WASHINGTON — In Portland, Ore., federal police use batons, tear gas and rubber bullets on moms in bicycle helmets. Unidentified federal officers, defying duly elected state and city leaders, throw civil rights demonstrators into unmarked vans without charges. President Donald Trump’s acting Homeland Security secretary, Chad Wolf, says his agents “go out and proactively arrest individuals.”
That’s so much easier than waiting for people to do something illegal before you lock them up!
The administration justifies his extraordinary disregard of constitutional protections by calling the demonstrators “violent anarchists” who have made “efforts to start fires at the Hatfield Federal Courthouse.” Trump says that the demonstrators “hate our country” and that “we must protect Federal property.”
Anarchists in Oregon who hate their country are trying to set fires and destroy federal property? Hmmm.
Steven and Dwight Hammond, also from Oregon, were convicted of arson for a fire that burned 139 acres of federal property in the state. A witness testified that Steven Hammond handed out matches with instructions to “light up the whole country” after his hunting party illegally slaughtered animals on federal land. Their imprisonment sparked an armed takeover of federal property in Oregon for 41 days in 2016 by dozens of militia-affiliated gunmen.
And what did Trump think of these arsonists who destroyed federal property and wanted to burn down America? Why, he pardoned them in 2018, calling them “devoted family men” and “respected contributors to their local community” for whom “justice is overdue.”
We have seen this pattern over and over.
In Washington’s Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, federal police operating under the administration’s command fired gas and projectiles at peaceful demonstrators to clear the way for a presidential photo op outside a church. But when armed militants poured into the state Capitol in Michigan, brandishing their weapons in the legislative chamber to intimidate lawmakers (some of whom felt the need to don bulletproof vests) over public health restrictions, Trump declared that the gunmen were “very good people” and that the state’s Democratic governor should “make a deal” with them.
Now Trump is decrying a supposed absence of law and order in Chicago and other cities run by Democrats (“worse than Afghanistan,” he said) and is threatening to overpower those cities, too, with armed federal agents. But when a Missouri couple came out of their home shouting at nonviolent racial injustice demonstrators, pointing a pistol and brandishing a rifle at them, Trump called it “a disgrace” that they might face charges. Never mind that it’s a felony in Missouri to exhibit “any weapon readily capable of lethal use in an angry or threatening manner.”
In Trump’s America, it seems, the First Amendment only applies to those exercising the Second Amendment. Unarmed demonstrators pose a threat to “law and order.” But if you’re carrying a gun, you should feel free to threaten your elected representatives, menace civil rights demonstrators or do what you like to federal property.
Trump’s pretext for overriding state and local leaders with federal firepower is the racial justice demonstrators’ supposed violence. Though the majority of protesters have been peaceful, a few are indeed violent — you can view them on Fox News — and they deserve condemnation. But Trump is fomenting violence in the service of fueling a culture war he hopes will salvage his reelection. “It’s a choice between the law and order and patriotism and prosperity, safety offered by our movement, and the anarchy and chaos and crime,” he declared at a telerally this past week.
Or so he would like it to be.
Oregon’s Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said Trump’s “dictatorship”-style use of “secret police” was “adding gasoline to a fire” that had been dying. “The situation had been improving over the past several weeks,” she told NPR, and “their presence here substantially escalated the situation.”
But escalation is clearly Trump’s aim when he threatens to send federal police into more American cities. He needs to frighten Americans into embracing federal police taking up arms against American citizens — and Americans taking up arms against each other.
On Tuesday, for example, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany described Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the Missouri couple who threatened demonstrators with guns, as being menaced by “violent” protesters who “trespassed,” threatened to kill them and “burn down the house,” but not before moving into the house and “taking a shower.” Video of the affair shows peaceful marchers on the sidewalk, walking past the agitated and gun-toting McCloskeys, on their way to demonstrate outside the mayor’s nearby house.
“The prosecutor apparently thinks her job isn’t to keep us safe from criminals, but to keep the criminals safe from us,” Mark McCloskey told Fox News on Monday.
What a perfect distillation of Trumpian justice! Nonviolent civil rights demonstrators are the “criminals” — and the people who threaten them with guns are the victims.
Dan Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @Milbank.