Trump’s deployment of federal agents to the streets of Portland, and his announced plans to do the same in Chicago, Albuquerque, and other US cities has been widely disparaged as a tactic to reverse his plunging approval ratings and shore up a flagging campaign. Trump himself was quite clear about the partisan stakes involved. “I’m going to do something — that, I can tell you,” he told reporters from at the White House, “Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats.”
Indeed, Trump’s current campaign ads are of a piece with his armed deployments, depicting frightening images of social chaos brought about by campaigns to defund the police, and accompanying text such as “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem. They are DESTROYING our cities and rioting – it’s absolute madness.”
“Law and order” began to be a Republican campaign theme in the racial realignment of the two major political parties that began in the 1960s. Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 first sought to rescue his failing electoral prospects by playing up fears of racial transgression and social breakdown with a short film called Choice. It depicted mostly white drunken hoodlums, joy-riders, half-naked dancers, and Black urban looters. Goldwater thought the film was too provocative, however, and told his campaign director, “I’m not going to be made out to be a racist. You can’t show it.”
Richard Nixon, pushed by the belligerent rhetoric of third-party segregationist candidate George Wallace in 1968, ran on an explicit “law and order” platform, contrasting the law-abiding “Silent Majority” with protestors and rioters. Twenty years later the campaign of George H.W. Bush availed itself of racist crime fears by running the notorious “Willie Horton” campaign ad created by political operative Lee Atwater.
It has not just been Republicans of course – Democratic candidate Bill Clinton cinched the New Hampshire primary in 1992 by flying home to Little Rock to personally oversee the execution of a mentally disabled Black man; and later that year holding a campaign event in Georgia at the Stone Mountain Correctional Institution in front of a group of mostly black prisoners.
The rhetoric of “law and order” is, by definition, authoritarian. But Trump has taken it a step further, using the resources of his office to turn campaign rhetoric into actual state violence. Directing US Marshals, the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, the Department of Homeland Security’s Special Response Team, and other federal agents assault protestors and “restore order” is not just any campaign strategy, but one that turns electoral competition – a fundamental feature of liberal democratic regimes – into a fascist assertion of political rule.
Trump is demonstrating that while it may be impossible to build out an electoral coalition and persuade new voters, he can use federal agents under executive authority to directly violate and abuse the enemies of his party. By starting with the comparatively white city of Portland, Trump has simultaneously avoided appearing to target Black protestors, while still offering up the “violent anarchists” who populate the fever dreams of his right-wing base. Shooting peaceful protestors with impact munitions; beating demonstrators with batons and fists, snatching people off the streets and into unmarked vans; and flooding the streets of downtown with tear gas is the initial gift of sadistic pleasure to his most ardent supporters.
Having done this, Trump can move on to majority Black and Latinx cities from Chicago to Baltimore, Detroit to Oakland, claiming to pacify these Democratic cities, which he says are experiencing a “shocking explosion of shootings, killings, murders and heinous crimes of violence” as a result of police defunding efforts.
That Border Patrol and ICE agents are the heart of this “surge” (the term Barr prefers, suggestive of US imperial tactics abroad) is no mistake. These are the very state actors responsible for the cruelty of caging people on the US-Mexico border, of tearing children from their parents, of abducting people from their homes, workplaces, and off the street. For them, it has already been fascism here. Indeed, the victims of colonization and racial rule have long pointed out that fascism is worked out on them before being applied more broadly.
Demonizing the residents of these cities as fearsome criminals authorizes an unleashing of violence – “dominance” in Trump’s words. If there is a question as to whether he can defeat Democrats politically in November, he wants to demonstrate that he can defeat them militarily. In doing so, he will have moved his most fanatical supporters onto a more warlike footing. It gives new and ominous meaning to the term battleground states.