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Protests in Portland have been punctuated by horror stories of unidentified federal agents in military garb snatching protesters off the streets in Oregon. The goal of the agents’ presence and the authority under which they are operating has been unclear, other than it serves the president’s authoritarian taste for strongman bullying and his need to do something, anything, to revive his reelection hopes. Having conceded defeat to the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump needs a straw man enemy to prop up and spar with over the next several months in hopes of scaring Americans into thinking there is a greater threat to their safety and prosperity than the actual president himself. Stirring up a hornets’ nest is what Trump’s after, and in the Portland protests he clearly senses an opportunity to cause disorder, which he can use to contrive a national response. As such, Trump said he is planning to send similar federal agents into multiple American cities, all under Democratic leadership.

#BREAKING: President Trump says he may send “more federal law enforcement” to New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore, Oakland, and other cities to deal with unrest: “In Portland they’ve done a fantastic job.” pic.twitter.com/Pe6aDv6AVt— The Hill (@thehill) July 20, 2020

“I’m going to do something—that, I can tell you,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these—Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country. All run by liberal Democrats.” The rhetoric harkens back to Trump’s 2016 run, where he spun tales of American carnage—real and imagined—and claimed that amid the disorder, he alone could fix it. “This is worse than anything anyone’s ever seen,” Trump continued Monday. “And you know what? If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell.” An expected 150 agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations division are reportedly being sent to Chicago, where, the New York Times reports, they are “expected to be in the city for at least 60 days to help combat violence and would be under the direction of the Justice Department.”

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The generalized increase of blunt force in response to nothing in particular is part of a wider ratcheting up of the government’s response to sporadic protests lingering after weeks of powerful nationwide demonstrations. In addition, “the Department of Homeland Security has authorized its personnel to collect information on protesters who threaten to damage or destroy public memorials and statues, regardless of whether they are on federal property, a significant expansion of authorities that have historically been used to protect landmarks from terrorist attacks,” the Washington Post reports. “The new guidance was issued as department personnel have been dispatched to police and detain people protesting police violence, itself an untraditional role for a department set up to secure borders and transportation systems.”

Elliot Hannon is a Slate staff writer.


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