Portland Is Trump's Testing Ground for Authoritarian Rule

Unmarked federal officers, gratuitous partisan violence and unconstitutional detentions: Donald Trump is abducting America's democracy

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Federal agents disperse Black Lives Matter protesters, July 20, 2020, in Portland, Oregon; President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, July 15, 2020
Portland is Trump's laboratory for a new politics of anti-constitutional state-sponsored violence and the suppression of civil rightsCredit: Noah Berger/AP, Patrick Semansky/AP

As more and more videos have emerged of unbadged, armed troops shoving protesters into unmarked rented vans in Portland, Oregon, and driving away without warning, explanation or transparency, coverage has exploded online. What is going on? Under whose authority?

The American public received belated confirmation that federal Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers, in Portland under an executive order from President Donald Trump, were responsible. But those officers still consistently refuse to explain their presence, actions or identity. 

One victim of the snatch-and-grab tactics, 29 year-old Mark Pettibone, said that he had no idea who was detaining him, since the armed men never identified themselves. "It seemed like it was out of a horror/sci-fi, like a Philip K. Dick novel. It was like being preyed upon,” Pettibone told the Washington Post.

Unsure if his abduction came at the hands of actual authorities or the far-right paramilitaries known to stalk Oregon, he landed in a holding cell at the federal court house, and it wasn’t until he asked for a lawyer that he was released. He was never charged with a crime.

With the hashtag #PortlandKidnapping trending on Twitter, there were comparisons made to the "disappearances" of dissidents under authoritarian rule. In countries like Chile, under military dictator Augusto Pinochet, the abduction of left-wing activists typically led to their torture and execution. In Portland, despite the gratuitous physical violence of security forces against demonstrators, we're not there, yet. 

But does the fact that no-insignia federal officers, ordered in by the president and denounced by local elected officials, are patrolling the streets of a major city and breaking up legal protests a sign that America is turning a corner? That we’ve reached a new stage in the creeping authoritarianism of the Trump presidency? What could it mean for constitutional rule and civil liberties over the coming months — and years?

That authorities are throwing protesters in unmarked vans is not new in the U.S. — not even in the last few weeks. But it’s worth drilling down into what’s happening in Portland to understand how replicable, and threatening, this is to America's democracy.

Portland joined the global protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd,with an unbroken sequence of protests, hitting day 52 on July 19. Though sometimes marred by riots and looting, the majority of the city’s protests involve people amassing adjacent to the city’s Justice Center, which houses the county courts and corrections facilities, calling for racial justice and to partly defund the police, redirecting those resources towards community-directed initiatives.

The response of Portland’s police force was disproportionately aggressive. They used batons, flash bangs, and pepper spray, fired tear gas canisters straight at protesters, and attacked reporters, leading to lawsuits and injunctions that altered the way police used crowd control munitions and ensured they treated journalists with the independent observer status they are due under the First Amendment 

Then Trump stepped in. He repurposed an executive order intended for "protecting monuments" to send in federal officers to defend federal buildings with none of the orders of restraint temporarily exhibited by Portland’s own police force and won at such cost. Instead, a peculiar mix of federal officers escalated crowd control methods, blanketing entire sections of downtown Portland in tear gas with little warning or obvious provocation. 

A DHS memo admitted that the under-trained federal officers are being deployed in situations for which they haven’t been trained and lack judgment and experience. The Portland police are now working with federal officers, contradicting the understandings made with city officials including the mayor.

Pushing back against the federal troops' presence, Portland Fire and Rescue banned federal agents from using their firehouses in solidarity with the City. Silent federal officers dressed in combat fatigues pulled protesters away into the smoke-filled night. 

And now their behavior, and that of their White House commander, has become a line in the sand for anyone concerned about civil liberties in today’s America.

"You have these federal officers who are likely exceeding their authority to both patrol the streets of Portland and also abducting people without probable cause,” says Juan Chavez of the National Lawyer’s Guild, who told us in a July 19th interview that the point of aggressive policing is to suppress people’s willingness to go into the streets: "The intimidation is most of the point."

He warns of a new U.S. political era: "This is the closest lurch we have had to this type of fascism...Trump is talking about deploying these federal troops to cities where he has already shown his disdain for the people who live there and the leadership of those cities."

