Opponents of Donald Trump often describe him as a “political genius” who has a cunning understanding of the anxieties and fears of American society, and is able to create and use crises to his favor. The current standoff in Portland shows, yet again, that this is not the case. While his alleged fight against antifa will satisfy some of his far-right supporters, it increasingly risks further alienating the so-called “moderate” Republicans – which seems mostly used to describe better-off pocketbook Republican voters – who are already feeling uneasy over his Covid-19 handling and the economic fallout of the pandemic.
An almost ignored aspect of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is that Trump failed to use it to push through his authoritarian agenda by increasing executive powers, weakening the powers of other institutions, like Congress, and marginalizing dissent, for instance by banning demonstrations. Almost all other countries implemented a more repressive approach to Covid-19, including those governed by progressive parties (like Spain), while most far-right governments used it to push through draconian repressive measures (such as Hungary and India).
Of course, the explanation is that Trump initially denied and ignored the dangers of Covid-19, arguing that “it’s going to work out fine” and “the warmer weather” would take care of it. This made it difficult for him to later shift to an authoritarian approach. Difficult, but certainly not impossible. But clearly Trump never wanted to. Instead, he kept insisting on an economic approach to re-election, repositioning himself as the savior of the US economy, and aggressively pushing for the “reopening of America”.
A second opportunity to push through an authoritarian agenda came with the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the police murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this spring. Trump’s response was as expected, playing to the broader Republican electorate’s racialized fears about chaos and rioting. In the 15 days between Floyd’s murder and funeral, Trump tweeted 195 times about unrest, law enforcement and the threat of military use.
But rather than prioritizing the race card, his natural response, Trump quite quickly redefined the Black Lives Matter protests as antifa protests. This redefinition was in line with two longer-term processes within the Trump camp. First, Trump seems to truly believe that he has a shot at significantly increasing his support among African Americans. For instance, he has long boasted that his administration “has done more for the Black Community than any President since Abraham Lincoln”. (Needless to say this is not true.)
Second, antifa has become a popular bogeyman within the broader conservative movement, at least since the provocative campus visits of (former) rightwing darlings like Milo Yiannopoulos in the early days of the Trump presidency. The altercations between far-right and Antifa activists, blown out of proportion by mainstream media, were happily incorporated into rightwing propaganda, and Antifa became a favorite topic of many of the president’s favorite shows on Fox News.
Trump became increasingly obsessed with antifa. He also spread conspiracy theories about antifa, parroting far-right media – like his new favorite television channel, One America News Network (OANN) – as well as far-right social media accounts. He even tweeted his intention to designate “ANTIFA” as a terrorist organization, an almost certainly unconstitutional move.
Strengthened by the information from his rightwing bubble, the Portland protests must have looked like a golden opportunity to him. Portland has long been one of the main symbols of leftwing politics in the US – it’s viewed positively by progressives, despite slightly mocking programs like Portlandia, and negatively by the right wing.
But the problem is that the Portland protests play only to one of Trump’s ideological strongholds: authoritarianism. Given that Portland is the whitest big city in the US, the vast majority of protesters are white, which leaves his biggest asset, racism, largely irrelevant. Similarly, populism is largely useless, as few people will believe that “the elite” live in, or deeply care for, Portland – unlike, for instance, New York.
Portland is not only a bad choice because of the limited appeal to the broader Republican electorate. It could also seriously backfire. Police brutality against small, and even radical, groups of protesters could lead to broader support for the protesters.
This happened, for instance, at the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-14, and it seems to be happening now in Portland too. As Trump’s “little green men” are picking up peaceful protesters from the streets, without adequate identification and in unmarked cars, the discussion is moving away from the alleged violence by antifa to the threat to US democracy posed by the Trump administration.
The redefinition of the protests goes hand in hand with the diversification of the protesters. No longer are the protesters just young, white “anarchists” who can count on little particular sympathy outside of small progressive circles; now stalwarts of America’s conservative society are represented too: mothers and veterans. And they are arrested, beaten and teargassed too.
In a society as deeply militarized and patriarchal as America, vets and mothers are powerful symbols of the existing order. Seeing them protest against the government, and particularly a dubious and unnecessarily violent paramilitary unit, is a publicity problem for the Trump administration. These are the salt of the earth of the Republican electorate, who will not automatically assume these groups are in the wrong. Moreover, many Republicans will have much less tolerance for disproportionate repression to white moms and vets than they sadly have towards African Americans and white leftwing youths.
In short, Trump’s decision to “unleash” authoritarianism in Portland was a poor one. Having ignoring much better opportunities like Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, he is caught in a confrontation that enthuses only a part of his base and increasingly worries the broader Republican electorate. And as the public image of the Portland protester is more and more reflecting some stalwarts of American society, and therefore the Republican electorate, Trump might be increasingly fighting himself.
The fact that the federal police are now being withdrawn from Portland shows that even Trump has realized his mistake.