Summer morning light, the federal courthouse is eerily calm. The perimeter of the Mark O. Hatfield building, a 16-story high-rise occupying a block of downtown Portland, Oregon, emerged in July as the front line for nightly assaults by federal agents against Black Lives Matter protesters, whom President Trump labeled “sick and deranged Anarchists & Agitators.”
The pretext for the incursion of federal forces into Portland — where unidentified armed agents in fatigues snatched protesters and shoved them into unmarked vans — was defacement of this courthouse. But the criminal mischief against the building was modest, according to the government’s own reckoning: “in excess of $50,000” — or roughly the cost of a used Winnebago.
The courthouse only gathered more spray paint after the feds arrived. “Send home Trump’s piglets,” reads one graffito. “Fuck DHS,” reads another, targeting the Department of Homeland Security, which has resembled a tin-pot interior ministry while carrying out Trump’s “Operation Diligent Valor.”
The violent occupation of an American city — over the objection of state and local elected leaders — by irregular federal forces, in league with the city’s reactionary police, seemed for a vertiginous moment like it could mark America’s free fall into fascism. But everyday residents of Portland rose in resistance, including suburban moms who put their bodies between the feds and younger BLM protesters. The government response was extreme. Federal agents shot nonviolent protesters and reporters in their faces with riot munitions, fracturing the skull of one. Trump’s little green men unleashed cloud banks of tear gas — a munition banned by the Geneva Convention — at one point turning an exterminator’s fogger on Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.
The grotesque optics generated a nationwide outcry, giving Gov. Kate Brown the upper hand to broker the withdrawal of what she blasted as an unaccountable “occupying force.” The front page of the French newspaper Le Monde on August 1st captured the embarrassing setback for the 45th president: “Trump, Grand Perdant de la Bataille de Portland” (“Trump, Big Loser in the Battle of Portland”).
But there was a method to the madness that unfolded outside this federal courthouse, a crackdown the president threatened to expand to Chicago and other American cities. The nation had been ravaged by Trump’s inability to lead: More than 150,000 Americans were dead from a pandemic that competent nations had subdued; 25 million Americans were unemployed, and the economy contracted by a third. Seeking a Hail Mary for his re-election campaign, Trump pulled one of the ugliest, but most reliable, strategies from the Republican playbook: “law and order.” The racially coded message catapulted Richard Nixon to victory in 1968; formed a cornerstone of Ronald Reagan’s presidency; and keyed George H.W. Bush’s implausible comeback victory in 1988. By playing to white America’s fears of urban violence and black empowerment, politicians have long won elections, and justified expansions of America’s carceral state.
In the Oval Office in July, Trump said the quiet part out loud, describing the deployment of federal forces in an explicit campaign context. The rage seen in the streets of Portland, Trump claimed, would overwhelm an America not governed by his heavy hand: “If Biden got in, that would be true for the country.” He added, as though his own administration had not delivered America to the gates, “The whole country would go to hell.”
Commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson in the wake of rioting in Newark, Watts, and Detroit, the Kerner Report established a high-water mark in the federal response to the civil rights movement. Written in 1968, it remains “woke” even by 2020 standards, attributing black uprisings to the rot of white bigotry and systemic racism: “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
The report called on America to “make good on the promises of American democracy to all citizens” by mounting “programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problem.” Nixon had a different idea: The solution to racial violence would not be found in programs to remedy structural disadvantage, he said, but in heightened policing to beat down unrest.
Nixon’s 1968 campaign hinged on what a young strategist identified as the “law and order/Negro socio-economic revolution syndrome.” Nixon appropriated the phrase “law and order” from his segregationist rival, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who had directed the violence against marchers in Selma.
Nixon’s dark insight was to throw a cloak of righteousness over resentful whites, while casting law enforcement as the protectors of their American dream. In his 1968 convention speech, Nixon evoked “cities enveloped in smoke and flame” and “sirens in the night,” before calling on the country to heed “the quiet voice” of the “forgotten Americans.” In an infamous television ad produced by future Fox News founder Roger Ailes, Nixon presented “law and order” in the language of protest. “Let us recognize that the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence,” Nixon intoned over images of tumult in the streets. “So I pledge to you that we shall have order in the United States.”
