This month, U.S. President Donald Trump took another page from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook by sending heavily armed troops without insignias or name tags into the streets of a major American city to suppress largely nonviolent demonstrations.
The Russian president has deployed such troops to seize Crimea and attempt to bring an independent Ukraine back into Russia’s political orbit. The U.S. president is using them as a tool in his larger assault on the foundations of American democracy.
Under the pretext of defending statues and federal property in Portland, Oregon, from a mob of vandals, these shadowy federal agents have attacked and injured peaceful protesters, including a 56-year-old Navy veteran and a 52-year-old history professor who studies the rise of fascism in 20th-century Europe.
As a historian of authoritarian movements who once lived and taught in Portland myself, I find this violence by federal forces deeply upsetting. In June, President Trump tried and failed to corrupt the leadership of America’s active-duty military, who denounced the use of force against peaceful protesters across the street from the White House in Lafayette Square. Now he is turning to the more easily corruptible shock troops of the Department of Homeland Security, led by Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, to do his dirty work.
Although Trump is currently down in the polls against former Vice President Joe Biden, no one should take his Portland stunt lightly. Embattled authoritarian leaders are adept at provoking violence and fear to bring their wavering followers back into line.
For example, after massive peaceful demonstrations broke out in the streets of Damascus during the Arab Spring in 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad released hundreds of terrorists from prison in order to radicalize the protests and justify bloodshed against them. In the nine years since then, the Syrian civil war has caused more than 400,000 deaths and displaced more than 11 million civilians from their homes.
Authoritarian rulers fear peaceful resistance above all else. In a study of 323 protest movements around the world, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that nonviolent civil resistance movements are more than twice as likely as violent ones to achieve their political objectives. This is because nonviolent protesters are more capable of winning support from moderates, including pillars of establishment power such as the military and civil service, by appealing to the conscience of the nation.
President Trump is understandably terrified by the disciplined nonviolence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although these protests began with several nights of riots immediately after the death of George Floyd in May, the overwhelming majority of demonstrations since then have been peaceful, and they have inspired a national reckoning with the destructive legacy of systemic racism in America.
Trump’s goal in dispatching unidentified federal agents to Portland and other American cities is not to prevent violence but to provoke it. He is seeking video footage of cities in turmoil for his lurid TV ads illustrating “American carnage” under a future Biden administration, hoping to scare white suburbanites into voting to reelect him.
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This cynical gambit is likely to fail — provided that the demonstrators resist taking Trump’s bait by giving him the images of violence that he so ardently desires. The American people are smart enough to see when they are being played for suckers by a president who has himself inflicted unprecedented carnage on the nation through his incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That the U.S. president relentlessly seeks to divide Americans against each other during a moment of national crisis reflects badly not only on him, but also on the Republicans in the U.S. Congress who continue to enable his abuses. On Nov. 3, American voters can choose to cancel this tawdry reality show.
Matthew Levinger is research professor and director of the National Security Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.