Welcome to the world of performative authoritarianism, a form of politics that reached new heights of sophistication in Russia over the past decade and has now arrived in the United States. Unlike 20th-century authoritarianism, this 21st-century, postmodern influence campaign does not require the creation of a total police state. Nor does it require complete control of information, or mass arrests. It can be carried out, instead, with a few media outlets and a few carefully targeted arrests.
That these tactics are not “totalitarian” doesn’t make them legal, acceptable, or normal. I repeat: Citizens’ rights are being violated in Portland. People have been hauled off the streets into unmarked vehicles. Long-standing precedents about the relationship between states and the federal government have been overturned. Lawsuits have already been filed.
But even if the courts eventually force the troops in jungle camouflage off the streets, the president who sent them there—and who is now threatening to send similar troops to other cities—might not care. That’s because the purpose of these troops is not to bring peace to Portland. The purpose is to transmit a message. Americans should find this tactic familiar, because we’ve seen it before. When the Trump administration cruelly separated children from their families at the southern border, that was, among other things, a performance designed to show the public just how much the president dislikes immigrants from Mexico and Honduras. The attack on demonstrators in Portland is like that: a performance designed to show just how much Trump dislikes “liberal” Americans, “urban” Americans, “Democrat” Americans. To put it differently (and to echo my colleague Adam Serwer): The chaos in Portland is not an accident. The chaos is the point.