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Is the Left Finally Learning to Care About the Federal Bootheel?

The DHS deployment to Portland is worse than a crime, it's a mistake
Is the Left Finally Learning to Care About the Federal Bootheel?

Reading Vox is like going to a puppet show, then waking up to a review recommending everybody go and see the fine stage play that’s just gone up downtown. I was there, you might say. I’m sure I saw a hand up Raggedy Ann’s posterior. This being a perverse thing to say about the button-eyed Tony winner, insisting you saw what you saw doesn’t go over well.

A few days ago, a Vox writer tweeted, about the deployment of federal law enforcement personnel to Portland, “Imagine if Obama had done this to Tea Partiers.” The last several days have seen a reawakening of civil libertarianism on the left that was notably absent from 2008-2016, and in some ways that’s welcome.

However, I am not aware of a Tea Party effort to torch a federal courthouse, or a time when Jenny Beth Martin occupied several blocks of a major city’s downtown with the help of the Oathkeepers. A heavy-handed crackdown on Tea Partiers didn’t happen, not because the administration back then didn’t think they were odious or suspicious enough to deserve it (they did), and not because they didn’t have it in them, but because they didn’t need to. They had the IRS to pettifog Tea Party groups with red tape for years, hindering their political effectiveness, and the more hard-edged militia types were likely already so heavily infiltrated that it wouldn’t have been necessary.

Frankly, there’s a political lesson for Trump in that. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler arrived at the protest, and was both tear-gassed by the feds and shouted down and pursued by the same mob he was out there to show solidarity with. Guess which part of the story Chuck Todd is running with? The Obama administration understood, better than Trump’s, that if you go after the funding of your political enemies, it will be more effective and also provokes less backlash.

The strategy of Trump and the GOP in this crisis should be to do two things, neither of which involve any federal law enforcement. One: do nothing to aid your enemy, a cardinal sin this deployment commits. And two: drive wedges between the protestors in the streets, the local and state-level politicians who enable them, and their woke capitalist patrons. Imagine how much better the deployment of federal officers would have been received if they had just waited until the mob had driven Wheeler back into his office, an inarguable sign that he had lost control of his city?

The various Trumpists and populists champing at the bit for the feds to crack some antifa skulls don’t understand the way protests and crackdowns on them work, and that they do not redound equally to the benefit of right and left. Political violence is almost always a game that the left can win, but the right can’t. As I mentioned on the podcast this week, when the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963, the monks and nuns supporting him carried signs written not in Vietnam’s second language, French, but in English. This was for the benefit of the AP and New York Times reporters who showed up, the former, Malcom Browne, being the one who took the famous photo. It worked like a charm. By contrast, it’s not until two months after George Floyd’s death that we now find out that, amid the peaceful protests, somebody appears to have burned to death in a pawn shop there.

In a similar way, when it comes to an imbalance in the federal law enforcement scrutiny of political groups, our friend at Vox has things exactly backwards. Compare the dozens of felony charges related to the protests that have been dismissed in several cities to the four-year sentence for Proud Boys in New York City who got into a fight with antifa. More broadly, some methhead who joins a white nationalist group is going to have a hard time holding down a job at a gas station, but Bernardine Dohrn ended up teaching law at Northwestern after taking credit for multiple bombings on behalf of the Weather Underground. FALN leader Oscar Lopez Rivera was granted clemency by President Obama before being fêted by the writer of “Hamilton.” The federal government has been involved in infiltrating and entrapping right-wingers for decades, arguably even playing a role in radicalizing some of them, according to J.M. Berger’s research.

But if the challenge is to find federal law enforcement suppression of the Tea Party, here’s a possible one. An Alaska militiaman named Schaeffer Cox is doing hard time in the GITMO of the lower 48, the Communications Management Unit of the federal prison in Terre Haute. One of his two convictions, solicitation to murder federal officials, was vacated in 2017, leaving only the conspiracy charge. A serious allegation to be sure, but several Fairbanks residents I’ve spoken to doubt that he ever would have followed through on his extreme rhetoric. All state charges against him were dismissed because they relied on FBI recordings made secretly without a warrant.

The federal government’s case rested heavily on the work of Bill Fulton, a paid FBI informant, and the Raggedy Andy of this story. Fulton’s testimony put Cox in prison, and he then wrote a book about it. Today he campaigns for progressive causes, namely gun control. While he was in Alaska he was running a military supply store. But one odd detail that raised eyebrows among some Alaskans at the time—along with Talking Points Memo—was that Fulton was also working for several Tea Party campaigns, including for Eddie Burke, a failed lieutenant governor candidate, and Joe Miller, the Tea Party senate candidate who beat Lisa Murkowski in a Republican primary. During that general election campaign Fulton arrested a journalist, causing an enormous controversy that hurt Miller’s campaign and helped to burnish the image of the Tea Party as a bunch of dangerous thugs. I don’t know, maybe it’s all a coincidence, that’s how it appears in Fulton’s telling. But at this point I confess I have a hard time giving Robert Mueller’s FBI the benefit of the doubt.

The federal government’s campaign against right-wing militia groups has gone on for decades, and however you might feel about the justice of it, it is more sophisticated and more effective than providing security at federal courthouses. If Republicans really want to do unto them as it’s been done unto you, it’s going to take more than street fights. In Portland, the Trump administration should be very careful about playing into their enemies’ hands. As Napoleon’s chief of secret police said: it’s worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.

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