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Portland, polarization, and the crisis of the Republican Party

“We are witnessing a crisis of democracy that is perfectly acceptable to a significant portion of the population — as long as it hurts their enemies.”

A federal officer runs through tear gas during a July 24 clash with protesters in Portland.
Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Late on Wednesday evening, Portland, Oregon, Mayor Ted Wheeler (D) was tear-gassed in his own city.

Wheeler was visiting the main site of the city’s ongoing protests, which have devolved into violent clashes with the police for weeks, to try to understand their grievances. Seemingly out of nowhere, as-yet-unidentified law enforcement personnel unleashed gas on the crowd — while the mayor was still in it.

“I saw nothing that provoked this response,” Wheeler told a New York Times journalist on the scene.

According to the Times, the officers who launched the gas were not local police. Instead, they were part of the Homeland Security Department’s contingent in Portland, which the Trump administration has deployed over the explicit objections of both Wheeler and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D). The DHS officers operate in military-style gear without obvious identification. They have been extremely violent, using heavy-handed tactics that have escalated the conflict in downtown Portland. They have been filmed grabbing suspected protesters off the streets and throwing them into unmarked vans.

And now President Trump wants to send these detachments to other parts of the country — announcing, on Wednesday, “a surge of federal law enforcement” to Chicago and Albuquerque, language that likens the federal deployments to those cities to troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How could an American president start abusing federal authority in such a blatantly authoritarian fashion? How could he get one of the country’s two major parties to acquiesce to this, especially the party that claims to be for federalism and states’ rights? How could any of this be happening?

What we’re seeing, according to experts on comparative democracy and American politics, is our polarized political system reaching its breaking point — and our democracy buckling under the pressure of Trump’s authoritarian impulses and near-total control of the Republican Party.

There is no legitimate justification for deploying these federal troops over local objections. The protests in Portland are limited to a small area and are primarily peaceful protests rather than riots. The violence that does grow out of those protests, like the recent rise in gun violence in Chicago, is a quintessentially local issue; the federal government has no business getting involved absent local request.

But Trump is running a “law and order” reelection campaign that works by entrenching partisan divides and stoking racial resentment. His unprecedented deployment of federal law enforcement personnel is a means to that end; he gets away with it because American politics is so dangerously polarized that Republicans are willing to accept virtually anything if it’s done to Democrats.

“Accepting this type of ‘occupation’ of American cities by unidentified federal agents requires such an extreme level of dehumanization of the citizens — which is probably why Trump repeatedly labels these cities as being run by ‘liberal Democrats,’” says Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland.

“At this point in our political circumstances, that label alone is enough to allow law-abiding Americans in those cities to be viewed as less worthy of basic democratic protections — and to permit harm to come to them at the hands of the state.”

The dangers of Trump’s Portland policy

To understand why scholars like Mason are so alarmed by this development, it’s important to put Trump’s handling of the Portland case in context.

It’s certainly true that there’s been real unrest in Portland. There was one particularly bad riot on May 29; since then, protesters have been gathering outside of two buildings in downtown Portland, the federal courthouse and the Justice Center, which houses the headquarters of the Portland Police Bureau and the city jail. Ostensibly, the federal troops have been sent in to protect federal property (the courthouse).

But there’s no evidence that local authorities need or want their help; the violence has been fairly contained to a 12-block zone that the Oregonian, a local newspaper, describes as “a tiny point of the city.” In fact, local reporters suggest that use of force by law enforcement is primarily responsible for things turning violent — and that federal troops have been particularly, dangerously heavy-handed.

“I have been in the streets of Portland documenting this movement since the very first riot,” reporter Robert Evans writes in Bellingcat. What’s happening now is “the end result of more than six weeks of escalating state violence against largely nonviolent demonstrators.”

Demonstrators marching in Portland on July 23.
Ankur Dholakia/AFP/Getty Images

This kind of violent federal deployment over the objections of state and local officials has no real precedent in American history. The closest parallels are Reconstruction, when Union troops occupied the states of the defeated former Confederacy, and military deployments to the South during the civil rights era to enforce desegregation orders.

In both of those cases, it was uniformed soldiers that were sent, not unidentified state security forces from an alphabet soup of obscure DHS agencies. More fundamentally, these troops were being used to protect moves toward racial progress — not suppress protesters who were there to demand it.

In fact, outside of the context of a domestic insurgency like the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there is no example of state security forces being deployed under circumstances like this inside any democratic state.

“There is precedent in democracies of national police being used to deal with mass unrest,” says Daniel Ziblatt, a political scientist at Harvard and co-author of How Democracies Die. “But there is no mass unrest on a scale to justify this, and it is being done in an entirely lawless, nonconsensual away over the heads of state and local officials.”

There are, however, eerie similarities to what governments do during civil wars.

During Sri Lanka’s fight with the Tamil Tiger insurgency between 1983 and 2009, state security officials would use unmarked white vans to scoop up citizens who had run afoul of the Sri Lankan government. This sort of abduction typically ended in the detainee’s torture or disappearance; they were so common at one point that Sri Lankan citizens started using the term “white-vanning” as a shorthand. Obviously, that’s not what’s happening to protesters detained in Portland, but experts find the echoes chilling.

