it more challenging for us as a more conservative group? Is there going to be a threat to shut me down, or my ability to speak or to gather?”
He said voters in the county fear unrest and anarchy, estimating that urban violence was a more deeply felt concern than a porous border with Mexico. But they also hold fast to bedrock principles of free speech and assembly, he said, and are “cognizant about the level of control you impose.”
In Erie County, Pa., another political battleground that could prove decisive in November, residents “get a different view of what’s happening depending on the station they tune in to,” said the county’s GOP chairman, Verel Salmon.
Salmon, a former schools superintendent, said he was unsure about some of the details in Portland but favored efforts to protect property.
“I don’t know the details of who said what and so forth, but the concept of protecting federal property is sound,” he said. “It’s not random arrests for no reason. People are engaging in negative acts that will cost taxpayers dearly.”
The confusion caused by incomplete accounts, jumbled by outright falsehoods, serves the president’s agenda, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communication at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.
“The framing of this is dramatically different news channel to news channel, and this is an instance in which the visuals are difficult to understand because you’re seeing people in what look to be a kind of military uniform, and it’s unfolding at night,” said Jamieson, a co-author of a recent peer-reviewed study finding that Americans who rely on conservative outlets, such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, were more likely to put stock in conspiracy theories about the coronavirus.
Even as conservative pundits raise alarm about turmoil in Portland, she said, they have not yet produced imagery to support their warnings. Still, the persistent verbal reinforcement “makes you think you are seeing a reality when in fact what you’re seeing is selected distortion.”
Sometimes, however, the visual evidence cuts in the exact opposite direction.
A Fox “alert” this week about the “54th straight night” of Portland protests led with a clip of a crowd singing the gospel that became an anthem of the civil rights movement, “We Shall Overcome.”