President Donald Trump deployed federal forces in late July to Portland, Oregon hoping to quell the Black Lives Matter protests that began in May after the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. However, the president likely has ulterior motives for sending these forces into the city of Portland. Scenes of protests from Portland have gained national coverage since forces were sent in. News coverage often highlights the violent scenes of protests which occur at night rather than the peaceful protests that have taken place daily. Based on the rhetoric used by the president and his political campaign advertisements, it is clear that he wants to paint the protesters as a violent threat to democracy, highlight to his voter base that he will use extreme measures to protect them from “anarchists and agitators,” as well as using this stunt to divert attention from his failure to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal forces that were present in Portland are from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS agents were sent to protect federal property from further being destroyed. The department’s acting secretary, Chad F. Wolf has used 40 U.S. Code 1315 to provide a legal basis for the deployment of agents. The U.S. Code states that agents can be used to protect property “owned or occupied by the federal government.”
However, DHS agents have received harsh criticism after social media videos surfaced which showed agents tear gassing protesters and using unmarked cars to transport protesters who were being arrested. In a tweet on July 20, Governor Kate Brown spoke out against the actions of the DHS agents. “This is a democracy, not a dictatorship. We cannot have secret police abducting people in unmarked vehicles. I can’t believe I have to say that to the President of the United States.”
The Democratic senators from Oregon, Jeff Merkley, and Ron Wyden, have also denounced the actions of the president. Senator Merkley wrote in a tweet on July 18 that both he and Senator Wyden are introducing an amendment to the defense bill hoping to “stop the Trump administration from sending its paramilitary squads on American streets.” The amendment features protections for protestors against some of the actions taken by federal agents, such as arrests using unmarked cars and crowd control methods. Furthermore, the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon filed and won a lawsuit on July 24 which now protects journalists and legal observers from being arrested at protests.
Despite the backlash that President Trump has received from Oregon government officials and many Americans, it is apparent that his deployment of federal troops is deliberate. On July 20, President Trump released a political advertisement on Twitter that attacks the movement to defund the police. The advertisement starts with an elderly white woman sitting on her couch and watching the news. The television which is playing the news show protesters holding signs relating to the Black Lives Matter movement and a man’s voice describing a police department being defunded. The woman shakes her head at the TV and then turns as she hears a noise from outside her home. The woman picks up her phone and dials 911 as a robber tries to break into her home. However, there is no one at the police department to answer her call and it goes to voicemail. The advertisement ends with the robber entering the home, the phone falling to the ground and the message “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
This advertisement is effective because it plays on the fears of the individuals who support the police department, attacks both the protests and Democrats and paints the police as a necessity in American society. The release of this advertisement and his deployment of DHS agents highlights President Trump as the protector from chaos, establishing law and order to counter robbers entering homes and protesters on the street.
President Trump also solidifies the Us-vs-Them mentality in an earlier tweet about federal forces in Portland. “We are trying to help Portland, not hurt it,” the president stated in a tweet on July 19. “Their leadership has, for months, lost control of the anarchists and agitators. They are missing in action. We must protect Federal property AND OUR PEOPLE.”
The capitalization and use of the phrase “our people” make the divide stronger. President Trump is sending the message that some protestors are not only attacking buildings but are also attacking his voter base. Thus, the decision to send in federal agents may seem perfectly acceptable to his voter base. It highlights that when Trump supporters are feeling vulnerable and scared, the president uses this to his advantage by sending DHS agents to Portland, which makes them feel safer. This strategy works even if his voter base is not in the Oregon area. Since many of his voters live in rural America, they are often not in the spotlight. By sending troops, Trump emphasizes the lengths he will go to make voters feel protected, This makes his voter base feel heard, seen, and appreciated, a feeling Trump hopes to capitalize on.
The deployment of DHS agents is also used as a distraction method. It diverts attention from the current global pandemic, and more importantly, widespread criticism levied against his administration for its handling of the pandemic. This places the focus on the destruction of federal property rather than his administration’s failures. The president is further distracting by announcing his plan to deploy around 150 agents to the city of Chicago.
Governor Kate Brown says it best in a tweet from July 21. “The Trump administration is not interested in problem-solving. The Trump administration is not interested in public safety. They are interested in political theater.”