The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump recklessly deploys forces in Portland to distract from the pandemic

A federal law enforcement official fires tear gas at protesters in Portland, Ore., on Sunday.
A federal law enforcement official fires tear gas at protesters in Portland, Ore., on Sunday. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

THE RIGHT to protest is enshrined in the Constitution; any attempt by government to squelch it forcibly is an affront to our most cherished values. Vandalism and violence of the sort that, for more than a month, have attended the mostly peaceful protests in Portland, Ore., are different: antithetical to public order, a blow to blameless property owners and, as a political matter, a gift to President Trump.

The president is a master of distraction and misdirection; predictably, he has seized on the disorder in Portland to deflect attention from the pandemic and to exploit the country’s deepening tribal divisions, which have served his political purposes so well. In the name of restoring order, he has weaponized law enforcement officers, uniformed as shock troops. Rather than de-escalate, they seem deployed to inflame what was already a volatile series of daily demonstrations.

The troops — they can only be called that given their weapons, tactics and aggressivity — share the unaccountable-by-design traits of those in banana republics and autocracies. They travel in unmarked vehicles, snatch protesters from the streets without probable cause and bear no clearly visible identification by name or agency.

As President Trump threatens to unleash the military on American cities roiled in civil unrest, it's clear that he's embracing his inner Nixon. (Video: The Washington Post)

Administration officials say they have deployed personnel to Portland from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, both overseen by an unconfirmed acting secretary of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf. Mr. Wolf is a political operative who worked for Republican senators and as a lobbyist; his brief previous policy roles in government afforded him minimal experience in law enforcement — and it shows.

It serves Mr. Trump’s purposes that some small percentage of Portland’s protesters identify themselves as antifa, the amorphous left-wing fringe movement. That fact, along with acts of violence against police and property, have enabled the president and his acolytes to smear them all as anarchists and afforded him a pretext on which to deploy his counterproductive troops. They were requested by neither city nor state officials. With Mr. Trump trailing in the polls and the coronavirus infecting tens of thousands more victims daily, Portland may be a forerunner of other such interventions in liberal cities as Election Day approaches.

The danger to life, limb and democracy is evident. One protester, holding up a speaker, was shot in the head and needed facial reconstruction surgery after he picked up a smoke grenade fired in his direction and rolled it a few feet back whence it came. Another, a former Navy officer, was beaten, his hand broken, by a baton-wielding officer; his offense was to try to speak with the officers. It seems like luck that no one has been killed — so far.

National hatreds are the organizing principles of Mr. Trump’s political doctrine and reelection strategy. He is content with escalation, and his reckless deployment of forces is designed to deliver it.

Read more:

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Ruth Marcus: Trump’s agents are sweeping peaceful citizens off the streets. This is not America.

Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman: The Oregon governor wants federal officers out of Portland. Trump officials won’t listen. Why?

Greg Sargent: A protester was shot by police in Oregon. Democrats should demand answers.

Keegan Stephan: Portland isn’t Portlandia. It’s a capital of white supremacy.