July 22, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Trump to cities: You made me do this
First they came for the "illegals."
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.
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 is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.