Trump directs a campaign ad in PortlandJuly 25, 2020
President Donald Trump is conjuring up an American dystopia — using the government and his supporters as producers.
At White House briefings, in far-right outlets and among Republicans, Trump’s allies have made a sound stage out of four blocks in Portland, turning it into a campaign ad for the president. On Friday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany showed a video of Portland protesters yelling obscenities at police. On Capitol Hill, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz on Thursday announced he would hold a hearing on “antifa terrorism” and wrote an op-ed promising to “take back Portland.” On Fox News, pundits have turned attention to other cities, such as Chicago, that they claim are in similar situations. In short, they say, it’s the America Joe Biden would create.
The theatrical display is giving Trump the ammunition he needs to fight perhaps his most aggressive culture war against urban, liberal voters. The effort is a subset of the broader “law and order” platform he is trying to create after the coronavirus pandemic decimated the economy — previously seen by Republicans as his best selling point — and massive anti-racism protests broke out across the country. It’s a foray Trump essentially launched the day he marched from the White House to the vandalized St. John’s Church, stopping to hold up a Bible and have his photo taken.
“I think he’s fishing around for an image, for optics that project the image he’s trying to retain,” said Seth Mandel, the executive editor of the right-leaning Washington Examiner magazine. “‘Law and order,’ as he says.”
Meanwhile, there is another image of Portland that has emerged outside of the Trump echo chamber. Local Portland media outlets — as well as most news organizations — have shown a scene that features mostly peaceful albeit vocal protesters taking up a few square blocks, spraying graffiti and lighting some fires. But the primary debate has been over the right of unmarked federal officers to enter the city, fire tear gas on unarmed marchers and toss protesters into unmarked vehicles without formally arresting them. In short, they say, it’s the America Trump has created.
It’s the latest split-screen reality of the last four years.
And it’s the culmination of years of GOP narrative-building, said Jared Holt, a reporter at Right Wing Watch, a nonprofit that tracks conservative media and far-right groups.
“This kind of messaging has been going on for years, whether it was in Berkeley or in the streets of New York City,” he said. “Instances where we see anarchist or anti-fascist demonstrators taking to the streets to oppose what they believe to be bigoted or fascistic political movements or actors, has been spun and regurgitated to right-wing audiences as a imminent threat against any Trump supporter or conservative who loves the country.”
And Trump is trying to use that division to his advantage.
Over the past month, as unemployment claims rose again, new coronavirus hotspots emerged, and Biden pulled further ahead in the polls, Trump has turned to several different culture war issues to agitate his base.
He has called the Black Lives Matter movement “a symbol of hate,” focused intensely on protesters defacing and pulling down statues and repeatedly called for the amorphous concept of “antifa” to be classified as a domestic terrorist group despite having no clear authority to do so. He attempted to portray Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone — a six-block zone overtaken by anti-policing activists — as a breeding ground for mass antifa violence, only to see it dismantled without much incident by local officials.
In his description of Portland and other cities, Trump is also adding to a long-running attempt to demonize American cities as lawless pits, from tweeting about “sanctuary cities” being overrun with immigrants and threatening to send undocumented migrants to San Francisco, to his claim that homelessness only started two years ago due to “liberal mayors” running these cities.
“We may intercede,” Trump told Fox News host Tucker Carlson in 2019. “We may do something to get that whole thing cleaned up.”
The recent rise in protests has only given more fuel for the right to portray city leaders as complicit with antifa or unable to stand up to violence.
And Portland has become the perfect staging ground. While the city’s protests had been dying down before Trump sent in federal troops, the region already had a reputation in conservative circles as a hotbed of antifa violence — primarily due to the presence of far-right militia groups protesting there over the years, and the media coverage of their subsequent clashes with left-wing protesters and antifa groups.
The 2019 assault of conservative journalist and Quillette writer Andy Ngo introduced the Portland narrative to a wider conservative audience, said Holt.
“All this rage bait coming out of Portland, getting right-wing audiences all hyped up and twisted out of sorts about antifa — now we’re at a turning point in the equation where the Trump administration is using the force of the government to get involved in this sort of outrage cycle.”
Alexander Reid Ross, an adjunct professor at Portland State University and the author of “Against the Fascist Creep,” added that Trump’s intercession was viewed on the ground as an escalation. In particular, the federal officers reminded locals of the far-right militias, like Patriot Prayer, that had previously descended on the city.
“At this point, people are just looking at that and saying, this is just Patriot Prayer with a semblance of legitimacy,” Ross said. “So while they’re wearing badges and while they’re wearing camo fatigues, they still look like militias.”
Meanwhile, Trump has portrayed the interventions as just an offer to re-establish order.
“We want to go in and help the cities, we want to help Chicago, we want to help all of them,” Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox News recently. “We’ll go into all the cities, any of the cities. We’ll put in 50,000, 60,000 people that really know what they are doing. And they are strong, tough, and we can solve these problems so fast. But as you know, we have to be invited in.”
The goal, Trump’s critics said, is to put Biden into a position where any sort of criticism of Trump’s strategy would make him look like a leftist chaos-monger.
“Maybe Joe Biden condemns the police action against the protesters,” Holt said, “and is therefore anti-police.”
That offense has already started. After Biden this week accused Trump of using “egregious tactics” in suppressing his critics in Portland and described him as “ determined to sow chaos and division,” Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh pointed the finger right back at him, saying Biden had “sided with criminals.”
“That Biden would accuse law enforcement of ‘stoking the fires of division’ while the mob is literally setting fires to police buildings is unconscionable,” Murtaugh said in a statement. “Biden has clearly lost his moral bearings and failed the leadership test.”