The Perils of Portland: Is Trump’s Turn to the Secret Police a Dress Rehearsal for November?

Donald Trump has been escalating his already vicious rhetorical attacks  against the left ever since the murder of George Floyd. He has been demonizing protesters, inciting civil violence in defense of “our heritage,” promoting the most reactionary elements of local police forces, and deploying federal armed forces, sometimes in uniform, sometimes in camouflage.

His threats and deployments of violence have intensified long-standing fears of an actual move from what William Connolly has called “aspirational fascism” to something more manifestly fascistic and dictatorial. Recent reports from Portland are further proof that these fears have always been warranted, and the danger is very real indeed.

Portland has long been the site of a tense standoff between a wide range of protest groups coming together under the broad Black Lives Matter banner, and the local police. Trump recently deliberately brought this standoff to a head by dispatching armed federal agents from the Department of Homeland Security to Portland,  over the objections of Portland’s Mayor and Oregon’s Governor, both Democrats. Last week these agents, roaming the streets to suppress protests, shot  an unarmed protester in the head, leading to outcries from local officials and demands for the withdrawal of these forces. In response, Trump’s Acting Head of Homeland Security has stubbornly insisted  that he intends to quash “violent anarchists” and “restore order” whether local officials like it or not. And Trump has of course praised this effort.

In the past two days concerns about this public use of force against protesters have been compounded by the news that federal agents have also been kidnappingprotesters, literally dragging them off the street in unmarked cars, and detaining them without cause and with no due process.

A New York Times report: “Federal Agents Unleash Military Crackdown in Portland.”

A Washington Post report: “’It was like being preyed upon’: Portland protesters say federal officers in unmarked vans are detaining them.”

A local Portland news outlet: “Federal Law Enforcement Use Unmarked Vehicles to Grab Protesters Off Portland Streets.”

Mother Jones: “Federal Agents Invade Portland, Citing Trump’s Executive Order Protesting Statues.”

The New Republic: “The Trump Administration is Treating U.S. Cities Like Occupied Territory.”

Trump is “making an example” of Portland by throwing red meat to his far-right base. He is also doing exactly what he has often promised to do: defying the law and using his executive power to suppress those he deems “enemies of the people.” Senator Tom Cotton might have taken some rhetorical heat for his recent New York Timesop-ed calling in effect for a federal declaration of martial law. But Trump appears to be taking Cotton’s advice in a slightly less garish way.

This military occupation of an American city must be visibly, loudly, and relentlessly reported, documented, and opposed.

It is an obvious violation of the First Amendment and of other constitutional protections of freedom of speech and lawful assembly.

It is an obvious usurpation of police power by the President, part of a broader strategy of threatening, limiting, attacking and overruling Democratic governors and mayors that violates the Constitutional division of powers.

It is an obvious effort to repress the Black Lives Matter movement and to oppose and resist by force the struggle for racial justice. In a way that would have made George Wallace proud (Wallace simply advocated the non-intervention of the federal government in “right” of states to enforce white supremacy; Trump actively usesthe powers of the federal government to support it).

And it is one more obvious assault on the laws and norms of constitutional democracy.

Back in 1819, Benjamin Constant, a leading French liberal, reflected on the dangers of self-appointed tribunes of popular virtue,  and offered a succinct statement of the meaning of “modern liberty”:

. . .  it is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims. Finally it is everyone’s right to exercise some influence on the administration of the government, either by electing all or particular officials, or through representations, petitions, demands to which the authorities are more or less compelled to pay heed.

Constant is considered to be a foundational theorist of liberal democracy.

Trump is an enemy of liberal democracy who cynically attacks every civil liberty except the liberty to bear arms, to refuse masks, and to hate.

Back in December 2016, within weeks of Trump’s election, I published a piece in the Washington Postentitled “How Hannah Arendt’s classic work on totalitarianism illuminates today’s America.” The piece centered on the conditions that allowed a figure such as Trump to rise to power on the shoulders of an angry “mob.” Trump continues to incite his angry mob, which numbers in the tens of millions. But while back in 2016 he did so through a vicious political campaign for office, since January 2017 he has done this as President of the United States. His administration is a permanent campaign of resentment, racism, and nihilism, now supported by executive authority, including control of the armed forces but also the substantial coercive power of the Department of Homeland Security and its division of Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement (“ICE”). While Trump is of course no “totalitarian” leader, he is an increasingly authoritarian one. And his deployment of what are essentially secret police in Portland is an ominous sign.

Trump thrives on chaos and on his fatuous claim that he can bring “order” and “greatness.”

The U.S. currently faces a triple crisis: a growing pandemic that this year will take hundreds of thousands of lives; a deep economic recession that will permanently transform economic life and intensify the “precarity” of many millions; and a crisis of legitimacy now linked to the widespread protests against racist policing and racism more generally.

In the face of this triple crisis, the Trump administration has responded with lies, malign neglect, and the defamation of anyone, including some of its own officials—like Dr. Fauci—who raises any questions about its failures.

And so the crises intensifies.

The November elections are only a few months away. And there are deadly serious reasons to doubt that these elections will be conducted in accordance with minimal standards of freedom and fairness. Back in March—what seems like a lifetime ago—a colleague and I drafted a public letter of concern about election security that garnered the signatures of over one thousand political scientists in a matter of days. The situation since then has only gotten worse.

As many observers have noted, there are a number of scenarios for the process to be corrupted—through voter suppression, the denial of by-mail balloting, and through a relentless campaign to undermine the credibility of the results. Trump’s best chance of remaining in office—and of avoiding any criminal or civil accountability for his many corrupted practices—is through the promotion of chaos, which can allow him to claim the authority to “restore order” and to represent “the American people.”

Is his lawless and cruel deployment of violence on the streets of Portland a dress rehearsal for November?

We can’t know.

But we can reasonably fear.

And we can do everything in our power to allay that fear, by opposing Trump now, and by coming together to decisively defeat him in November, and by a margin that is politically incontrovertible.

A common front against Trump and for liberal democracy. The peril that is playing out before our eyes in Portland makes the need for this vividly clear. For liberal democracy to survive, and for a robust public sphere to be possible, Trump must be defeated.

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