Debate: are the Portland protests helping or hindering Trump’s re-election bid?

The Donald Trump administration has agreed to an immediate “phased withdrawal” of federal forces from Portland, the state’s governor announced last night.

The US president has faced sustained calls to pull back heavily armed agents sent to the Oregon city to quell a wave of protests against systemic racism and police brutality that began after the death of George Floyd in May.

Critics say the deployment is “performative authoritarianism” intended to boost the president’s provocative “law and order” re-election campaign. But if that was Trump’s intention, are the tough tactics likely to be a vote winner?

How does Trump’s use of federal agents differ from that of past US leaders?

The strategy of bringing in federal forces to help contain domestic unrest has “a long American lineage”, says The New York Times.

Federal troops “went into Los Angeles to control the Rodney King riots. They entered Washington, Chicago and Baltimore in the days after the killing of the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1968,” the newspaper continues.

“They went into Detroit during a race riot in 1943, and then again in 1967. They were in Little Rock, Arkansas, during school integration. For the Pullman Strike of 1894 in Chicago, and across numerous cities during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, they were there, too.”

But “there is something different in this moment”.

For one thing, the federal law enforcement agencies available to the current president are more numerous and militarised than those of the past.

For another, the question of whether federal agents are even needed to suppress the current protests is hotly disputed, with some commentators arguing that the law enforcers are inflaming the demonstrations rather than quelling them.

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Compared with similar interventions in the past, “I don’t think there’s anywhere near the same kind of consensus at the federal level that federal authority is actually being subverted”, says Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“What’s new and troubling here is we have a very, very contested factual predicate. And it’s not remotely clear to me what federal laws are going unenforced.”

“This is the very thing that scared the heck out of the framers of the Constitution,” agrees Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University.

“There’s been an over-tendency to cry wolf,” Friedman says of Trump’s first term in office. “Well, this is wolf. This is it.”

So is the deployment aiding the president’s re-election chances?

According to France 24’s international affairs editor Douglas Herbert, Trump is attempting to “create chaos as a rallying point for his own re-election on a law and order agenda”.

Sky News’s James Morrow agrees that the protests could be advantageous to the president, but disagrees that Trump has fuelled the unrest. Morrow argues that the incumbent is merely capitalising on chaos that is being created by the protesters and the Democratic mayor of Portland.

“I know a lot of people say Trump is on the back foot, but Democrat mayors like Portland’s Ted Wheeler are giving him the best campaign commercials he could dream of,” Morrow says.

Or is it harming his electoral chances?

Even if deploying federal forces to the streets was a strategy to win votes, crime is not a top concern for most US citizens, says Julia Azari, a professor of political science at Winsconin’s Marquette University. And highlighting chaos in the streets is not a wise tactic for an incumbent president, she adds.

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“For most swing voters, the question comes down to, ‘Are things good, are things not good?’”, Azari says. “And I don’t see this story as being a really compelling way to reframe the situation as like, ‘Things are good’.”

Recent polling suggests that this assessment is correct, with presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leading “as the candidate Americans trust more to handle law and order”. 

Reuters/Ipsos polling last month found that white suburban Americans are more worried about healthcare and the economy than crime. Asked what is “the most important problem facing the United States today”, 21% said the economy and the same percentage said healthcare, while only 6% said crime.

But some commentators believe public sentiment could change if the protests persist. 

“It’s going to be a long, hot summer. Protesters show no sign of backing down. Nor does Trump,” The Guardian concludes.


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