Understanding Trump’s game plan in Portland could be the key to preventing a coup in November

Trump’s “law and order” strategy really can help him win.

SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credot: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

While outrage was still growing in Oregon over federal agents’ intervention in Portland, President Trump on July 20 named Chicago, New York, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California as possible next targets. Since then Albuquerque was added to the list.

Although the agents’ mission was supposedly to protect federal buildings, they were ranging around the city, dressed in camouflage outfits in unmarked vans, joining police in responding to demonstrators. The New York Times reported them seizing people and locking them into a van with no explanation and wearing no insignia.

The feds began to arrive June 27 and have ramped up in numbers since. The Washington Post reported that a curious 53-year-old Navy vet, Christopher David, approached a demonstration where he saw agents acting aggressively. He asked the officers to remember their oaths to protect the Constitution. They attacked him and broke his hand.

Agents were assembled from Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration, Coast Guard, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to The New York Times, “The tactical agents deployed by Homeland Security include officials from a group known as BORTAC, the Border Patrol’s equivalent of a SWAT team — a highly trained group that normally is tasked with investigating drug smuggling organizations, as opposed to protesters in cities.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler called it “an attack on our democracy.” That was before he was tear-gassed on the street in a demonstration. Oregon Attorney Gen. Ellen Rosenblum filed a lawsuit, seeking a restraining order.

Gov. Kate Brown, who called Trump’s intervention “a blatant abuse of power,” said that the protests were starting to ease before federal officers arrived. What might have prompted Trump to act? Why Portland? How might this choice be strategic for Trump, both to bolster his chance to win the election — and perhaps to remain in office even if he doesn’t win? And what can activists do about it?

Trump’s “law and order” strategy really can help him win

Trump’s earlier hopes to win based on a strong economy and conquest of the coronavirus have faded. He needs another emotional issue that responds to people’s need for security: public order. The narrative couldn’t be clearer. In new advertising and tweets Trump has argued that Biden “is a harbinger of chaos and destruction.” During a two-week period in July the Trump campaign spent nearly $14 million to air a television spot suggesting that police departments won’t respond to 911 calls if Biden is elected.

Trump’s team figures that a percentage of voters who might otherwise be ambivalent about him can be tipped toward supporting him by appealing to their anxiety. In the 1960s, when the nonviolent civil rights movement moved national public opinion sufficiently to pass two landmark U.S. civil rights acts, I watched a series of riots in Philadelphia and elsewhere, from 1965-66, break the movement’s momentum.

To measure the impact of riots carefully scholars have examined other examples. Princeton political scientist Omar Wasow studied the April 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. I was one of the many outraged in the streets — although, our Philadelphia Black-led mass protest was nonviolent.

Wasow found that the violent protests measurably helped Republican Richard Nixon become President in 1968. (His study kicked off a recent dialogue, including Nathan J. Robinson’s critique in Current Affairs. However, Robinson admits he doesn’t challenge the fact that right-winger Nixon did benefit from the riot.)

Another Princeton researcher, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, investigated the outcome of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion — also sparked by a just cause — and found it resulted in the Democrats moving to a “law and order” posture, mass incarceration and increased poverty.

Clearly, the Trump team’s strategic calculation on voter behavior is a reasonable one. But why target Oregon for this intervention?

Portland is known nationally for having some activists who try to defend themselves against police violence in a violent way. By sending in federal agents who will escalate violent tactics, there seemed a good chance of getting video footage for Trump’s election campaign, proclaiming him as “the law and order candidate.” With luck they would get vivid pictures at the site of federal buildings that give the feds their protective justification for being there.

A long-time white anti-racist activist and conflict studies professor at Portland State University, Tom Hastings, told me another reason why Portland is an obvious choice for Trump’s team: Oregon’s electoral votes were already certain to go to Biden. It doesn’t matter for November’s election that Oregon’s major elected officials are protesting the federal intervention. Hastings also pointed out that the cities on Trump’s list for more interventions have Democratic mayors.

Will activists play Trump’s game?

One key to a winning strategy is to figure out what the opponent’s strategy is and refuse to be manipulated — in Portland and in the other cities on Trump’s target list.