“In Sri Lanka, the white, unmarked van is the symbol of state terror,” says Kate Cronin-Furman, a political scientist at University College London who’s worked in that country. “As an American citizen, it’s quite shocking to see something so strongly associated with some of the world’s worst state repression of dissidents unfolding in our own cities.”

The point of all these comparisons is not merely to say that what Trump is doing is scary or undemocratic.

Rather, it’s to illustrate what this says about the mindset that goes into launching a program like this. The federal deployments to Portland and the tactics they use given the context are not normal. They are the tools of authoritarian states and military occupations.

To even think about this kind of deployment in Portland, let alone to see the brutal results and then to announce expansions to other cities, reflects a radical de-democratization of American politics: a sense, on the part of the president and his allies, that the residents of Portland and Chicago are the enemy.

And that, experts say, reflects a deep rot in our country’s democracy.

Beyond polarization, the abyss

It’s obvious to everyone that American politics is extremely polarized. The question is how powerful this polarization is. Are there limits to what political actors will do in the name of pursuing their partisan interests and hurting the other team?

The Portland situation represents an edge case in these discussions. Trump is engaging in behavior that should clearly be unacceptable in a democracy; the historical and international comparisons make that excruciatingly clear.

Yet, with a handful of exceptions, you aren’t hearing a peep of protest from congressional Republicans. Top federal officials, like Attorney General Bill Barr and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf, are all-in on these deployments.

“This siege can end if state and local officials decide to take appropriate action instead of refusing to enforce the law,” Wolf said in a July 16 statement. “DHS will not abdicate its solemn duty to protect federal facilities and those within them.”

Trump’s most important outside validators, the hosts of Fox News’s slate of opinion programming, are cheering him on.

To understand this assent, it’s worth unpacking the way polarization works in the United States a bit more deeply.

President Trump Holds Briefing At White House
Trump speaks during a coronavirus press conference.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

One key element of what we’ve seen in the United States in the past several decades is the rise of what’s called “negative partisanship”: the growth of a political identity defined not so much around liking one’s own party as hating the other one. A negative partisan feels like they “win” by inflicting defeats on the other team rather than passing their own positive legislative agenda (though sometimes they’re the same thing).

But in a democracy, rising negative partisanship is playing with fire. For a democratic system to work, all sides need to accept that their political opponents are fundamentally legitimate — wrong about policy, to be sure, but a faction whose right to wield power after winning elections goes without question. But if political leaders and voters come to hate their opponents so thoroughly, they may eventually come to see them not as rivals but as enemies of the state.

We’ve seen evidence that this kind of extreme negative partisanship has become dominant on the Republican aisle, ranging from the blockade of Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination to the wide-ranging efforts at the state level to disenfranchise Black (and Democratic-leaning) voters. What we’re seeing in Portland represents negative partisanship breaking through the limits: fusing with longtime Republican and Trumpist demonization of American cities to take things to a previously unthinkable low.

“I don’t even think calling it polarization is sufficient,” Mason, the Maryland scholar, says. “We are witnessing a crisis of democracy that is perfectly acceptable to a significant portion of the population — as long as it hurts their enemies.”

The second important aspect of polarization to consider is the way it alters the incentive structures of legislators.

In America’s Madisonian system, Congress is supposed to be an institution with a shared sense of purpose: a legislature that’s antagonistic to the president, that aims to put a check on presidential power to safeguard its own influence.

But in an extremely polarized environment, members of Congress are pushed to align more with a president of their own party than with the institution. Republican senators act like Republican partisans first and members of Congress second; if they don’t, they suffer the wrath of primary voters all too willing to punish deviation from the president’s line.

This has, throughout the Trump presidency, made him largely immune to congressional oversight, the Ukraine impeachment being the most vivid example. Now it allows him to get away with the imposition of a kind of occupation on American citizens with no real risk of congressional blowback.

“Due to extreme polarization and Trump’s popularity among Republicans, the entire Republican Party is abdicating responsibility for oversight,” Stephen Levitsky, a Harvard professor and Ziblatt’s How Democracies Die co-author, said. “We knew polarization and populism were a problem, but no one had any idea of just how far the implications stretched.”

The causes of this crisis, this beyond-polarization level of abuse, are profound and structural (on this, I’d recommend my colleague Ezra Klein’s book). But one reason Portland has become such a dangerous situation is that it’s fused some of the deepest drivers of polarization, America’s culture wars and conflicts over identity, with Trump’s personal authoritarian instincts.

The unrest in Portland began as part of the nationwide uprising in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. While the protests have taken on a life of their own today, they still center on grievances concerning the disproportionate use of force by police — against both African Americans and nonviolent protestors demanding their rights.

The extreme federal deployment there isn’t just about demonizing Democrats and antifa; it’s a means for the president to activate the kind of racial grievance politics that propelled him to power in the Republican Party. His mechanism for doing so is by leaning into the side of his political personality that admires foreign dictators like Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both of whom have notably suppressed protests by force.

“It’s not just about partisanship — it’s about who gets to be considered a ‘real’ American, with the full rights and privileges that entails. But it also clears the way for Trump’s push toward authoritarian rule,” Mason concludes. “It feels like the brakes are off.”