Chavez used the word "fascism" to describe the situation in Portland. What does it mean to reference fascism in this way? How accurate, and helpful, are analogies to the Gestapo (which also trended on twitter in relation to Portland), to Nancy Pelosi’s reference to Trump’s "stormtroopers," to calling Portland a "dystopia" threatened by a "secret police force"?

Was actress and activist Patricia Arquette correct in acerbically summing up Trump's overstepping the bounds of normative democracy by saying: "It’s official. America has become a fascist state with Secret Police disappearing innocent U.S. citizens"? 

So how accurate are these claims, and how should we position and understand Trump’s actions in terms of the democracy-fascism spectrum?

President Trump is using his executive power to order in federal officers in a way few presidents have. From the Occupy movement to the 2014 Black Lives Matter protests to the current movement, Portland has seen protest waves and tactics escalate without need for federal intervention. There is no recent precedence for this.

Many are pointing to Trump’s plummeting poll numbers and the advancing date of the 2020 elections as a key trigger: instrumentalizing federal force for electoral gain. Oregon Governor Kate Brown believes that Trump is intent on exploiting, or provoking, the unrest in an appeal to the "law and order" part of his base who appreciate televised images of Black Lives Matter protesters clubbed with batons. 

The federal officers act like military occupiers with no local accountability. Their presence is proof that Trump is trying to appear as a "strongman," extending military intervention and control into the heart of those liberal cities he fulminates against on Twitter. If Trump, and successive acolytes, see that federal officers can wage a violent partisan war in American cities, that is indeed a radical precedent pushing us further towards right-wing authoritarianism.

Although the countries that have suffered under right-wing authoritarianism regimes are diverse, there are discernable patterns in their slide into authoritarianism. 

The struggle against the left, and left-leaning cities and towns in Italy did not begin with Mussolini as head of state. It began instead with loose-knit paramilitary bands of Blackshirts attacking leftists, breaking up left-wing protests, and engaging in a form of low-intensity insurgency against the liberal government. 

In post-war Italy, during the Dirty Wars in Argentina, and in the leadup to Pinochet’s coup in Chile, militant right-wingers allied with factions of the state used times of upheaval to assert themselves as agents responsible for the return of "law and order," even carrying out black ops terrorist attacks impersonating the left to mobilize public opinion in favor of a strong state with their cronies in charge.

But first, the would-be authoritarian leader needs to soften up the base by normalizing the language of violence and legitimizing associating with paramilitary "enforcers."

Trump has no qualms about his friends and allies, like convicted then presidentially pardoned felon Roger Stone, embracing and being embraced by far-right marauders like the Proud Boys, who have targeted left-liberal cities since his election. In June, Turning Point USA’s Chief Creative Officer, Benny Johnson, posed with heavily-armed comrades outside of the White House clad in the "uniform" of cop-killing terrorist Boogalooers, who have infiltrated protests in efforts to frame the left for violent actions. 

Trump himself exhorted his armed followers to open an insurgency against local governments who insisted on scientifically-mandated health and safety restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He glorified vigilantism, and specifically racist vigilantism  when he tweeted, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts." 

Trump’s constant support for vigilantes, militias, and other dissident members of the far right who flock to his banner planted the seeds for the societal turn toward authoritarianism and a chaotic combination of violent local police, under-trained federal agents, and right-wing militias seeking to do his bidding, often over and against local authorities.

While local officials insist federal officers leave, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolfe has declared that "valiant" federal officers, America’s true "patriots," will not be ordered out until local officials quash the "violent anarchists" "laying siege" to Portland. 

Mothers raise their fists as they support a protest against racial inequality and call for federal officers to leave the city. Portland, Oregon, July 20, 2020
Mothers raise their fists as they support a protest against racial inequality and call for federal officers to leave the city. Portland, Oregon, July 20, 2020.Credit: CAITLIN OCHS/ REUTERS

"Wolf is using a federal force to coerce local officials to make particular statements about law enforcement. That’s political theatre, in violation of the U.S. Constitution," says Monk.

Trump now says that the "fantastic jobs" those federal officers did in Portland means there should be a wider roll-out: New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Oakland and more. That would mean the spread of that authoritarian theatre across the country. Allied to this, he’s threatened to "take over cities" to reduce crime rates.