Federal intervention in Portland has turned the previous hundreds of late-night protesters into thousands. Nonviolent tactics include dancing, a “Wall of Moms,” and orange-clad dads with leaf-blowers, who blow away tear gas.Embed from Getty Images

Other activists have escalated violent tactics in response to the escalation by the feds. According to The New York Times, some of the protesters used lasers while federal officers fired projectiles into the crowd. Court papers claim that a Molotov cocktail was thrown and one protester was charged with hitting an officer with a hammer, while the Times reported multiple efforts by some protesters to set alight the wood on the façade of the federal courthouse. The fire attempt of course reinforces Trump’s dubious claim that the feds need to be there to protect federal property.

Activists everywhere can learn from the major shift in tactics made this year by looking at the national response to the May 25 police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd. Our spontaneous reactions expressed grief and anger in multiple ways.

The mass media (as usual) gave most headlines to the rioting. That meant, as historical research has shown, the impact of the movement could have set back the struggle for racial justice. However, from the start, the vast majority of people were protesting nonviolently. The more fact-based mass media caught up with that quickly. The rioting quickly ebbed, and the image of the movement shifted to one that fairly consistent uses nonviolent action.

When police in some locations continued to act out violently against the peaceable demonstrators, they only proved the point demonstrators were making. Their brutality displayed on nightly TV boomeranged against them, and more people joined the protests.

Almost all activists found far more effective ways to escalate than using fire and projectiles: They escalated the contrast between their behavior and that of the police.

By channeling rage and grief into nonviolent tactics, the Black Lives Matter surge sustained itself, grew exponentially, introduced new people to the streets and a national conversation about racial injustice. It continues to chalk up a series of limited victories. Bigger victories await even more focused nonviolent campaigning.

Any effective strategizing — Trump’s or ours — includes a back-up plan, and my guess is that the Trump team has one. If Portland activists refuse to play into Trump’s hand by adopting a nonviolent discipline, Trump has a list of other places to try. Trump can hope that in Chicago or Oakland activists might not see how much he wants them to fall for his ploy.

A more sinister goal Trump may have in mind

When announcing to the media his list of targeted cities, Trump revealed how important this narrative is to him. His next statement was that if Joe Biden is elected, “the whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”

Although Trump would undoubtedly claim voting fraud because of mailed-in ballots, the emotionally more impactful narrative would be “hell” in the form of violent chaos in the streets happening in real time following the vote. He has plenty of armed Trump loyalists ready to do their part. While the courts wrangle about voting fraud, the chaos can serve as Trump’s immediate rationale for staying in the White House in January.  

The “violent chaos” narrative is Trump’s growing emphasis, and I think it’s linked to his hope that police will give a break to Trump-followers in the streets. On July 19 on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, Trump said again that he would not agree ahead of time to obey the results of the election. But then he added, “Biden wants to defund the police.” As I mentioned, his campaign is already investing millions in TV ads attacking Biden’s capacity to support the public’s basic need for safety and security.

Even a man as reckless as Trump likely knows that initiating a Constitutional crisis is an unusually chancy operation. He needs preparation even to have a chance of success. By “success” I mean at least making a deal in which he and his family would avoid the parade of lawsuits that await him when he is no longer in office.

I see him and his team taking a number of steps to prepare. Right now in Portland he’s trying out the narrative that justifies a refusal to exit.Embed from Getty Images

Chaos is good for him. For years he’s been preparing his base to produce an armed force of “irregulars” that can generate chaos. Armed men are showing up in places of political tension and conspicuously being allowed to remain there by local police. Examples include April 30 in Lansing, Michigan, June 2 in Philadelphia and July 20 at the Utah State Capitol.

Trump also needs the legitimacy of a governmental force at his command. On his home ground in Washington, D.C. he experimented with soldiers in combat gear and military helicoptors attacking peaceful demonstrators to clear the way for a photo-op.

That test didn’t work out well. The demonstrators didn’t turn to violence to give him justification, so the media revealed a military behaving disgracefully. Trump received enormous push-back from military leaders. They clearly vetoed further use of the their forces for his own political purposes.

