As the Trump administration takes its “law and order” show on the road after a dress rehearsal at Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and a soft opening in Portland, Oregon, let me just say I’m disgusted with almost everybody involved.
Let’s start with the Portland demonstrators. Contrary to heroic PR efforts from many in the mainstream media, these aren’t great people. Oh sure, I have no doubt some, even many, are decent enough on a personal level. But even decent people become ugly when they lend their bodies and voices to mobs and riots. Even if they just watch, they’re encouraging rioting and violence.
Then there’s the mainstream and left-wing media. When right-wing protesters—foolishly in my opinion, but also peacefully—gathered to denounce lockdown orders during the early days of the pandemic, virtually everybody to the left of Fox News insisted it was dangerous, fascistic and scary (which, by the way, is how the media mostly covered Tea Party rallies a decade ago).
But whether it was peaceful protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing or even rioting and arson, the non-right media covered it all in a spirit of near celebration, with the occasional tsk-tsking for some excesses.
Now let us turn our gaze rightward. To listen to many on the right, in and out of the administration, the goons in Portland are domestic terrorists on par with al-Qaeda or ISIS. Indeed, President Trump said in June he would designate “Antifa”—a loose affiliation of radicals, jackasses, and radical jackasses—a terrorist organization. Characteristically, he hasn’t followed through on that threat (though that hasn’t stopped Antifa sympathizers from pretending he did so they can spin conspiracy theories about how the administration is denying Antifa members due process).
The goal is to create a domestic enemy that only Trump can save us from. It’s part of the administration’s larger effort to re-create the moral panic he fomented in 2016 with his “American carnage” rhetoric, and failed to foment with the immigrant caravan in 2018. Many on the right are only too happy to help with the messaging.
That’s the basic context for Trump’s decision to send federal agents into Portland and now other cities. This has elevated the ridiculousness on both sides by an order of magnitude. Those on the left insist it’s illegal and unconstitutional. It’s neither. Democrats and media commentators glibly talk about how this use of a “gestapo” makes us a “police state” no different from China. That’s absurd, not least because the law is on the administration’s side (so far), but also because China’s police state is competent. If the Trump administration wanted to act like China, it would round up (or kill) all of the protesters, violent and peaceful alike.
I have no principled objection to federal agents protecting federal property from rioters and arsonists. What bothers me is that the administration’s tactics and motives are all about manufacturing a political narrative that helps Trump’s campaign, elevates the status of the rioters and arsonists, and gives critics license to prattle on about dictatorship.
Trump long ago proved he doesn’t really want to be a dictator. (That requires too much work.) He wants to be a TV star. What’s outrageous isn’t that Trump is using federal agents on American soil, or even that he’s doing it without an invitation from local politicians. What’s outrageous is why he’s doing it.
When China crushes protests, it crushes them because that’s the goal. Trump has the opposite goal. He wants more protests, more riots, because his campaign thinks it needs to make facts on the ground fit its “law and order” sloganeering and exaggerations.
The idiot mobs of Portland are only too happy to give Trump what he wants, which is why they started focusing their wrath on federal buildings in the first place. Indeed, all the stakeholders (save for the majority of Americans) get what they want. The “resistance”-drunk left-wing media is gleeful to further heighten tensions by downplaying the dark side of the protests to fit their preferred narrative about Trump being an authoritarian. The Trump-besotted right-wing media gets to highlight the mainstream media’s cleanup operation to show how the “fake news” is just out to get Trump.
It’s a collective action problem, a tragedy of the political commons, in which all actors get to harvest the facts that help their cause, leaving the rest of us wondering how things got so stupid.
Photograph by Paula Bronstein/Washington Post/Getty Images.