Jim Jones mug

Jim Jones

The May 25 death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer presented a dilemma for Donald Trump. Shortly after Floyd’s death, Trump called it a “grave tragedy.” As protests spread across the country, the president appeared to be standing back, trying to decide how to play his cards — whether to take meaningful steps to address racial justice and police accountability or whether to exploit the growing Black Lives Matter movement to his political advantage. We now know he chose the anti-BLM course.

Quite frankly, his choice was already dictated by the cards he held in his hand. He had been elected with the strong support of a cadre of dedicated white extremists. These were the neo-Nazis and white supremacists at Charlottesville who he complimented as being “very fine people.” Facing a tight election contest, he could not risk losing this segment of his base.

Trump tipped his hand the day after emerging from a protective lockdown in the bowels of the White House. On May 30, he proclaimed that the peaceful protesters would have “been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons,” if they had gotten out of hand. Bull Connor, the Alabama segregationist who used attack dogs against civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s, would have approved. Since then, Trump has been seeking opportunities to graphically portray his anti-BLM campaign message.

On June 1, Trump had peaceful demonstrators forcibly ejected from a park near the White House by a rough and tumble collection of unmarked feds, wielding batons and firing chemical agents. The sole purpose of the fiasco was to make a campaign photo-op of Trump brandishing a Holy Bible in front of a church. The publicity stunt backfired badly, but he was not deterred.

Trump next sent a collection of federal paramilitary forces to Portland to quell largely peaceful protests. He almost waited too long for this gambit because the Portland demonstrations had pretty much run their course by the time the feds arrived to save the day. Those forces include border agents who cut their teeth manhandling asylum seekers on the border and who are admittedly untrained in dealing with U.S. citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.

The flagging protests immediately reignited, causing thousands to turn out in place of the previous dozens. The protesters’ cause morphed somewhat from racial justice concerns to protesting heavy-handed, unwanted federal intervention into local policing, a matter left to the states under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Adding to the fire was the illegal detention of demonstrators and the copious use of nightsticks, tear gas and pepper spray against predominantly peaceful protesters. Groups of mothers and American military veterans have joined to protest the feds’ violations of the constitutional rights of the demonstrators.

Trump has gotten what he wanted — a small slice of Portland in the throes of the turmoil provoked by the federal agents, which has been given practically non-stop airtime on Fox News. It was a wonderful photo-op for Trump’s campaign effort and appears to be slated for reproduction in other U.S. cities with Democrat mayors. It is not certain how the electoral optics will eventually play out, because America was born in protest and its citizens don’t generally take lightly to ham-handed federal efforts to tamp down their constitutional rights.

Jim Jones served as an Army artillery officer in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 and received an Army Commendation Medal for his work with an orphanage there. He served for eight years as Idaho Attorney General and was a justice on the Idaho Supreme Court for 12 years. He currently resides in Boise.