Why did Donald Trump pick Portland? It's a question worth asking. There are more than two dozen American cities bigger than Oregon's largest, and of the Rose City's 650,000 or so residents, fewer than 7% are Black. Nearly all the cities larger than Portland have more diverse populations, and most have had substantial, ongoing Black Lives Matter protests since Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in late May. Yet Trump settled on Portland — not New York or L.A. or Atlanta, and not Minneapolis, where this all began — as the staging ground for his plan to flood a city with federal police in hopes of escalating violence, all in hopes of generating scary images to frighten Fox News viewers with.
Portland wasn't targeted for public safety reasons, obviously. Trump doesn't care about people's safety, for one thing. For another, the presence of federal police officers is very pointedly to reduce public safety and escalate the violence Trump wants for his campaign ads. It's also a confusing choice, considering that Portland is one of the whitest large cities in the nation — a demographic reality visible on the ground among the protests — making it an odd choice for a nakedly racist president who is making a big public stink of his loathing for anti-racism activists. Trump is clearly expanding his war on cities to other places, but Portland was clearly picked for the rollout of this fascistic crackdown for a reason.
So, again: Why Portland? As with many other things Trump does, it appears he's following the lead of the various far-right, white supremacist and proto-fascist groups that have gained power in the years since his election. Groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and various others have descended on the city regularly since Trump's election, generally for the purpose of starting street fights with leftists and creating a spectacle. By targeting Portland for an invasion of federal police geared up like members of an occupying army, Trump is modeling himself after the far-right fringe that has been harassing that city for years.
"Far-right and white nationalist groups often plan rallies and events in areas where a majority of residents are politically and socially liberal, and where communities have reliably produced counter-demonstrations at such events," Jared Holt, an investigative reporter for Right Wing Watch, told Salon. "In the mind of the extremist, they are engaged in a culture war and are choosing to bring the fight to enemy turf."
Far-right groups regularly descend on Portland during the summer months — some years, the city has seen multiple rallies — often under the banner of "free speech" or protesting against antifa activists, but mostly in hopes of attracting counter-protesters and launching street brawls.
As I reported back in 2017, when these groups first started heavily targeting Portland, members of these far-right groups will swap memes and encourage each other to beat the tar out of anyone they deem "antifa." Some of these memes can get violent and disturbing, with references to curb-stomping, stabbing and shooting opponents. Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was held out as a hero, mainly for his reported habit of murdering leftist opponents by throwing them out of helicopters.
As Arun Gupta of the Intercept explained in an article last year, the far right saw Portland as the ideal city "to stage violent spectacles" they could then spread throughout social media "to glorify the violence as a recruiting tool and proof of their racial and masculine virility."
Often, these far-right activists would try to justify this behavior by citing "self-defense" against "antifa," but as Holt explained, it's wise to have "a healthy sense of skepticism" about such claims, since far-right groups "plan their events in locations with the expectation there will be counter-demonstrators, and work to actively escalate tensions between opposing sides"
Trump is taking the model developed by the extreme right in recent years, and amplifying it dramatically by using taxpayer-funded resources, including the shadowy federal police agencies either created or vastly expanded during the post-9/11 campaign against terrorism. But the basic idea is the same: Target Portland for a right-wing show of force, knowing that this will likely provoke a strong response from leftist activists, and use that response as an excuse for increasing the violent repression in a way that can be packaged and repackaged as sadistic propaganda designed to lure back wavering Trump voters or hypothetical suburban moderates.
The most obvious reason why Portland is a target is, of course, its long history of leftist activism, which does indeed include a contingent — whether self-defined as antifa or anarchist or something else — that is entirely willing to engage in physical confrontation with far-right groups who trawl the streets looking for a fight.
Trump himself is following this same logic, knowing that while most leftists are responding to the federal police with peaceful resistance, some are willing to fight back. Granted, the street scene in Portland is probably nowhere near as violent as Trump would like — at most, he's getting images of some people pulling down a fence, setting off fireworks and tagging some buildings — but it's the same calculus that far-right groups are employing, which is that some protesters will get unruly and can be spun as "violent rioters" on Fox News.
There's an even deeper reason that Portland has been such a target for the far right and now for Trump, who as usual takes his political cues from the very worst people in America. This goes right back to the aforementioned fact that Portland is one of the whitest cities in the country.
Portland may be known as a progressive city now, but like the entire state of Oregon, it has a long history of white supremacy. (Indeed, there are still a lot of openly white supremacist groups in rural eastern Oregon, who are sometimes visible among the far-right groups who regularly descend upon Portland.) In the 1920s, Oregon had the biggest Ku Klux Klan organization west of the Mississippi, which isn't surprising when you consider that the state effectively banned Black people from moving there until 1926. Portland was virtually an all-white city until World War II, and remains more than 75% white today. (Indeed, the city's Black population appears to have declined since the 1990s, perhaps reflecting increased gentrification.) In any case, Portland's whiteness is an artifact of decades of discrimination.
Of course Portland's politics have shifted sharply leftward in recent years. The far right's specific loathing for Portland, then, is to some extent rooted in a sense of betrayal at a city that has turned away from its long history of reactionary and racist politics. The constant drumbeat of far-right rallies, which routinely turn into brawls, aren't just about taking the fight to enemy turf. It's about the far right symbolically trying to reclaim a city that they feel they've lost to the left.
This subtext is often not far from the surface. Far-right activists routinely describe Portland's progressives as if they were a stain or an occupying force, as if progressives are illegitimate members of the community who need to be expunged so the city can be restored to its true heritage.
"The West Coast has slowly been infected with communist ideologies throughout our entire culture," said Joey Gibson of the far-right group Patriot Prayer while promoting a 2017 rally, leaning hard into this "paradise lost" framing of the way cities like Portland have become progressive. (Gibson was arrested on a felony riot charge in 2019 after years of orchestrating events that descended into violence.)
Patriot Prayer even billed its rallies as opportunities to "cleanse the streets of Portland" in 2018. One of the members of their Facebook group complained about the city's "stench-covered and liberal-occupied streets."
Trump and his acting Homeland Security secretary, Chad Wolf, have embraced this rhetoric that paints progressives in Oregon as an illegitimate power that needs to be overthrown with whatever level of force is necessary.
Trump has repeatedly emphasized that the cities he's attacking, especially Portland, are "run by very liberal Democrats," as if it were self-evident that their leadership is illegitimate and therefore Trump is entitled to send in federal police against their explicit wishes.
Wolf has defended the invasion in similar terms, claiming the administration was "forced" to invade because of "a lack of action from city officials." That's a more legalistic framing of the same argument, that the elected leaders of Portland aren't legitimate and that the right is more entitled than "liberal" elected officials to decide what the law enforcement response to protests should look like.
The fact that Trump is taking his cues from the far-right fringes is, sadly, no surprise. After all, he has recently promoted a conspiracy theory about the coronavirus apparently concocted by a far-right nut who believes reproductive health problems are caused by women having sex with demons. The far right is where Trump's heart is, which is why his impulse after the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, was to describe the white supremacists who rampaged there as "very fine people."
That's what happens when you elect a racist conspiracy theorist to the highest office in the land: Federal police are being deployed to imitate the tactics of proto-facist groups who glamorize violence and long for the white supremacist past. Portland has endured years of abuse from these far-right groups who treat the city as little more than a stage for their violent culture-war melodramas. Now the president of the United States is following suit.