They wore no badges, drove unidentified vehicles and whisked people off into the night. Vladimir Putin’s “little green men” were a tool of Russian hybrid warfare: everyone knew who gave the orders but there was plausible deniability.
Portland, Oregon is neither Crimea nor eastern Ukraine. But Donald Trump is playing similar mind games with America’s cities. Russia’s state media claimed Russian-speaking civilians were slaughtered in the Donbass. Mr Trump says America’s cities are “far worse than Afghanistan”. The US’s urban carnage is caused by thugs, killers and violent anarchists, he said.
That is the kernel of Mr Trump’s re-election campaign. Since the economy is drifting back into recession, and coronavirus will still be around in November, he is putting most of his chips on the culture war. A better description would be “anti-city”.
The president of the country that invented the skyscraper is running against its cities. All of America’s big cities are multiracial and tend to be liberal. Of the largest 10 in the US, only one, San Diego, has a Republican mayor. Although it is on the US-Mexico border, it is a safe bet that unidentifiable federal agents are not heading to San Diego. Their next “surge” is to Chicago, said Mr Trump. Albuquerque may not be far behind.
The question is whether Mr Trump’s hybrid tactics will work. Most of the evidence suggests they are a long shot. The ostensible reason to send semi-militarised agents into America’s urban “theatres” is to protect federal property.
The larger message is that radical secularists are desecrating American culture and spreading crime. Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, is their prisoner. For this campaign to take hold, Mr Trump needs three things to happen.
First, the protesters must step up to the role he has allotted them. Most are not obliging. By the standards of the 1960s and 1970s, today’s protests are mild.
Second, he needs voters to conflate the stars and stripes with confederate statues and military bases. That’s much harder than he supposed. Even Mississippi has voted to remove the confederate symbol from its state flag. The Pentagon has also banned the secessionist flag.
Third, Mr Trump wants suburban voters to believe Mr Biden is inciting lawless protesters and will be beholden to their agenda. Again, this is ambitious. People might joke about Mr Biden’s verbosity. But it is hard to clothe this avuncular 77-year-old in radical garb.
Mr Biden has rejected the left’s “defund the police” campaign and has said nothing that could be construed as pro-violence. By none of these yardsticks is Mr Trump’s campaign likely to capture the public imagination.
But there is a darker potential to Mr Trump’s little green men. For the first time in US history a sitting president is refusing to say whether he will accept the verdict of the American people.
“I’ll keep you in suspense, OK?” Mr Trump told Fox News on Sunday. He still alleges millions of illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Several times a week, Mr Trump predicts the upcoming election will also be rigged — whether by absentee ballot fraud, fake voter rolls or pro-Biden interference by China.
Projecting his desires is one of Mr Trump’s poker tells: he often accuses others of things he has done or would like to do. Should he fail to reignite the culture wars, Mr Trump can fall back on claims of an impending stolen election. Agents can be deployed to prevent ballot fraud. Any incident could trigger emergency powers.
In Bill Barr, Mr Trump has a US attorney-general who would be happy to draft the pretexts. In Chad Wolf, the acting DHS secretary, Mr Trump has a loyalist in charge of a semi-private army. It was Mr Wolf who drew up the segregation orders that resulted in migrant children being separated from their parents.
The DHS’s Border Patrol units have been involved in most of the shadowy arrests in Portland. Their day job is chiefly to deal with border violence, especially narcotics gangs. Oregon’s biggest city is nowhere near a border.
What effect would Mr Trump’s agents have on voters in crowded neighbourhoods? The question answers itself. Polls suggest he will probably lose to Mr Biden in November. The novelist Maya Angelou, said: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Mr Trump keeps telling us he will not go quietly into the night.