July 22, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Trump to cities: You made me do this

First they came for the "illegals."

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The president’s secret police were at it again last night. Federal agents deployed to Portland—unidentified, unaccountable, and unwanted by local elected and law enforcement officials in Oregon—spent the night gassing, arresting and otherwise terrorizing demonstrators under the guise of “protecting facilities.” Protests began by demanding justice for the murder of George Floyd, but have since evolved into protests against a president sticking his nose in local affairs where it doesn’t belong.

While that was happening, Chad Wolf appeared on Fox. The acting secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security seemed to suggest during the segment that thought itself could be a potential crime. “Because we don’t have that local support, that local law enforcement support, we are having to go out and proactively arrest individuals, and we need to do that because we need to hold them accountable,” Chad Wolf said.

What we are seeing in Portland is part of an ongoing authoritarian effort to push the envelope of acceptable behavior on the part of the Trump administration.

Though the idea of the thought police is frightening enough, Wolf did do something useful with his remarks. He connected points of causation, obliquely but still, between official acts of the past and official acts of the present, illustrating the creep of authoritarianism from the margins of our society to its center, and that without broader awareness—without public acts of witness—the end can come quickly.

Recall, first, that Donald Trump ran for president promising to purge “illegal” immigrants. (His real goal was all immigration, including legal, and according to a new study by the National Foundation for American Policy, his efforts have been wildly successful; since 2017, legal immigration has fallen by almost 50 percent.) For this reason, so-called sanctuary cities were a target of his rhetoric and, later, his policies.

The thing about federal immigration law is that to enforce it, you need the help of local law enforcement, but local law enforcement is under no legal obligation to help, because immigration isn’t its job. Cities and states don’t need to help if they don’t want to, and given most major cities are run by Democrats, most of them don’t.

Tip jar right here!

This is maddening for a president promising to purge “illegals.” One solution is to sue in a bid to force local cops to play along. The courts have been unfriendly, though, and they are certain to get more unfriendly. The US Supreme Court refused last month to hear a case seeking to overturn a California law transforming the state in a legal haven for immigrants. The high court had previously ruled that the president can’t target states and their cities for “defunding” on account of their being uncooperative with immigration authorities. That leaves the administration with a couple of options.

Option No. 1 came naturally to a demagogue like Trump. Demonize cities as cancers of crime, violence, filth, looting, rioting and other terrible social ills that justify any kind of federal intervention. Characterize them as corrupt, maladministered, and undeserving of tax dollars for being captive to special-interests (that is, public-sector unions and Black people). Characterize them as lawless for not cooperating with ICE and Border Patrol (even though municipalities are following the letter of the law). Give the impression that sanctuary cities are leaving you with no choice but to use force.

Remember what Chad Wolf said: “Because we don’t have that local support, that local law enforcement support, we are having to go out and proactively arrest individuals.” He won’t stop from happening what must happen because you forced it to happen.

Then, Option No. 2, use force. The Trump administration dispatched 100 Border Patrol officers in February to sanctuary cities around the country for the stated purpose of boosting deportations by 35 percent. I think it’s safe to say at this point the real goal was intimating not only local cops but residents, too—anyone merely thinking it’s OK to deny the president. According to a Times report, they came armed with “stun grenades and enhanced Special Forces-type training, including sniper certification.” The officers, moreover, “typically conduct high-risk operations targeting individuals who are known to be violent, many of them with extensive criminal records.”

Meanwhile, DHS continued its policy of “family separation,” which means the confiscation of children, including babies, from parents seeking political asylum. The objective was deterrence, but the result was kids living in cages or in “internment camps” where they suffered from malnutrition, disease, death or even sexual crimes at the hands of Border Patrol agents. The explicit policy was making life so miserable no one would dare think of entering illegally. And such sadism was justified because the president said a misdemeanor (that’s what illegal entry is) menaced “our way of life.”

What we are seeing in Portland is part of an ongoing effort to push the envelope of acceptable behavior on the part of the Trump administration. At each stage, he has identified new enemies and found new means of crushing them. The process is ad hoc but inexorable—as long as most people, most white people, believe they are immune to an ever-expanding scope of conflict seeking to subordinate everything to a totalized state. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller, first they came for the “illegals.” Then they came for the legal immigrants. Then they came for Americans who got in their way.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. David Mikulec on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    I no longer wonder how exactly it was that Germany could allow itself to be consumed by a maniac like Hitler. We’re seeing it in real time here in America with #Cult45.

  2. hw on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    I don’t know how long the US has been on a downward slide, but the one sliver of light afforded by the Trump administration is that it has stripped bare the illusion of ideology from the GOP and revealed the institutional rot across the DOJ, SCOTUS, and Congress. Trump, Barr, and Pompeo aren’t even bothering to hide their naked power grabs…why would they? They know that the GOP House and Senate are complicit, even if they pretend that they never thought it would go this far (that’s what complicit judges who supported the Nazi regime said post-WWII), and they know that the House is so afraid of derailing a Biden win that they will allow the Constitution to be shredded, civil rights to be eroded, and citizens to die of Covid-19. At what point does fear rise to the level of complicity? There is a tipping point, after which eroded norms can no longer be restored and a Biden win will be the aberration before we return to a Trump Jr/Ivanka Trump/Tom Cotton presidency. If the House continues to do nothing for the remainder of 2020, we will be well past the tipping point.

  3. Jim Prevatt on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    Niemöller did much more than speak out, however, as did his friend Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As a consequence, Bonhoeffer lost his life and Niemöller lost eight years of his freedom.

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
    “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

    ― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

  4. Hazumu Osaragi on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    Imagine the plot for the movie ‘Big’
    – where Tom Hanks plays a grade 7 student who suddenly inhabits a grown-up body
    – only instead a whole bunch of grade 7 ‘jocks’ and bullies suddenly have their bodies transformed into 50~80-year-old-bodies.
    Mayhem ensues.

  5. Dave S on July 30, 2021 at 10:47 pm

    Whites are already targets if they are aged or children. Care for those two groups are hindrances to opening up the commercial segments mid-pandemic. The GOP stopped saying it out loud but their actions are consistent with what they were saying – learn to accept the risks so we can get people back to work. Let the elderly die if it means we can get restaurants and shops open again. Risk the health of the kids, get them back to school, if it means mom can go back to working at Walmart.

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