ELDonald Trump advocates often describe him as a “political genius” who has a shrewd understanding of the anxieties and fears of American society and is able to create and use crises in his favor. The current location in Portland proves, once again, that this is not the case. While his alleged fight against antifa will satisfy some of his far-right supporters, he increasingly runs the risk of alienating so-called “moderate” Republicans, who seem primarily used to describe Republican paperback voters better than they are already feeling uneasy about their covid-19 management and the economic downturn of the pandemic.
An almost ignored aspect of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is that Trump did not use it to push his authoritarian agenda by increasing executive powers, weakening the powers of other institutions, such as Congress, and marginalizing dissent, e.g. prohibiting demonstrations. Almost all other countries implemented a more repressive approach to Covid-19, including those ruled by progressive parties (such as Spain), while most far-right governments used it to push for 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 will go well” and that “the warmer climate” would deal. This made it difficult for him to later move to an authoritarian approach. Difficult, but certainly not impossible. But obviously Trump never wanted it. Instead, he continued to insist on an economic approach to re-election, repositioning himself as the savior of the U.S. economy and aggressively pushing for the “reopening of America.”
A second opportunity to drive an authoritarian agenda came with the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killings of Amhmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this spring. Trump’s response was as expected, playing on the racialized fears of the wider Republican electorate by chaos and unrest. In the 15 days between Floyd’s assassination and funeral, Trump tweeted 195 times about the unrest, law enforcement and the threat of military use.
But instead of prioritizing the race card, his natural response, Trump pretty quickly redefined the Black Lives Matter protests as antifa protests. This redefinition was in line with two long-term processes within Trump’s camp. First, Trump seems to truly believe he has an advantage in significantly increasing his support among African Americans. For example, it has long been 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 visits to campus of beloved elders like Milo Yiannopoulos in the early days of Trump’s presidency. Arguments between far-right activists and Antifa, which were not commensurate with the mainstream media, were happily incorporated into right-wing propaganda and Antifa became the favorite topic of many of the president’s favorite programs on Fox News.
Trump became increasingly obsessed with antifa. He also spread conspiracy theories about antifa, turning off far-right media, such as his new favorite television channel, One America News Network (OANN), and also far-right media accounts. He even tweeted his intention to designate “ANTIFA” as a terrorist organization, a kind almost certainly unconstitutional.
Strengthened by the information of his right-wing bubble, the Portland protests were to seem like a golden opportunity for him. Portland has been one of the main symbols of left-wing politics in the US: progressives are viewed positively, despite slightly mocking programs like Portlandia, and negatively on the right.
But the problem is that the Portland protests have only one of Trump’s ideological strengths: authoritarianism. Since Portland is the whitest city in the United States, the vast majority of protesters are white, leaving much of its most important asset, racism. Similarly, populism is useless, as few people believe that the “elite” lives in Portland or cares much, unlike, say, New York.
Portland is not just a bad choice because of its limited appeal to the wider Republican electorate. There could also be a serious fire attack. Police brutality against small and even radical groups of protesters could provoke wider support for protesters.
This happened, for example, at the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-14, and it seems that this is also happening in Portland. As Trump’s “little green men” gather peaceful protesters in the streets, without proper identification and in unmarked cars, the discussion moves away from the alleged anti-violence violence of the threat to American democracy posed by the Trump administration.
The redefinition of the protests goes hand in hand with the diversification of the protesters. Protesters are no longer just white, young “anarchists,” who may have little particular sympathy outside of small progressive circles; the landscapes of American conservative society are also represented: mothers and veterans. And they are also arrested, beaten and mistreated.
In a society as deeply militarized and patriarchal as America, veins and mothers are powerful symbols of the existing order. Seeing them protest against the government, and in particular a dubious and unnecessarily violent paramilitary unit, is a publicity problem for the Trump administration. This is the salt of the land of the Republican electorate, which will not automatically assume that these groups are wrong. In addition, many Republicans will have much less tolerance for the disproportionate repression of white mothers and veterinarians they sadly have in front of African Americans and young people on the white left.
In short, Trump’s decision to “trigger” authoritarianism in Portland was poor. Having ignored much better opportunities like the Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, he finds himself caught up in a confrontation that excites only a portion of his base and increasingly worries the wider Republican electorate. And as the public image of the Portland protester increasingly reflects some situations peculiar to American society and therefore the Republican electorate, Trump could fight more and more.
The fact that the Portland federal police are now withdrawing shows that even Trump has realized his mistake.
Cas Mudde is the UGAF international affairs professor Stanley Wade Shelton, author of The Far Right Today (2019) and host of the new Radikaal podcast