Nixon’s win marked a dead-end for the civil rights movement, and the launch of the wars on crime and drugs that have squandered trillions of dollars over-policing and incarcerating black Americans. Across the decades, Republicans continued to wield “law and order” as a truncheon against Democrats. Pertinent to Trump’s present circumstance, George H.W. Bush showed that provoking white fear of black crime could reverse the electoral tides.
In July 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis had opened up a 17-point advantage over Bush. The Bush team then uncorked one of the most racist attack ads in American politics. A gleeful Ailes, one of Bush’s top strategists, told reporters, “The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it.”
Horton had escaped from a rehabilitation program that gave weekend furloughs to Massachusetts prisoners. The ad featured a grainy image of Horton towering menacingly over a white cop; it described how he’d “kidnapped a young couple, stabbing the man and repeatedly raping his girlfriend.” The ad mined America’s deep sexual psychosis about the danger of black men to white women. Bush didn’t use the phrase “law and order,” says Kevin Kruse, a Princeton historian, “but he tapped into the same authoritarian politics, the same kind of racial panic.” Dukakis won just 10 states.
The crucible of 9/11 transformed the GOP’s “law and order” politics into “tough on terror” politics. In 2002, George W. Bush undertook a massive restructuring of government, bringing more than a dozen law-enforcement agencies under the umbrella of the new Department of Homeland Security. Civil libertarians warned the de facto interior ministry would be ripe for authoritarian abuse. Former California Sen. Barbara Boxer now insists they were right: “I never imagined that a president would use [DHS],” she writes, “to terrorize our own citizens in our own country.”
The Muslim community would like a word. “It shouldn’t surprise anybody that an entity like DHS has been engaging in nefarious activity,” says Zakir Khan, board chair for the Oregon chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, who describes the personal trauma of “being harassed, being interrogated” by DHS agents for having a name they find suspicious. He blames Congress: “There’s never been a critical re-examining of that. Ever since 9/11, it’s been one blank check after another.”
Donald J. Trump came of age with Nixon. And he was familiar with white grievance. In the 1970s, his family business was charged by the Justice Department for violating the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by not renting to black tenants. Trump has also long decried urban violence in reactionary terms. In 1989, he took out a full-page newspaper ad demanding the death penalty for the “Central Park Five,” a group of young men falsely accused of raping a jogger: “I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid,” Trump wrote. “Criminals must be told that CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
In his 2016 presidential run, advised by Ailes, who’d been forced out of Fox News due to sexual abuse, Trump revived Nixonian appeals to the “silent majority.” In 2020, he’s continuing to blast the same racist dog whistles, promising “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” that he’ll make sure they’re not “financially hurt by having low-income housing” in their neighborhoods. “Donald Trump is a prisoner of the past,” says Stuart Stevens, Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign strategist and author of It Was All a Lie, an examination of the GOP’s professed values. “The guy is just frozen in, like, 1977, out on the Queens Expressway.”
Kruse says 2020 Trump has overstepped Nixon and is channeling pure Wallace, the brutal segregationist. “There are clear echoes of Wallace in ’68” he says, including Trump’s choice of targets — substituting Antifa and BLM for hippies and civil rights demonstrators — and an identical “macho posturing about how he would crack down on them.”
When Trump deployed federal agents to Portland in mid-July, the objective was not to defuse tensions in the restive city but to inflame them. “It was an escalation on top of escalation,” says Kelly Simon, interim legal director of the ACLU in Oregon. At the president’s direction, DHS deployed agents from an alphabet soup of federal agencies to Portland, including members of BORTAC, the border patrol’s SWAT team, despite an internal memo warning that these agents were not trained in crowd control. Repeating a tactic that local police had admitted was a mistake, DHS erected a fence between the courthouse and the street, creating a front line for battle.
