Omar El Akkad is the author of American War. He lives in Portland, Ore.
At the corner of Salmon Street and 3rd Avenue, which this week became the latest epicentre of the Trump administration’s continuing dalliance with fascism, a man walks around handing out free bibles. A few locals stroll through the park, taking pictures of the tents that line the grass, the graffiti on the walls of the federal courthouse across the street, and the mutilated roundabout where earlier this month city workers pulled down a 120-year-old elk statue for fear it would come crashing down on protesters. There’s a police station down the way but on this day there are almost no officers around. At night they will emerge and the street will become a fog of tear gas; the violence will begin. For almost 60 days it has been like this but now, for the first time and perhaps only briefly, the world is watching.
Earlier this month, reports first surfaced of federal agents snatching people off the streets of downtown Portland, hurtling them into unmarked vans and driving them to undisclosed locations without informing them of their rights or the reason for their arrest. After initially distancing itself from what, in the mind of almost anyone subjected to the act, would be reasonably called kidnapping, the Department of Homeland Security admitted its agents were responsible. Under the guise of protecting federal property, DHS has sent more than a hundred of its officers – decked out in faux-military camouflage and armed with automatic rifles – to help turn Portland into the urban war zone that the Trump campaign needs it to be.
It almost goes without saying these days, but the narrative the White House and its enablers have created about this city – that of rampant lawlessness and shadowy antifa terror cells – is complete fantasy. When acting Homeland Security chief Chad Wolf – a man whose continued occupancy of the position is itself almost certainly unconstitutional – takes to the podium to describe 50-some days of chaos and violence on the streets of Portland, he is delivering not a statement of fact, but a campaign speech. Without a single domestic or foreign policy leg left to stand on, hemorrhaging support even in the deepest South and watching a daily count of dead pandemic victims attributable overwhelmingly to its own indifference and incompetence, the Trump administration is left with its oldest and most reliable piece of fiction – President Donald Trump as the last man standing between traditional, God-fearing America and outright anarchy. It is, in every respect, political theatre, except the actors carry real guns.
As expected, the release of federal pseudo-soldiers into the heart of a major U.S. city against the wishes of local officials has had the opposite of its every publicly stated intent. A protest movement that had begun to dwindle from exhaustion after two months of tear gas and mass police violence has suddenly experienced a stunning resurgence, fuelled by a new group of older, more privileged demonstrators who share a conscious or unconscious awareness that the violence the state unleashes on young Black activists, it might be more reluctant to unleash on white moms. Civil liberties groups have filed a bevy of lawsuits against the federal government, and the end result may well be a judicial reckoning with the Department of Homeland Security itself, an agency born during the post-9/11 frenzy of unchecked militarization and almost unbounded in its powers of arrest and jurisdiction.
But in the short term, none of this matters. What is happening in Portland is not a crime-fighting strategy or even a remotely good-faith attempt at crisis policy, but rather an imposition of ideology undertaken by an administration for whom the only goal is power and the only crime dissent. And as is the case with the internment camps along the southern border where children are still being held, or the historically inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic, or any one of the Trump administration’s countless cruelties, the Republican Party has made it quite clear that it is willing to accept this latest deterioration of American democracy – that it is, in the final accounting, an acceptable price to pay in exchange for the right to pick Supreme Court judges and make lifetime federal appointments.
Someone is likely to die from this, if not in Portland then in Chicago, or wherever else Mr. Trump takes his travelling campaign road show of state violence. Sooner or later one of these federal officers, high on adrenaline and marinated fully in the ideology and costume of warfighter, will flinch and pull the trigger. And it should be said now that none of this had to happen. There was never any real public safety justification for sending a little-league militia to a city where protest has been overwhelmingly peaceful, where two months of civil unrest has produced about as much damage as the average tailgate party. There was never any need to describe as terrorism the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right. But this is the only United States of which Mr. Trump is truly President – the one in which spray paint is a weapon and a temporarily displaced elk statue a declaration of war. Hurtling aimlessly toward an election he might not win and – in anything approximating a morally competent, well-informed society – should not win, he is left with the only strategy he has ever known: Create self-serving chaos and let someone else clean up the mess. In that respect, those federal officers on the streets of Portland are not crime-fighters, nor paragons of virtue in the war between civil society and barbarism. They’re walking election pamphlets – an interactive campaign ad.
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