Still wanting the availability of loyal government guns, in Portland he’s testing civilian federal armed agencies that represent governmental legitimacy. Chad Wolf, the acting head of Homeland Security underlined his loyalty when he visited Portland on July 16. How that works out is yet to be seen.

Since Trump does believe in the art of the deal, if a take-over doesn’t work he needs also political enablers with some credibility who will step in to arrange a compromise that protects Trump and his family when they leave. He’s in good shape there. Republican leaders have plenty of practice enabling Trump’s corruption and presumably will be available for this service in the midst of a crisis that’s not turning his way.

What strategy can defend against a coup?

Jo Ann Hardesty is a long-time activist and Black community leader in Portland who became a city commissioner last year. In the midst of this crisis she voiced the most important strategic insight that activists need, although not an easy one to grasp.

On July 20, she called a mass protest outside the county Justice Center downtown, saying the city would “not allow armed military forces to attack our people.”

At the rally she gave us the key: “Today we show the country and the world that the city of Portland, even as much as we fight among ourselves, will come together to stand up for our Constitutional rights.”

The key is unity — a challenging concept in a polarized time, especially for those of us who think of ourselves as social change activists.

A successful direct action campaign for change, after all, doesn’t start out assuming unity with our point of view. Change activists generally start out as a minority voice, often a tiny minority, like the first women who asserted the right to vote or the first LGBT people demanding freedom to be who we are.

Our initial minority typically finds allies, persuades more doubters, and reaches the point of launching direct action, becoming what Bayard Rustin called “angelic troublemakers” who dramatize our point of view. Then, when we grow and achieve critical mass, we polarize the issue in such a way that the center of gravity comes down on our side — leading us to victory.

Right now in Portland he’s trying out the narrative that justifies a refusal to exit.

In Hardesty’s words, change activists in Portland (and everywhere) assume we’ll “fight among ourselves” hoping our point of view will someday win out. However, she calls us to learn to do more than only one thing. She wants us to be able at one moment to fight for change and at another moment to be able to fight for defense, to protect something worth defending.

She believes that the city of Portland, for all its problems, is worth defending against Trump’s attack. You likely agree that your city, or state or country, is worth defending against a would-be dictator.

But here’s the challenge to us: Strategizing for defense is different from strategizing for change.

When we’re on defense, we not only minimize actions that polarize, as Hardesty says, but we also design actions that play more to the center. The “center” is the people in your system (be it your community or nation) who are not committed strongly one way or the other.

The leaders in a stable system pay a lot of attention to the people in center and also, as leaders, they see themselves as balancers who need to hold things together in whatever system they’re leading. (The military leadership in the United States is an example of this.) They usually think “leadership” means at least some care for the system’s cohesion, integrity and security.

What this means for activists gets clearer in a story about a puzzle I watched environmental organizers solve.

Finding the difference between offense and defense

When I was consulting with the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, I saw their local organizers make sense of a confusing and surprising phenomenon. Their issue was commercial waste companies trying to dump toxic waste in local communities.

The organizers had been schooled in social change projects and were therefore accustomed to entering a community, finding some sympathetic people more on the periphery of the community (perhaps a Black minister, a white union member, a Jewish teacher, a Unitarian librarian) who agreed that toxics shouldn’t be dumped there. By supporting the activism of these initial contacts and using house meetings to follow their links in toward the power center of the community, the organizers expected at last to rouse the leaders of the community to join in defense against the waste haulers.

To their surprise, the organizers discovered that the leaders of the community frequently “jumped the gun,” adopting the defense against toxics as their own issue and even taking leadership in organizing sit-downs in front of the trucks.

By comparing experiences, the organizers realized that community leaders believed they needed to be seen as defending their system against violations of its integrity and security.

Trump enjoys being outrageous so he can watch us react — and then waste our time moralizing.

On a national level, this is why Republican leaders are so uneasy about Trump’s relationship with Putin and his denial of Russian electoral attacks. Their conflict is between their loyalty to Trump and their own responsibility to defend the system’s integrity against attack from outside. That responsibility goes with being part of the system’s center.

