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Trump Wants More Lafayette Parks

July 21, 2020
Trump Wants More Lafayette Parks
A protester in Portland flies an American flag while walking through tear gas fired by federal officers on July 21, 2020. (Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

Donald Trump likes the images out of Portland, where unidentified federal agents are clashing with protesters and using unmarked vans to arrest people off the streets. In one video that has gone viral, an unidentified federal agent from an unknown agency is seen beating a Navy vet with a baton while another blasts a chemical irritant of some kind into his face.

In other incidents, the anonymous agents in camo have deployed tear gas and a protester was hospitalized with skull fractures after a federal agent shot him in the face with some sort of projectile.

“Every American should be repulsed when they see this happening,” Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said in a statement. “If this can happen here in Portland, it can happen anywhere.”

But Trump’s reaction?

He wants more of this in cities across the country. And he doesn’t much care what local or state officials think. “We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York,” he said. “All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.”

Trump’s acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security is on message:

“Let that sink in,” reacted former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill. “This is really bad. Where are the conservatives that want state and local control? What federal statutes are being violated? Graffiti on federal buildings? If there is assault with rocks or bottles or arson . . . these are STATE crimes, not federal.”

But concerns over federalism, states’ rights, local control, and fear of “jack-booted thugs,” are so last century. The “Don’t Tread on Me,” anti-mask freedom fighters have fallen notably silent. Why? Perhaps because they know that this is the new episode of the Trump Show, in which America Becomes Great By Dominating The Streets.

Do not sleep on the strangeness of that decision.

As he slips in the polls, Trump’s mind is apparently recurring to what he still imagines was one of his greatest moments: the storming of Lafayette Park in June, where protesters were pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, hit with rubber shrapnel, and attacked to make way for a presidential photo op. As Daniel Drezner said on our podcast Monday, Trump apparently wants more Lafayette Park-like incidents throughout the country, despite the evidence that the incident may have been a turning point in Trump’s presidency.

You may recall the saga of David Shor, a data analyst who was fired from his job after tweeting out a study that found that non-violent protests were more effective in moving public opinion in a progressive direction than violent protests. As New York magazine noted, lots of folks on Twitter “and (reportedly) some of Shor’s colleagues and clients at the data firm Civis Analytics—found this post insensitive.”

“A day later, Shor publicly apologized for his tweet,” Eric Levitz wrote. “Two weeks after that, he’d lost his job as Civis’s head of political data science—and become a byword for the excesses of so-called cancel culture.”

Last week, though, he sat down for a wide-ranging interview on public opinion and the shape of our politics. The whole thing is worth your time, but this stuck out: After three years of nothing mattering, “the real inflection point in our polling was the Lafayette Park incident, when Trump used tear gas on innocent people. That’s when support for Biden shot up and it’s been pretty steady since then.”

There’s a reason for that, he explained:

But when you have nonviolent protests that goad security forces into using excessive force against unarmed people—preferably while people are watching—then order gets discredited, and people experience this visceral sense of unfairness. And you can change public opinion. And if you look at the [George Floyd] protests, there was some violence in the first two or three days. But then that largely subsided, and was followed by very high-profile incidents of the state using violence against innocent people.

The important thing right is now is that Trump thought that what happened at Lafayette Park was a BIG success. “D.C. had no problems last night,” he tweeted. “Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination. Likewise, Minneapolis was great (thank you President Trump!).”

He thought the photo op was a triumph of Strength and Piety.

“I think it was a beautiful picture,” Trump said in a Fox News interview that aired Friday. “I’ll tell you, I think Christians think it was a beautiful picture.”

Inside the West Wing, the impulse was largely to spin the event as a success. Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior White House adviser, had encouraged the idea and transported the Bible in her designer Max Mara purse, and a cadre of aides had accompanied Trump on his walk to the church. In the aftermath, aides tried to reassure the president that the damaging story line was just more “fake news” and that he had, in fact, pulled off a historic moment.

This alternative reality continues to dominate Trump World and it has clearly taken hold inside the bubble of Trump’s own mind, where the notion of deploying little green men in masks somehow equates to American Greatness and perhaps Trump’s re-election.

But outside that bubble, Americans thought that what happened in Lafayette Park was a fiasco; a horrifying blunder that came to symbolize Trump’s fetish for using force against peaceful protesters. To be sure the violence and left-wing thuggery in Portland has been appalling, but Trump once again threatens to flip the script, by turning the focus from violence to something that looks disturbingly like fascist authoritarianism.

And, if he gets his way, we are about to see stories like this in cities across the country: “A Navy vet asked federal officers in Portland to remember their oaths. Then they broke his hand.”

“Why are you not honoring your oath?” he bellowed. “Why are you not honoring your oath to the Constitution?”

An officer trained his weapon on David’s chest as several agents pushed him, sending David stumbling backward. But he regained his center and tried again. Another agent raised his baton and began to beat David, who stood unwavering with his arms at his sides. Then another officer unloaded a canister of chemical irritant spray into David’s face.

That was all he could handle, David said, he turned and walked away, flipping off the federal forces as he went.

A video taken by Portland Tribune reporter Zane Sparling that captures David’s moment of resistance has, as of early Monday, been viewed nearly 9 million times.

Coming to a city near you.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.