A contingent of Portland protesters has long sought to provoke law-enforcement brutality to underscore how America is transforming into a police state. Trump appeared only too eager to prove them right. Initially, Fox News gave Trump the agitprop he craved. Sean Hannity painted Portland as a “war zone.” Tucker Carlson described a city under siege by “the armed wing of the Democratic Party.” Laura Ingraham warned that “if Biden is elected, Antifa will see it as their victory” and that “holy hell will be unleashed from coast to coast.” To suggest that Trump’s “law and order” messaging was tailor-made for Fox News would be to invert the matter. The network was built by Ailes to inject just this kind of authoritarian trope into America’s political bloodstream.
But Trump overplayed his hand. Protesters like Mac Smiff, a prominent black activist in Portland, described how the feds ratcheted up the violence. “We came out here dressed in T-shirts, using hula hoops and stuff — they started gassing us,” he said. “So we came back with respirators — they started shooting us. So we came back with vests — they started aiming for the head. So we started wearing helmets. And now they call us terrorists. Who’s escalating this? It’s not us.”
Adopting tactics from pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, protesters used umbrellas and homemade shields to guard themselves from projectiles, and shined laser pointers to disrupt the aim of agents. In federal court, Justice Department lawyers underscored injuries incurred by federal agents, including one hit by “a protester wielding a two-pound sledgehammer” and another “hit in the leg with a marble or ball bearing” from a slingshot. But the response by the federal agents was rarely directed at specific wrongdoers; the intention was mass punishment. In a nightly ritual, the feds burst out of the courthouse to scatter the crowd into the streets of downtown. An investigation by Physicians for Human Rights decried the “disproportionate, excessive, and indiscriminate,” federal violence, “that caused severe injury to innocent civilians.”
Public outrage grew with video of nonviolent protesters being abducted by camouflaged feds. (Attorney General Bill Barr would insist those snatched were suspected of having shined laser pointers at agents.) “I was afraid for my life,” Mark Pettibone, one of those captured, later told Congress. “They didn’t tell me who they were with or why I was being detained. They simply forced me into the back of the van.” The sweeps brought condemnation from the GOP’s libertarian wing, and the nation’s first Homeland Security chief, Tom Ridge, who blasted Trump for using DHS as a “personal militia.”
A general uprising by citizens of Portland soon gave Trump more than he bargained for. “What they didn’t realize is this is a city of resistance,” says Khan. First, a towering former Navy officer, 53-year-old Chris David, confronted federal marshals about their duty to the Constitution. The camouflaged agents maced him in the face and beat him with batons, shattering his hand. Then, a bloc of largely white moms in yellow T-shirts and bike helmets descended on the front lines, locking arms at the feds’ fence. “Going to join the Wall of Moms,” a mother named Tara Russell posted on Facebook on July 19th. “I really hope I don’t get tear-gassed, but I can’t sit at home anymore and watch these brave young people get beaten and rounded up by the Federal Secret Police.”
Protesters whom the president had marginalized as America-hating radicals now looked like the suburban housewives he wanted to spook into voting for him. In singsong unison, they taunted the federal agents: “Hands up, please don’t shoot me.” Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, blasted Trump: “Only a coward would try to convince the entire country that these people are violent anarchists.” After attending to his injuries, Chris David helped organize a Wall of Vets, which stood with a Wall of Dads, equipped with leaf blowers to combat tear gas.
Even Fox News condemned the president’s “overreach” in Portland. Trump lashed out. “The Lamestream Media, including @FoxNews, which has really checked out, is refusing to show what is REALLY going on in Portland,” he tweeted. “They want the American public to believe that these are just some wonderful protesters, not radical left ANARCHISTS!” Resorting to conspiracy theory, he raged, “The line of innocent ‘mothers’ were a scam.”