When Jo Ann Hardesty spoke at the rally, she was coaching activists to see the difference between offense and defense. She said, “This is not about ‘Fuck the police.’ This is not about who did what, when. As you know, Portlanders will continue to fight once we get rid of these federal occupying forces. But when Portland is under attack, whether you’re Black or white, whether you’re right or left, Portlanders come together.”

Defeating an attempted coup – nonviolently

When Germans overthrew would-be dictator Wolfgang Kapp in 1920, they used a defensive strategy. It wasn’t easy. World War I left Germany intensely polarized, much more than the United States is now. The right wing saw an opportunity to try a coup d’etat, backed by some of the armed forces.

Germany’s center read the attempt as an attack on the integrity and security of the system, and responded to the left when it called for a general strike. Along with ordinary people staying home, governmental civil servants failed to show up for work.

Kapp found empty offices, with no one to type out a manifesto saying he was the new ruler of Germany. He needed to bring his daughter to the capitol the next day to do the typing!

Even an economically battered, partly destroyed, and politically divided Germany found so many leaders and ordinary people linked to that sense of integrity and security of the whole system that within a week the coup was defeated by nonviolent defense.

How can individuals prepare for defense?

As Bill McKibben is fond of saying, “Stop being an individual.” Recruit your activist group. Talk with others about our possible need to use Jo Ann Hardesty’s call for an “all-in” shift from change to defense.

On Zoom calls discuss with others cases of community and national defense, hundreds of which are available on the Global Nonviolent Action Database.

As you read cases, note what the strengths were that winning activists used, and ask what you and your comrades’ strengths are. If you’ve done only change activism up until now, build your flexibility so you can start or join defense actions as well. With people in the center in mind, think “unity” rather than “further polarization.”

Don’t under-rate our opponent. Just because it’s easy to deride Trump’s limited information about things we think are important, like the virus, is no reason to under-estimate how wily he is, how he “reads” his opponents and goes after their (and our) weak points.

One of our weak points is that many of us would rather moralize than strategize. Trump enjoys being outrageous so he can watch us react — and then waste our time moralizing.

If you’re out late at night and and get attacked on the street, it’s a waste of time and brain-space to analyze the ethics of the attacker. Similarly, we’ll do better in an attempted coup if we give up moralizing and identify our strengths, Trump’s weaknesses and create a strategy to win.

Acknowledge your fears, to yourself and friends. If in contemporary America you have no fear, you simply don’t understand what’s up. I find my teeth chattering more often these days, which is a way of acknowledging and letting go of my fear.

Build on the strengths of previous movements that found ways to handle threats and attacks.

One way to practice your strategy chops is to keep looking at tactical possibilities for nonviolent noncooperation. This formula might help you:

Ask: “What do they want me to do?” Then don’t do it.
Ask: What don’t they want me to do?” Then consider it.

The United States is a polarized country. The path of least resistance is for each pole to become obsessed by the other: The right wing wastes time learning about and despising us, and vice versa. That’s the trap.

The way out is to pay attention to the center, which especially in defense scenarios, is the prize. Learn about centrists, make friends with them, discuss your points of agreement and disagreement. Your growth as an activist is guaranteed.

Our own fear may urge us to “look good” to our comrades, perhaps by doubling down on whatever campaign we’re now involved with. Our campaigns (for racial justice, immigrant justice, stopping a pipeline, etc.) are in one sense addressing sub-systems. That’s good, because in ordinary times the sub-system offers concrete gains when we win.

However, if my analysis is correct, in this situation what’s in play is the national system as a whole, which will make it more critical for a moment — and also will make the center available in a new way.

Remind your friends that because the center is easily alarmed by disorder and especially violence, its willingness to defend the whole depends partly on the degree to which it sees “our side” as nonviolent and “the threat” as violent. Because the overwhelming majority of Portlanders have been demonstrating for Black Lives Matter in nonviolent ways, elected officials are mobilizing against Trump’s intervention. If the majority had been violent, Trump’s intervention would be welcomed by the center.

Reduced to bare bones, our three-point plan in this political moment may be: stand with the community as a whole, communicate the power of strategic nonviolent action, and then — as Hardesty reminds us — as soon as Trump is really out, we can return to our disagreements and our struggle for revolutionary change!


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