IN “IMAGINED FRONTIERS”, a book about the role of lines on maps in American art and culture, the historian Carl Abbott notes that because “they mark difference, they are also edgy places where change can happen—like the spark that rebalances electrical potential.” This is Donald Trump’s main political insight.
The wall that the president promised to build along the southern border was always more about defining differences—and making sparks fly—than immigration control. It marked who he and his voters were against: explicitly “rapist” migrants, but implicitly diversity, the Republican leaders who took a relaxed view of it, the liberals who celebrated it. This is why hardly any of the president’s fans seem to mind that he has not laid a brick of his promised wall (though he is extending a pre-existing border fence).
Ahead of the 2018 mid-terms, Mr Trump reimagined the same political frontier, this time making an approaching column of Central American asylum-seekers emblematic of it. Now in need of another burst of electoral rebalancing, with Joe Biden far ahead in the polls, he has reconfigured his frontier more audaciously. By deploying immigration law enforcers—trained for shoot-outs with Mexican gangsters on the southern border—against racial justice protesters in Mr Abbott’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, he has moved his dividing line 1,100 miles north of San Diego. This has made explicit what was previously implied: that his and his supporters’ enemies are already within. It is the apogee of Mr Trump’s divisive method and, for rule-of-law implications alone, one of his most reckless moves yet.
The context in Portland is somewhat peculiar. Even so, this should be understood as a rerun of the stunt Mr Trump attempted last month in Lafayette Square, when federal police and troops tear-gassed peaceful protesters to clear a space for him to brandish a Bible outside a nearby church. That gambit failed for two reasons. Executed on hallowed terrain—a park dedicated to the revolution upon which Americans’ freedoms are founded—it was too prominent and egregious for even timorous Republican lawmakers to stomach. And the pushback from the embarrassed Pentagon was even stronger. The country’s foremost military officer, General Mark Milley, apologised for having been involved in the charade, thus condemning it. In the rerun playing out in Portland, where paramilitary-style operatives have been filmed hustling peaceful protesters into unmarked cars even as the president denounces them as “anarchists”, neither safety-check applies.
First, because of the city’s circumstances. Most urban places are liberal citadels with conservative peripheries; Portland, a place of vegan strip-bars with a reactionary hinterland, is an extreme case. This made it a magnet for far-left anarchists and far-right white thugs, often leading to rowdy and occasionally violent confrontations, even before Mr Trump’s election further raised the temperature on its streets. The nationwide race protests that erupted in May, following the police killing of George Floyd, have been predictably angry and sustained in the city. Though still largely peaceful, and confined to a few blocks around its federal courthouse, they have provided images of vandalism and bottle-throwing for conservative media to fume about, yet another no-win situation for the city’s police, and, for those who believe the answer to civil unrest is always cracking heads, a case for action.
Second, in the Department of Homeland Security Mr Trump has found a more malleable agency. Founded in 2002 with a mandate to prevent another 9/11, it had a callow institutional culture even before he got to work on it. The agency has had five secretaries in the past three years, only two of them Senate-confirmed. Almost half its top 27 managers are temporaries. The current acting secretary, Chad Wolf, is a former lobbyist with no qualifying experience. This has made the agency supine before an administration that has used it for its dirtiest work. DHS has separated migrant families, stepped up arrests of long-stay undocumented migrants and now, on the pretext of protecting federal property in Portland, its paramilitaries appear to be intimidating lawful protesters in a bid to score electoral points for the president. That is anyway how it looks to DHS’s founding secretary, Tom Ridge, a former Republican governor of Pennsylvania. Its mission, he said this week, is not “to be the president’s personal militia”.
That is not a warning to take lightly. The risks of a mishap are obvious. The DHS operatives are untrained for civil policing, aggressive and their presence has already made a fraught situation worse. Portland was seeing a hundred or so nightly protesters two weeks ago and is now seeing thousands. Mr Trump is meanwhile raising the prospect of more federal interventions, for example in Albuquerque and Chicago, to support local crime-fighting.
Moms’ the word
Mr Ridge’s is not the only pushback, however. Mark Esper, the secretary of defence, has expressed concern about the military appearance of the DHS shock troops. Most important, the swollen crowds in Portland are still mostly peaceful—in part thanks to the addition of a throng of self-declared “Moms”, mostly first-time activists, who wear yellow T-shirts and have declared it their mission to protect the protesters. So long as that remains the case, it may prove hard for Mr Trump to escalate the situation even further.
It is also unclear that it would be in his interests to do so. By giving conservative outlets a distraction from the coronavirus, and so ginning up his base, he has achieved his primary objective. And it is not obvious that by stoking more violence in more cities he would expand his support. Most Americans support the protests. Most also consider him largely responsible for the disorderly state of the country—so would logically blame him if it worsens.
This is the fundamental problem with Mr Trump’s dividing line. He has set a minority of Americans against the majority. It does not look like a tenable frontier.■
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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Trouble in Trumplandia”