Donald Trump is trying to convince swing voters that keeping him in office is the only way to avert lawless disorder in America’s cities. To make this case, he is using the powers of his office to stoke lawless disorder in America’s cities.
This might read like a caricature of the thinking behind the president’s deployment of federal agents to Portland, Oregon. But it is a straightforward summary of how members of Donald Trump’s administration and campaign have characterized that deployment to reporters in recent days.
Late last month, as the COVID-19 crisis was knocking down the president’s poll numbers — and protestors were knocking down statues of slaveholders — Trump prepared an executive order empowering the Department of Homeland Security to protect federal monuments from “ left-wing extremists.” Ostensibly, this was intended to quell disorder in American cities. In reality, its aim was closer to the opposite. According to Trump campaign officials who spoke with the Washington Post last week, Trump “sought to frame and create a culture war.” Alas, by the time the president issued his declaration, the George Floyd protests had begun to die down. So, the “law and order” president hatched a plan to make America lawless and disorderly again. As the Post reports:
Trump’s June 26 declaration came too late. The momentum of the protests was fading in many U.S. cities, and confrontations between federal authorities and civilians were becoming less frequent. Then Trump found Portland, according to administration and campaign officials.
Still restive, the West Coast city with a long tradition of protest as a subculture of anarchism was staging peaceful mobilizations as well as smaller nightly clashes with authorities. Militant black-clad demonstrators were directing their anger at a large federal courthouse downtown.
Sinking in the polls over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump seized a chance to appear as a field general in a wider American cultural conflict over racial justice, police misconduct and the reexamination of American history and monuments. In Portland, he found a theater for his fight.
… One of the officials said the White House had long wanted to amplify strife in cities, encouraging DHS officials to talk about arrests of violent criminals in sanctuary cities and repeatedly urging ICE to disclose more details of raids than some in the agency were comfortable doing. “It was about getting viral online content,” one of the officials said.
If you were a historically unpopular Republican president who wanted to quell civil unrest in an overwhelmingly left-wing city, sending federal agents into the streets of that city without the permission of state or municipal officials — and then having those agents abduct protesters in unmarked vans — would be a very bad way to do it. If you were a historically unpopular Republican president who wanted to promote civil unrest, however, it would be a very sound policy. The number of Americans who feel compelled to engage in nightly protests when they see federal agents patrolling the streets of their city — at the behest of Donald Trump, and in defiance of local leadership — is much larger than the number of Americans who felt compelled to continue protesting police violence two months after George Floyd’s death.
Thus, since DHS agents arrived in Portland, the ranks of demonstrators in that city have “swelled into the thousands,” while “new protests of solidarity” have spread across other municipalities. As the New York Times reports:
Over the weekend, dozens of people were arrested in Seattle. Protesters in Los Angeles clashed with officers in front of the city’s federal courthouse downtown. Police also made arrests at protests in smaller cities, such as Omaha, Neb., and Richmond, Va.
In Oakland, what had been a peaceful protest led in part by a group of mothers proclaiming “Cops And Feds Off Our Streets” devolved after dark as another set of protesters smashed windows at the county courthouse and lit a fire inside.
An armed protester was shot and killed in Austin, Texas, by a motorist whose car, according to witnesses and the police, had been aimed toward a group of demonstrators also protesting the federal presence in Portland.
So, Donald Trump is getting what he wants: fodder for campaign ads warning that Joe Biden’s election would turn the U.S. into a Hobbesian hellscape where no cop can hear you scream. (The president’s campaign has already spent $26 million on such advertisements.)
But the second part of Trump’s plan isn’t working as well as the first. The president has succeeded in sowing chaos in America’s cities. But somehow, the fact that Trump is now presiding over mass unrest has not convinced swing voters that keeping him in office is the best way to prevent mass unrest.
Asked which candidate they trusted more on the issue of “crime and safety,” respondents to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll backed Biden over Trump by a margin of 50 percent to 41 percent. Late last month, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found Biden boasting an identical edge over Trump on the question of which candidate could be trusted to “maintain law and order.” And an Economist/YouGov poll released last week found Americans disapproving of Trump’s performance on “crime and criminal justice reform” by a 47 percent to 38 percent margin.
Meanwhile, with regard to the issue that lies at the heart of the past two months of protests, Biden’s advantage over Trump is even larger. A recent Fox News poll found that Americans believe Biden would do a better job handling “race relations” than Trump by a 52 to 31 percent margin.
Trump’s attempt to win on “law and order” — by stoking mass disorder — isn’t bereft of all logic. Republicans do traditionally boast an advantage on the issue of public safety. In fact, Trump himself enjoyed an eight-point lead over Hillary Clinton on the question of which candidate would be best at “dealing with crime” in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken in August 2016. And you can’t capitalize on an issue advantage unless that issue is salient to voters. Deliberately stoking urban violence is one way to increase the political salience of crime.
And yet, while Trump’s Portland policy may have a coherent political logic in the abstract, it doesn’t have a meaningful one in the present moment. Hyperventilating about the threat that radical leftists pose to our precious statues might resonate with culturally conservative swing voters in normal times. But in the context of America’s suffering from a historic public health crisis — and at a time when voters consistently say that this ongoing mass death event is their top concern — Trump’s culture war histrionics only reinforce the impression that he isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously.
Separately, Trump has done little during his first term in office to associate himself with orderliness in the public imagination. To the contrary, through daily Twitter provocations, weekly scandals, and routine purges of top White House staff, Trump has done just about everything in his power to make voters see him as an agent of chaos. The fact that his opponent is an old, white, former vice president (and recovering “tough on crime” Democrat) further undermines Trump’s efforts to portray himself as a necessary safeguard against anarchy.
The most fundamental flaw in Trump’s gambit, though, is the brute fact that he is the sitting president. It is very difficult to persuade voters that putting you in the White House will end civil unrest when you are currently in the White House and there is civil unrest. And that task becomes all the more difficult when your staffers are constantly saying, on the record, that you are using the powers of the presidency to “amplify strife” in America’s cities.