Donald Trump’s authors often describe him as a “political genius” who has a cunning understanding of the anxieties and fears of American society, and is able to create and use crises in his favor. The current stability in Portland shows again that this is not the case. While his alleged fight against antifa will satisfy some of his far-right supporters, he increasingly risks further alienating the so-called “moderate”; Republicans – who seem to be used mostly to describe Republican voters with the best pocket – who already feel anxious about Covid-19 treatment and the economic impact of the pandemic.
An almost ignored aspect of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is that Trump failed to use it to traverse his authoritarian agenda by increasing executive powers, weakening the powers of other institutions, such as Congress, and marginalizing dissent, for example. stopping demonstrations. Almost all other countries took a more repressive approach to Covid-19, including those governed by progressive parties (such as Spain), while most far-right governments used it to push through 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 work well” and “warm weather” will take care of it. This made it difficult for him to later shift to an authoritarian approach. Hard, but certainly not impossible. But clearly Trump never wanted to. Instead, he continued to insist on an economic approach to re-election, repositioning himself as the savior of the American economy, and aggressively pushing for the “reopening of America.”
A second chance to traverse an authoritarian agenda came with the Black Sea protests, following the police killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor this spring. Trump’s response was as expected, playing with the rationalized fear of the wider Republican electorate of chaos and unrest. In the 15 days between Floyd’s assassination and the funeral, Trump tweeted 195 times about riots, law enforcement and the threat of military use.
But instead of prioritizing the race card, his natural response, Trump fairly quickly redefined the Free Black Sea protests as antifa protests. This redefinition was in line with two long-term processes within Camp Trump. First, Trump seems to really believe he has a stroke in significantly increasing his support among African-Americans. For example, he has long 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 hotbed within the broader conservative movement, at least since the provocative campus visits of (former) right-wing fathers like Milo Yiannopoulos in the early days of Trump’s presidency. Clashes between far-right extremists and Antifa activists, disproportionately blown up by the mainstream media, were fortunately involved in right-wing propaganda, and Antifa became a favorite topic of many of the president’s favorite shows in Fox News.
Trump became increasingly obsessed with antifa. He also spread conspiracy theories about antifa, paying off far-right media – such as his new favorite television channel, One America News Network (OANN) – as well as right-wing social media accounts. He has even tweeted his intention to designate “ANTIFA” as a terrorist organization, an action almost without criteria.
Strengthened by information from his right-wing bubble, the Portland protests should have looked like a golden opportunity for him. Portland has long been one of the main symbols of left-wing politics in the US – it has been viewed positively by progressives, despite somewhat ridiculous programs like Portland, and negatively by the right.
But the problem is that the Portland protests play only one of Trump’s ideological strongholds: authoritarianism. Given that Portland is the largest white city in the U.S., most of the protesters are white, which leaves its greatest asset, racism, largely unimportant. Similarly, populism is largely useless, as few people will believe that the “elite” lives or cares deeply for Portland – unlike, for example, New York.
Portland is not just a bad choice because of its limited appeal to the wider Republican electorate. It can also be serious. Police brutality against small and even radical groups of protesters could lead to wider support for the protesters.
This happened, for example, at the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-14, and it seems to be happening now in Portland as well. As Trump’s “green men” take peaceful protesters from the streets, without adequate identification and in cars without signs, the discussion is moving away from the antifa-alleged violence to the threat to American democracy posed by the Trump administration.
The redefinition of protests goes hand in hand with the diversification of protesters. No longer are the protesters merely young, white “anarchists,” who can count on a little special sympathy outside the small progressive circles; now also represented the stalwarts of conservative American society: mothers and veterans. And they are arrested, beaten and cried too.
In a society as militarized and patriarchal as America, sails and mothers are powerful symbols of the existing order. Watching them protest against the government, and especially a dubious and unnecessarily violent paramilitary unit, is a publicity issue for the Trump administration. These are the ground salt of the Republican electorate, which will not automatically assume that these groups are wrong. Moreover, many Republicans will have far less tolerance for disproportionate oppression of mothers and egg whites than they unfortunately have of African-Americans and left-wing youth.
In short, Trump’s decision to “release” authoritarianism in Portland was weak. Ignoring much better opportunities like the Covid-19 protests and the Black Lives Matter, he is caught in a confrontation that excites only a fraction of his base and increasingly troubles the wider Republican electorate. And while the public image of the Portland protester is increasingly reflecting some direction of American society, and therefore the Republican electorate, Trump may be increasingly fighting himself.
The fact that federal police are now withdrawing from Portland shows that even Trump has realized his mistake.
Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor of International Affairs at Georgia University, author of The Far Right Today (2019) and host of the new Radical podcast