The Washington Post reports that the city is receiving more U.S. Marshals as well, bringing the total of “reinforcements” to “at least 100.” It is not clear how many of those new troops will substitute out for currently deployed anonymous thugs and how many are intended as reinforcements.
We can dispense with the notion that this gaggle of federal agents, assembled from multiple sub-agencies for the simple reason that those agencies are the only ones under William Barr’s direct control, are acting as law enforcement agents. If they were meant to be for policing, they would not be dressed in full military garb. “Policing” does not require the use of camouflage uniforms; the agents will be blending in to exactly f–k-all in the federal buildings they are ostensibly protecting. Standard policing practices have long been able to identify and apprehend individual protesters who engage in violence. If the Trump government simply wants to see a steady stream of protesters demonstrating against excessive police violence shot in the head with “nonlethal” rounds by officers apparently testing the bounds of what “nonlethal” projectiles can do to a person, there are many sufficiently sociopathic officers in each city to do so.
But those local officers might face repercussions for such violence. That, perhaps, is the core reason why Barr is sending unidentifiable, anonymous Border Patrol sociopaths to test those bonds themselves. No identification, no accountability, and Barr’s full Department of Justice willing to immunize any agents willing to engage in “good” violence.
The Trump administration actions in Portland are unsubtle. Trump was frustrated by the relative unwillingness of Washington, D.C., police to commit violence against Americans who he regards as his personal enemies, but was pleased when Barr provided him a force that would teargas whoever needed to be teargassed so that Trump could stage a photo-op. He wants to relive that purely retaliatory violence. He finds it useful to his oratory purposes and to his desired election themes. He ordered more of it, and Barr complied. Prison riot control officers, Border Patrol “tactical” officers—whoever Barr can summon for the purpose will be summoned.
It was unfortunate for Trump that protests in Portland and elsewhere were decreasing in intensity and were overwhelmingly nonviolent by the time the administration organized their response, but preexisting violence was never a necessary factor. Put a paramilitary presence in any American city with weapons pointed against protestors, violence is sure to happen. If Barr’s agents were being arrayed against the far right, the far right would both demand and furiously justify violence against those federal forces—it is one of the most central tenets of the NRA and militia branches of conservatism, after all—but Trump and Barr are instead focusing the powers of the state on civil rights activists. As usual. As is customary, in authoritarian nations.
We can absolutely expect that the federal presence of repurposed, unidentified, camouflage-wearing, burst-out-of-a-rental-van generic-brand “police” thugs will both be expanded to other cities and continue until Election Day. From Trump’s point of view it is a win-win scenario. If violence remains scattered, it is a pleasurable demonstration of authoritarian power to simply know that the agents are there; if violence escalates, so much the better. He can show it on television.
It’s not likely to have the electoral impact Trump and Barr imagine it will have, though. The number of Americans who derive pleasure from seeing military-garbed hoodlums shoot mothers and fathers in the head with nonlethal rounds are not as great as the autocrats believe. For Trump, it is a miscalculation. For Barr and other longtime Republican operatives, however, autocracy in service to ideology seems to be premised on personal convictions.