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How Is The Federal Crackdown On Cities Sitting With Conservatives?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's get one perspective on the use of federal agents in Portland. Attorney General William Barr is sure to face questions about them as he testifies before Congress today. And Jonah Goldberg is following the story. He's editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and a regular guest here. Jonah, good morning.

JONAH GOLDBERG: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Is it surprising that the Trump administration says so many things are state matters - the pandemic, for example, is a state matter - but fighting protests would be a federal matter?

GOLDBERG: It's not surprising because consistency - ideological or intellectual consistency has not been the watchword of the Trump administration. And I do think that people are, to a certain extent, misunderstanding this. There's one narrative that says, OK, this is authoritarianism. This is totalitarianism. This is Trump making good on our fears that he was going to be a dictator. And then there's another - the other side which says, oh, this is just a proportionate, principled use of force to protect federal buildings. And I think both of those narratives are wrong.

I think that this should be understood in the context of what Trump did with the Bible at Lafayette Square. This is, I consider, a fairly outrageous misuse of federal resources for the equivalent of a photo op. This is purely politically driven, and it's not the coming of a totalitarian America; it's coming of a really impressive video at a virtual RNC convention.

INSKEEP: I want to just make sure that I'm clear on this. I mean, there are a lot of facets to this. Our reporter Martin Kaste, who covers policing, points out there is a federal building in Portland, it does need to be secure, and in recent days, protesters have repeatedly breached the fence around that federal building. It's not like nothing is happening, but it sounds like you feel that it's - that the administration has kind of taken a cynical opportunity to create more confrontation here.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, I think we basically have a tragedy of the commons all over the place. Lots of people are asking why are conservatives so hypocritical for not opposing the violation of states' rights here? And there's certainly some hypocrisy there. There's also some hypocrisy from Democrats, who really don't mind violations of state rights. I mean, the same - a lot of the same people who are decrying this are the same people who - insisting that Trump institute a nationwide mask law, you know, or wanted to see the federalization of the health care industry in response to the coronavirus. There's lots of hypocrisy going around; I just don't think it's the particularly interesting part.

I think the tragedy of the commons comes in where you have a handful of the protesters - not all of them, to be sure, but, you know, the rabble-rouser types - who very much like the escalation and are provoking the Trump administration, and the Trump administration very much likes the escalation and are provoking the rabble-rousers. And you get this sort of race-to-the-bottom effect. And it's - you know, look - there are legal and constitutional powers that the president has to protect federal property. He's been lazy and incompetent in invoking them and using them in proportion. He hasn't trained a lot of these people for the jobs that he's sending them into because they just want the photo ops.

They want the footage of chaos to fit this, you know, replay of the American carnage narrative from 2016. Trump needs an existential enemy to run against in his - you know, in his rhetoric. And so in 2018, he tried it and failed with the immigrant caravan coming up, you know, that was supposedly going to destroy all of America. In 2016, he had more success by basically describing America as a crime scene during historically low crime. That's what offends me about all this - is not the totalitarianism; it's the cynicism and the exploitation of his job, very much like what happened with the Ukraine scandal for narrow, partisan, personal political ends.

INSKEEP: Jonah, is what you say about states' rights very often, maybe almost always, the case? People don't actually care about states' rights that much; what they care about - the issue is an advantage and an advantage on the issue.

GOLDBERG: Well, as someone who's been talking about federalism for 20 years - and I actually do value it a great deal - I think that you're basic...

INSKEEP: Oh, I mean there can be a point to it, but people don't really embrace that point, do they?

GOLDBERG: I think that's - I think you're right. I think at the end of the day, there's always some - when there's a pressing political issue, it will always come before a generic position on states' rights stuff.

INSKEEP: That's what people want, is they want an advantage on the issue, and right now the Trump administration has the federal government, and certain Democrats have certain states.

GOLDBERG: Yeah. And it's just - its nearest-weapon-to-hand stuff, which is one of the reasons why we live in such a stupid time - is people just grab the easiest argument they can that suits their immediate political purposes, and it's a mess.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I think I just heard the title of your next book - We Live in Such a Stupid Time by Jonah Goldberg.

GOLDBERG: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: Jonah, thanks so much. Really appreciate it.

GOLDBERG: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "REACTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.