THESupporters of Donald Trump often describe him as a “political genius” who has a cunning understanding of the worries and fears of American society and is able to create and use crises to his advantage. The current opposition in Portland shows again that this is not the case. While his alleged fight against the antifa will satisfy some of his far-right supporters, he increasingly risks further alienation of the so-called Nar. “Moderate”
An almost ignored aspect of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is that Trump failed to use it to push through his authoritarian agenda by increasing executive powers, weakening the powers of other institutions such as Congress, and marginalizing dissent, such as banning demonstrations. . Almost all other countries apply a more repressive approach to Covid-19, including those run by progressive parties (such as Spain), while most far-right governments use it to impose draconian repressive measures (such as Hungary and India).
Of course, the explanation is that Trump initially denied and ignored the dangers of Covid-19, saying that “this will work out well” and “warmer weather” will take care of that. This later made it difficult for him to move to an authoritarian approach. It is difficult, but certainly not impossible. But apparently Trump never wanted to. Instead, he insisted on an economic approach to re-election, posing as the savior of the American economy, and aggressively pushing for the “reopening of America.”
A second opportunity for an authoritarian agenda emerged with the Black Lives Matter protests following the police killings of Ahmad Arbury, George Floyd and Breona Taylor this spring. Trump’s reaction was as expected, playing on the realized fears of the wider Republican electorate of chaos and unrest. In the 15 days between Floyd’s assassination and Trump’s funeral, he tweeted 195 times about riots, law enforcement and the threat of military use.
But instead of prioritizing the race card, his natural response, Trump 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 really believe he has fired to significantly increase 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 the time of Abraham Lincoln.” (Needless to say, this is not true.)
Second, the antifa has become a popular bastard within the wider conservative movement, at least after provocative visits to the campus of (former) right-wing dredges like Milo Yanopoulos in the early days of Trump’s presidency. The controversy between the far right and Antifa activists, inflated by a proportion of the mass media, was happily included in right-wing propaganda, and Antifa became a favorite topic of many of the Fox News president’s favorite shows.
Trump is becoming more and more obsessed with antifa. He also spread conspiracy theories about antifa, parroted far-right media – such as his new favorite TV channel, One America News Network (OANN) – as well as far-right social media accounts. He even tweeted his intention to define ANTIFA as a terrorist organization, which is almost certainly an unconstitutional move.
Reinforced by information from his right bubble, the Portland protests must have seemed like a golden opportunity. Portland has long been one of the main symbols of left-wing politics in the United States – viewed positively by progressives, despite slightly mocking programs like Portland, and negatively by the right wing.
But the problem is that the Portland protests play on only one of Trump’s ideological pillars: authoritarianism. Given that Portland is the whitest major city in the United States, the vast majority of protesters are white, leaving its biggest asset, racism, largely irrelevant. In the same way, populism is largely useless, as few people will believe that the “elite” lives in or deeply cares for Portland, unlike, for example, New York.
Portland is not only a bad choice because of the limited appeal to the broad Republican electorate. It can also cause serious fire. Police brutality against small and even radical groups of protesters may lead to wider support for protesters.
This happened, for example, during the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine in 2013-14, and it seems to be happening now in Portland. As Trump’s “little green men” pick up peaceful protesters from the streets, without adequate identification and in unmarked cars, the discussion moves away from the alleged violence by the antifa to the threat to democracy in the United States posed by the Trump administration.
Redefining protests goes hand in hand with the diversification of protesters. Protesters are no longer just young, white “anarchists” who can count on a little special sympathy outside small progressive circles; the findings of conservative American society are now presented: mothers and veterans. And they were also arrested, beaten and in tears.
In a society as militarized and patriarchal as America, veterinarians and mothers are powerful symbols of the existing order. Seeing them protest against the government and a particularly dubious and unnecessarily violent paramilitary unit is a publicity issue for the Trump administration. These are the salt on the ground of the Republican electorate, which will not automatically accept that these groups are wrong. In addition, many Republicans will have a much lower tolerance for disproportionate repression of white mothers and veterinarians than African Americans and white left-wing youth unfortunately have.
In short, Trump’s decision to “unleash” authoritarianism in Portland was bad. Ignoring much better opportunities such as the protests of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, he found himself in a confrontation that ravaged only part of his base and increasingly worried the broad Republican electorate. And as the public image of the Portland protester increasingly reflects some steps in American society and therefore the Republican electorate, Trump may be fighting more and more often.
The fact that the federal police are already withdrawing from Portland shows that even Trump has realized his mistake.
Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton, Professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia, author of The Far Right Today (2019) and host of the new Radikaal podcast