Trump can use the narrow parameters of federal jurisdiction to get federal officers onto the streets of Portland, but he cannot set the rules of engagement beyond what is legally mandated. Federal officers sent into an American city do not have a free pass for abusive behavior and baseless arrests just because the president sent them there.

"Even if federal property is involved, federal officers are subject to the same constitutional limits regarding free speech, due process, and search and seizure as local officials. We all live under one Constitution," says constitutional scholar and author of The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide Linda Monk, in an interview this week.

Federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters near the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Monday, July 20, 2020, in Portland, Ore. Officers used teargas and projectiles
Federal agents use crowd control munitions to disperse Black Lives Matter protesters near the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on Monday, July 20, 2020, in Portland, Oregon.Credit: Noah Berger,AP

In America, we’re already in that slide towards the legitimation of paramilitary force, the demonization of the political opponent and the strongman cult. The movement from fatigue-wearing militias, bristling with arms, against the post-George Floyd anti-racist demonstrations to unbadged federal officers engaging in "snatch-and-grab" tactics was so seamless, in fact, that journalists familiar with the Pacific Northwest raised serious concerns that local far right militias could have been responsible for the abductions.  

In some ways, the distinction between what are supposed to be legitimate law enforcement agencies and the right-wing extremists they’re supposed to contain and police may already be deteriorating. 

Police officers have posed with and supported far-right paramilitary groups from Olympia, Washington, to Salem, Oregon. New York City police union boss Ed Mullins promoted the QAnon pro-Trump conspiracy theory cult. 

From both directions, power is being concentrated in the hands of the executive branch, ie Trump: from below, by supportive armed right-wing paramilitaries, and from above, by federal "stormtroopers," both acting to control, even terrorize, all who oppose him. And all the while, Trump teases the mob rule mentality of his most ardent supporters, not least by questioning out loud if he really would leave the White House if he loses the November election. 

More and more fascist keystones — authoritarian power, a leadership cult and a (counter) revolutionary militarized support movement — appear to have been reached or at least, come into view. But how far has this been internalized by most Americans?

The National Lawyers Guild’s Juan Chavez worries about the Overton window effect, that people can "get used" even to a "terrible normal." "When people are confronted with something that feels out of control or seems too big to even fathom a lot of people decide to just get used to it. We got used to mass incarceration. We got used to the War on Terror going on for twenty years." That normalization of the abnormal can sap the urge to resist.

That’s why Portland is such an important moment. It should be seen as a trial run of a new protocol for suppressing legitimate urban protests and spreading fear in many more largely liberal cities and among marginalized communities. It should be seen as a red flag for how Trump will behave in the next few months as his populist support declines but his appetite for monopolizing power remains unabated. 

There are still ways for Oregon politicians to push back, though they seem miniaturized compared to the president’s potential firepower. Oregon is suing the federal government. A very unlikely scenario, though still theoretically possible, would see the governor bringing in the national guard to stop them, effectively declaring open war.

Now Trump has announced that he is sending federal officers to Chicago, other Democrat-controlled cities are on his waiting list. This makes the Portland testing ground all the more significant. Trump is announcing that with the federal officers under his control, he can essentially occupy cities whose inhabitants are in opposition to his policies as the election looms.

If both the federal incursion and their questionable tactics become a precedent, it’s not a long way from Trump disrupting democratic functioning and dissent come November. If Trump wins in November, this militarized federal intervention could escalate; and if he loses, he has prepared the ground for federal officers to intervene if he discounts the results. 

For now, Portland is the laboratory for a new politics of anti-constitutional state-sponsored violence and the suppression of civil rights. The question is what will happen when Portland ceases to be an extreme outlier and becomes a prelude to wider roll-out of authoritarian rule.

Without a strong opposition in the streets, and in the courts, there will then be little restraint on Trump effectively turning federal agencies into his secret police. Even for today’s sceptics, there’s no doubt that would qualify for the descriptor "fascist."

Shane Burley is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of "Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It" (AK Press, 2017) and "Why We Fight" (AK Press, 2021). His work has been featured in NBC News, Jacobin, Al Jazeera, The Baffler, Truthout, In These Times and Full-Stop. Twitter: @shane_burley1

Alexander Reid Ross is a Lecturer in Geography at Portland State University. He is the author of "Against the Fascist Creep" (AK Press, 2017). Twitter: @areidross

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