That same day, Kristen Jessie-Uyanik, a 41-year-old Portland mother of three (and, full disclosure, a buddy of mine from neighborhood barbecues), was shot between the eyes with riot munition. Centering the suffering of black Americans over her own discomfort, she encouraged her friends to “vote like you could get shot in the face for stepping out and speaking up.”
With the president on the defensive, Biden pressed his advantage, blasting Trump for seeking to “stoke division and chaos” in Portland. “This isn’t about law and order,” Biden added. “It’s about a political strategy to revive a failing campaign.”
Trump’s embrace of “law and order” politics was always a sign of desperation, argues Stevens, the GOP strategist. “In moments of stress, politicians try to do what they’re comfortable doing,” he says, comparing Trump to a fastball pitcher who hits a tight spot and tries to get out of it by bringing high heat. “Trump is the candidate of division. Trump is a candidate of anger. Trump is all about racial antagonism. So what’s he going to do when he’s in a jam? He’s going to try to create it. Try to make the country care about it. And I just don’t see any evidence it’s working.” In a recent poll, more suburban dwellers predict the nation will be less safe under a second Trump administration (48 percent) than under a Biden one (37 percent).
With no letup by protesters on the ground and Barr being raked over the coals for partisan deployment of federal law enforcement, the president seized on an offer presented by Gov. Brown for state troopers to secure the courthouse, giving Trump cover to withdraw his ad hoc army from the fence. Trump talked tough on the way out, blasting Portland as a “beehive of terrorists” and insisting his intervention had saved the city from being “burned and beaten to the ground.”
This is absurd, of course. The post-apocalyptic scenes of violence had played out within a perimeter of just a few blocks. A Starbucks near the courthouse remained bustling through the protests. And as the feds left town, the streets downtown returned to civility, with protesters making speeches in defense of black lives and celebrating the federal withdrawal. In a sign of Portlandia’s healing, a white guy on an electric unicycle turned victory laps while juggling bowling pins.
Was Portland a prelude for a broader federal crackdown in U.S. cities? In July, Trump sent federal law-enforcement teams to Chicago, Albuquerque, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee in a deployment called “Operation LeGend,” shamelessly named for a black preschooler killed by gun violence. Tapping into white racial fear that girds the “law and order” platform, the president argued without evidence that BLM protests “to shut down policing” had sparked an “explosion of shootings, killings, murders, and heinous crimes of violence.” Earl Blumenauer, who represents Portland in Congress, insists Trump’s “Gestapo-like tactics” have been “a dress rehearsal for other communities around the country.”
Kruse, the Princeton historian, doesn’t rule out a darker authoritarian purpose, but argues the TV-obsessed president’s play in Portland was likely propagandistic. The campaign, he argues, wants to cast Trump as the great patriot — cue images from his rally at Mount Rushmore — standing against anarchy in the streets — cue tear gas in Portland. “They’ve got the B-roll footage for campaign ads now,” with the intent, he says, to “scare middle-class white people back into their ranks.”
But the president has fundamentally misread the success of “law and order” politics, Kruse argues, which is effective as an insurgent strategy but can backfire on incumbents, whom voters blame when danger and chaos erupt in the streets. “Trump is trying to use something that only works if you’re not the one currently in charge,” Kruse insists.
Historian Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He insists the political well Trump is trying to tap has run dry. “The obsession with the supposed lessons of Nixon and ‘law and order’ politics,” he says, “is very ‘OK boomer.’”
If Republicans are trying to make this election about “the mob,” it’s because “they’re lost,” says Stevens. “They were going to run on the economy. Well, they can’t do that. And they were going to run against socialists,” and then Biden won the nomination. “Even their nickname, ‘Sleepy Joe Biden’ — is that supposed to scare women and children?” Worse for Trump, the attempt to shift the narrative to “law and order” is likely only to anger centrist voters who see him shirking his responsibility for the crises he’s bungled. “Covid-19 and the economy is what this race is about,” Stevens says. “And all the king’s men and all the king’s horses can’t make it about something else.”