Trump’s Authoritarian Theater Was Just for Show, Until It Wasn’t

A protester is arrested on July 24 in Portland. Photo: JD Barnes

General-election season typically announces itself with a handful of reliable signposts — veepstakes rumors, dueling party conventions, more frequent campaign rallies in contested states. The presidency of Donald Trump has occasioned a new one: the deployment of militarized federal forces on American soil. Their presence in Portland, Oregon (and at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2018), is more than a flex of authoritarian muscle. It marks, for Trump, the establishment of an election-year ritual, a political strategy ripe for replication anytime he faces the will of the voters. Especially if he thinks he might lose.

With three months to go until Election Day, the president is seeing some of the worst polling numbers of his tenure. Eight in ten Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction, and just 38 percent say the national economy is good, down from 67 percent in January, according to a recent survey conducted by the Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Trump now trails Joe Biden in several national general-election polls by double-digit margins, and he has watched his AP-NORC poll approval rating for his -handling of the pandemic plummet to 32 percent.

None of this means he can’t win in November. But it does mean that he has lost control of the era’s defining crisis — the capable management of which could have prevented mass death, soothed an economic convulsion, and wrapped Trump’s incumbent’s advantage in plated armor. Absent these outcomes, he’s instead pursuing his timeworn tactic of trying to scare people into voting for him. Polling indicated transpartisan support for Black Lives Matter protesters, but images of dissident-packed thoroughfares and business districts aflame — in Democratic-run cities, no less — were fertile ground for demagoguery, and Trump couldn’t resist. His first inclination was toward strongman theatrics. On June 1, after a conference call during which he urged state governors to “dominate” protesters (and threatened to send in the military if they could not), his administration used police to clear a pathway from the White House to a nearby church for a photo op. Nonviolent protesters were teargassed and beaten as Trump strolled vaingloriously over to the church, grimaced while holding a Bible, and then hustled back to the safety of his bunker.

It’s tempting to view what came next as a self–preservation impulse — the panic throes of a notoriously reactive and erratic president hearing the music. Surveying the landscape in July and noting that his polling numbers were still in free fall — despite his having issued a tepid executive order acknowledging that “some officers have misused their authority” — Trump followed through on his threats and dispatched federal agents to Portland several weeks after the city’s most unruly demonstrations had mellowed out. His intention was ostensibly to defend a federal courthouse that had been vandalized by dissidents. Reports from the Washington Post suggest that his real goal was terror and bedlam: to create an environment of heightened tension and violence that he could attribute to Democratic misrule and then portray himself as having quelled. Agents in fatigues, bearing no identifying insignia or name badges, snatched a protester off the street and threw him into an unmarked van (by mistake, it turns out; they were actually looking for someone else). Other agents surrounded the courthouse and engaged in brutal nightly showdowns with demonstrators that caused the protests not only to grow but to spread to other cities as well. It seemed lost on Trump that his campaigning as a bulwark against urban chaos was undermined by the urban chaos unfolding on his watch and at his behest. Yet, far from being an inexplicable whim, this tactic was both a repetition and an escalation for Trump. He ran for president while evoking Nixonian calls for “law and order” and casting himself as a foil to the Black Lives Matter movement and its attendant protests. He signaled a specific desire to deploy federal forces to U.S. soil four days after his inauguration speech, in which he described America — then, as now, enjoying some of its lowest national crime rates in decades — as a gory hell-scape. He later tweeted, “If Chicago doesn’t fix the horrible ‘carnage’ going on, 228 shootings in 2017 with 42 killings (up 24% from 2016), I will send in the Feds!” It didn’t take long for him to find other outlets for his ambitions.

In 2018, he was in circumstances similar to those he faces today, albeit without being on the ballot himself: With the midterm elections looming, the united government he’d enjoyed since he took office was in peril and a prospective “blue wave” of Democratic victories threatened to wrest the House of Representatives from Republican control. At the same time, a migrant caravan was making its way on foot through the Northern Triangle of Central America with designs on seeking asylum in the U.S. Trump and his allies quickly cast the refugees as an invading army whose defeat was dependent upon Americans’ voting the GOP back into power. Every few days brought a new escalation of this rhetoric. Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence suggested the caravan was populated by hundreds of drug traffickers and murderers; the president alluded to “unknown Middle Easterners” marching alongside them, a clear dog whistle meant to connote terrorism. The week before the election, Trump announced he was sending 5,200 active-duty military troops to the border to form a blockade. “I am bringing out the military for this National Emergency,” he tweeted at the time. “They will be stopped!” The White House made no effort to substantiate his claims of rampant bloodlust and latent terrorism among the migrants, and troops at the border were left to languish in boredom while the caravan inched torpidly through Guatemala and Mexico — even after the election passed and Trump lost interest.

It was obvious then that the soldiers were props. By deploying troops, the president sought to give the impression that they were necessary, fueling the perception of a violent crisis against which he and his party were the only reliable protection. Less clear at the time was just how replicable this strategy would prove to be in subsequent elections. But Trump’s enforcement actions this summer can only be read as a repeat campaign pageant, beholden more to his personal interests than any defensible measure of national security. Neither deployment was commensurate with the scale of the alleged emergency. The declining unrest in Portland has only intensified since Trump decided to “help.”

What comes next depends on Trump’s ambitions and his desperation. He’s already expanding his reach further. In remarks to the White House last month, Trump said he would dispatch federal agents to cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Oakland — “all run by liberal Democrats” — to crack down on recent spikes in crime. So far, he has deployed more to Portland (though the status of a reported withdrawal agreement with Governor Kate Brown that might reduce their presence remains unclear), as well as some to Seattle and Kansas City, Missouri, and is reportedly planning “surges” into Chicago and Albuquerque. Local leaders have almost uniformly protested these deployments. Trump has ignored them.

The president recently proposed to delay the election itself, again casting blue cities as ungovernable but for the White House’s interventions. He found few takers for the idea, but even if he fails to do so, it’s not unreasonable to envision a dire next few months — an election calendar marked by federal agents in fatigues not only roaming the streets and doing Trump’s bidding but patrolling polling sites where he fears high turnout or disrupting voter efforts to reach them. The degree to which he is thwarted, or sets his sights elsewhere, would speak less to the resilience of America’s democratic institutions than to their vulnerability.

*This article appears in the August 3, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Trump’s Authoritarian Theater Was for Show, Until It Wasn’t