Over the past week, the Trump administration has taken a number of dubious actions to quell protests in Portland against the express wishes of the mayor and the governor of Oregon. The official version is that federal officers from the Department of Homeland Security are protecting federal buildings that have been the focus of Black Lives Matter protests. The more disturbing version is that unidentified U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel are wearing camouflage gear, assaulting protesters, and driving around in unmarked vans picking up random people.
These actions have raised questions about the legality of what is being done. The Oregon attorney general has filed suit. Even the U.S. attorney for Oregon has called for a DOJ investigation.
I will leave it to other, wiser individuals to assess the legal and moral implications of these actions. I'm just a small-town political scientist, so I'll confine my response to a more concrete question: What is the political gain that Donald Trump and his administration perceive they will garner from these actions?
Let's dismiss out of hand the notion that this is about suppressing "violent anarchists," which is the language that acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf and his underlings keep using to describe the protesters. If there were as much BLM-inspired violence as Wolf et al say there is, it should not be hard to find confirming video evidence of such carnage. The best that DHS officials can do, however, is a small wound to the lower leg that needed four stitches. Acting deputy secretary of homeland security Ken Cuccinelli tweeted a picture and:
"@CBP federal agent injured by a deadly weapon used by criminals in Portland. They also tried to set the building on fire with personnel inside. To justify or deflect this criminal behavior is idiotic and dangerous."
Given that acting Customs and Border Protection chief Mark Morgan's superior described it as "a slingshot," I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Morgan might be exaggerating the "deadly weapon" claim.
More importantly — this is it? This is the best example of violence that DHS can find on video? Compare that scrape to, say, the Navy vet who asked federal officers in Portland to remember their oaths. They then broke his hand.
This is not actually about anarchy in Portland because the city seems both ordered and copacetic with what's happening. This is about something else. What political gain does Trump see from escalating and nationalizing this situation?
One possibility is that he believes this kind of law-and-order "performative authoritarianism" as a winning move because it a) is not about COVID-19 and b) plays into old partisan divisions. According to The Washington Post, Trump characterized the unrest in Portland as "worse than Afghanistan" and said, "We're looking at Chicago, too. We're looking at New York. . . . All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left." Maybe Trump thinks that he can use DHS forces to goad protesters into violent actions that lead to greater political support.
This might be true, but it also demonstrates the degree to which the New York Times's Maggie Haberman is correct: Trump's view of his base has devolved into a complete caricature of what conservatives want:
"From holding a Bible aloft for a photo op outside a historic church, to scolding NASCAR for banning the Confederate flag at its races, to heralding the 'heritage' of the South, Mr. Trump repeatedly elevates to the public stage what he imagines are the top priorities for the voters who back him...
"The way Mr. Trump views or talks about his supporters has not changed since he became president, despite the fact that he has access to some of the most richly detailed information available on the voters who supported him in 2016, and what they respond to, from surveys conducted for his campaign and the Republican National Committee. As a way to gauge what his supporters react to, he has thrown out provocative statements at his rallies, where he has gotten the adulation he has craved for decades."
Trump's inability to hold rallies the past few months has eliminated one of the few feedback mechanisms he trusts for road-testing political tactics. This might explain why his impulses on law and order have been so off. Even a glance at the FiveThirtyEight poll tracker shows that his administration's actions at Lafayette Square had a catastrophic effect on his polling, nearly doubling Joe Biden's national lead.
Also, as multiple people pointed out when protests began after the killing of George Floyd, it is very hard for Trump to run as a law-and-order candidate when the anarchy he claims is spreading is happening on his watch. Conservative journalist Jonah Goldberg is not wrong when he tweets, "whatever you think of it, this stuff is happening now, 3.5 years into Trump's presidency. What's he done to stop it? Catastrophizing local events is silly. But claiming the incumbent is the only one who can stop what's been happening on his watch is weird." Or, as political scientist Omar Wasow puts it, "Trump fails to understand that images of crackdowns portray him less as Nixon and more as Bull Connor."
Furthermore, as the story about anonymous federal officers in Portland has spread, it has unsurprisingly led to bigger protests. And now they are contending with moms.
In my experience, radicalizing mothers is a bad political harbinger for anyone responsible. These optics are extremely unlikely to cause voters not already with Trump to shift toward him.
It is possible that Trump mistakenly believes that this is a winning political move. But there is another, darker possibility. As 2020 has progressed, two things have become increasingly clear: 1) Donald Trump is losing the presidential race to Joe Biden. 2) Trump is doing everything in his power to consolidate and expand his power over the executive branch. From loyalty tests to D-list appointments to his attraction to legally dubious executive orders, Trump has tried to surmount his fundamental weakness as a political leader and augment the awesome powers of the presidency.
Trump's actions in Portland are consistent with his desire (and his subordinates' desire) to expand the power of the executive branch. The Atlantic's David Graham puts it plainly: "Trump appears to be trying to do something novel in this country: establishing a force like interior ministries in other countries." Those kinds of forces tend to be bad for mass social movements.
This is a president who is at best ambivalent about acknowledging a loss at the ballot box this November — a loss that seems likely. It is not hard to envisage these moves as a means to assert control while contesting the results of November's election.
Graham also notes that, "This is an amateurish way to cobble together a national police force, characteristic of the improvisational authoritarianism of the Trump administration." It is worth remembering that these actions have caused discomfort at DoD and destroyed morale at DHS. There are significant forces, including the military, the National Guard, the FBI, that would probably oppose any outright effort by Trump to declare something like martial law and cancel the election outcome. But the fact that I had to even write that last sentence scares the bejeezus out of me.
With Trump, I tend to choose incompetence over malevolence in explaining his actions. It is likely that he thinks this will be a winning political move, even if it is not. This is one of those instances, however, in which one should absolutely be prepared for malevolence. Democrats in Congress, the Biden campaign, the courts, the governors, civil society organizations, and even the U.S. military need to start preparing for the contingency of an immature president who refuses to leave the office. Because this is all too plausible an explanation for why Trump and his toadies are doing what they are doing right now.
Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. This piece was written for The Washington Post.