Fox News fuels Trump’s dangerous Portland “law and order” strategy

Trump with Fox logo and police tape

Citation Molly Butler / Media Matters

Heavily armed federal paramilitaries that President Donald Trump sent to Portland, Oregon, to combat violence and property damage in a small section of the city have reportedly snatched protesters off the streets without probable cause and taken them away in unmarked vehicles, raising local concerns that those forces are provoking unpredictable, spiraling violence. And the president’s Fox News propagandists couldn’t be happier.

The network’s airwaves were filled with fiery images of Portland’s streets and praise for Trump’s response on Monday night and Tuesday morning. Network prime-time stars Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity claimed the city of Portland in its entirety had been “destroyed by the mob” and was in “constant chaos,” and suggested that Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden supported the violence. On Fox & Friends, Portland was “rocked by violence” and the president was “defending law & order.” “It’s time — well, to do what you’re doing, and we appreciate everything you are doing,” Fox Business host Lou Dobbs told Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, the department that sent the armed guards to Portland.

There’s a reason Fox hosts are so enamored of the situation -- they helped bring it about. The crisis-in-the-making is the apparent result of Trump reacting to weeks of the network’s fearmongering about urban unrest and crime. And Portland seems to be a test case. Trump is threatening to send federal law enforcement to cities across the country, risking a dangerous conflagration in order to use the specter of violence in the nation’s cities as the core of his “law and order” reelection strategy.

These federal deployments mark the combination of two of the president’s defining character traits, his authoritarian impulses and his suggestible nature. Trump treats the government as an extension of his personal interests, limited only by his lack of focus and the willingness of administration officials to carry out his orders. He also frequently takes action in response to the advice he gets from the Fox hosts he watches on television. It is always bad that the president takes advice in this manner. But when the network’s personalities are encouraging him to carry out his authoritarian urges, the results are particularly volatile.

In the nearly two months since the police killing of George Floyd launched nationwide protests and a nationwide reckoning on race, Fox has been bombarding its viewers -- including the president -- with images of violence and civil unrest. Often using weeks-old footage and other misinformation tactics, the network’s hosts have sought to portray a nation on the brink, fixating on instances of looting, property damage, and confrontations with law enforcement as they demagogued against the supposed threat posed by “antifa" agitators, Black Lives Matter activists, and statue-toppling vigilantes. This coverage clearly caught the president’s attention, as he sent dozens of tweets responding to it in real time. 

But in a June 19 monologue, Carlson suggested that the president was failing in his duty and needed to take a much tougher stand on the protests. Without directly mentioning Trump’s name, the Fox host denounced the Republican Party for not doing enough to “protect this country from the crazed ideologues who seek to destroy it.” 

“They did nothing, they didn’t lift a finger to help the people they had promised – they had pledged – to protect, their voters and their donors,” he said. “Instead, they did everything possible to accommodate the demands of the people tormenting them – the rioters and the people who backed the rioters.”

Trump’s response demonstrated that Carlson is now the Fox host with the most influence on the president. Within hours, Trump was tweeting that he had helped “end rioting & looting” in Minnesota and that he opposed “statue demolition.” He followed that up by issuing a June 26 executive order which directed the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to help protect federal monuments, memorials, and statues from what he termed “violent mobs incited by a radical fringe”; abandoning legislative efforts at police reform; and lashing out at the Black Lives Matter movement. And on July 4, Trump delivered a quasi-fascist speech at Mount Rushmore in which he echoed Carlson’s monologues and condemned the “merciless campaign to wipe out our history.” The Fox host, in turn, lauded the address as “the single best speech Donald Trump has ever given.”

But Trump wasn’t simply engaged in a rhetorical pivot -- his administration was taking action to back up his campaign-style diatribes. DHS established a task force to coordinate federal personnel to defend memorials under the president’s executive order featuring officers from its Federal Protective Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as from the Justice Department’s U.S. Marshals Service. The department dispatched task force units to several U.S. cities over the July 4 weekend, including Portland, where they detained eight people and have remained ever since.

Protests in downtown Portland have been ongoing since shortly after Floyd’s killing. They were largely peaceful though punctuated by violence, property damage, and looting, with law enforcement escalation at times causing riots. But the city largely avoided national media attention, including from Fox, until last week. That’s when protesters and media outlets began reporting that heavily armed federal agents were detaining protesters without apparent probable cause and driving them away in unmarked vehicles. State and local officials denounced the invasion, pointing out that the federal law enforcement forces were unwanted and warning that their presence was inflaming the situation. But acting DHS secretary Chad Wolf, during a visit to the city, issued a statement denouncing the “rampant long-lasting violence” by the “violent mob.”

Right-wing media coverage of the city’s protests quickly spiked as the president’s allies aligned with his administration’s message. “Hannity and other Fox hosts evidently decided that a small group of self-described anarchists suddenly deserved national news coverage,” CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote. “One cynical way to see it: The Trump administration and Fox's talk shows picked Portland as a new stage for Trump's ‘Law and Order’ show.

But while both the administration and Fox’s hosts are suggesting that the entire city is under siege, the reality is far more prosaic. “The images that populate national media feeds, however, come almost exclusively from a tiny point of the city: a 12-block area surrounding the Justice Center and federal courthouse,” The Oregonian reported. “And they occur exclusively during late-night hours in which only a couple hundred or fewer protesters and scores of police officers are out in the city’s coronavirus-hollowed downtown.” The paper explained that that’s when “tensions flare,” as a “small number” of demonstrators “poke and prod officers to engage,” and the officers respond by using “tear gas, foam-tipped projectiles and other munitions” to disperse the crowd.

Oregon officials warn that the federal law enforcement officials, at least some of whom lack training in crowd control techniques, are making the situation worse. “It’s like adding gasoline to a fire,” Gov. Kate Brown told The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman. “It provokes confrontation to have federal troops on the streets. This is purely for political purposes."

But Trump is planning to bring the same methods to other cities, and he’s linking the effort to his political campaign. “We’re looking at Chicago, too. We’re looking at New York,” he told reporters on Monday. “All run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by the radical left.”

At times, Trump’s authoritarian impulses have been stopped by officials who push back against his orders. But in this case, his appointees appear eager to act, regardless of what local officials say. And they’re using Fox to get their message out to the president and the network’s other viewers -- over the last week, Wolf and Cuccinelli have each made three appearances on its weekday programming, according to Media Matters’ database.

It was bad enough that Fox-fueled rhetoric about civil unrest had become the central plank of Trump’s reelection campaign. But it’s much more dangerous that he’s backing up those words with action, as his network fans cheer him on.