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The politics of Trump's plan to 'go in and take over cities'

If polls showed Trump ahead, and virus cases were dwindling, does anyone seriously believe we'd be watching gut-wrenching images out of Portland right now?
Protest against racial inequality in Portland
Federal law enforcement officers, deployed under the Trump administration's new executive order to protect federal monuments and buildings, face off with protesters against racial inequality in Portland, Ore., on July 18, 2020.Nathan Howard / Reuters

At a White House event last week, Donald Trump made some unscripted comments, about law enforcement, which at the time, weren't altogether clear.

"We'll be doing things that you'll be, I think, very impressed with," the president said. "[Crime] numbers are going to be coming down even if we have to go in and take over cities.... You're supposed to wait for [local officials] to call, but they don't call."

In other words, Trump encouraged people to believe urban crime rates necessitate federal officials "going in and taking over cities," whether local officials like it or not.

A few days later, Americans learned what the president's plans look like in practice.

[A]t the urging of President Donald Trump, federal officers are roaming the streets of Oregon’s biggest city in unmarked vehicles, detaining protesters without identifying themselves. Multiple reports and videos clearly show heavily armed federal law enforcement officers dressed in camouflage stepping out of unmarked civilian vans and forcibly detaining anti-racism and anti-police brutality demonstrators on the streets of Portland, often far away from any federal property (where federal officials have jurisdiction). In many instances, those taken into custody hadn’t clearly violated any laws.

As Vox's explainer on this noted, all of these developments have unfolded against the wishes of Oregon's elected leaders and the residents of Portland. The Republican administration has been explicit in saying it does not care.

Indeed, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf -- who, like several current DHS leaders, has not been confirmed by the Senate -- appeared on Fox News yesterday morning and said he has no interest in waiting for "invitations" from state or local officials. The acting cabinet secretary added that he's prepared to dispatch federal troops into American cities "whether they like us there or not."

Last week, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a speech in which he argued that the 2020 presidential election is "about whether America remains America." The Indiana Republican added that the election will determine whether the United States respects the country's "highest ideals."

He did not appear to be kidding.

As scary as the scenes out of Portland have been, there's no reason to assume these confrontations will be limited to Oregon's largest city. On the contrary, Trump is moving forward with plans to deploy federal law enforcement to Chicago, with New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and others on his list.

A reporter asked the president yesterday about his policy to dispatch federal troops into American cities, and Trump replied, "Well, it depends on what your definition of 'troops' is."

How reassuring.

The dynamic is an extraordinary one. An American president with authoritarian instincts is dispatching paramilitary forces in his own country, who've been seen snatching uncharged civilians from public sidewalks and throwing them into unmarked vehicles. In the face of fierce pushback, that same president is so pleased with the developments that he looks for other American communities where he can do the same thing.

It's worth pausing to reflect on why this is happening here.

The official line is that urban areas in the United States have unraveled into Mad-Max-style hellscapes -- Trump said yesterday that Chicago is "worse than Afghanistan, by far" -- necessitating federal intervention to prevent nightmarish chaos. That, of course, is ridiculous: some cities certainly have problems with crime, but overall crime rates are still much lower than they were in, say, the early 1990s.

The more sensible explanation includes two straightforward truths. The first is that the president, still convinced that a "law and order" message will boost his prospects for a second term, wants the public to be terrified. As we discussed last week, the politics is counter-intuitive: common sense suggests that an incumbent president, in the midst of a campaign, would be eager to brag to the public about the nation's relatively low crime rates.

Trump's doing the opposite, hoping to convince voters that dangerous people are lurking outside their homes; they should blame Democrats; and Americans can look to the White House to send armed federal troops onto public streets to keep people safe.

It's an ugly pitch, based on less-than-subtle racism and irrational fears, but in 2020, the president may very well have come to the conclusion that he doesn't have much else to run on.

The other element to keep in mind is the White House's eagerness to change the public conversation. As the editorial board of the Washington Post noted this morning, "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."

As a rule, I'm skeptical of political analysis that says Trump is doing x in order to distract attention from y, but in this instance, it's a difficult observation to simply cast aside.

Trump's response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a brutal failure, and the more Americans notice his ineptitude on the biggest crisis of his presidency, the more likely it is he'll lose in the fall. The White House clearly sees the need to shift the national focus -- and having Trump, in his own words, "go in and take over cities," is a conversation the West Wing prefers.

Put it this way: if Trump enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls, and coronavirus cases were dwindling, does anyone seriously believe we'd be watching gut-wrenching images out of Portland right now?