the national interest

Trump Stoked Police Violence, And It May Have Cost Him the Election

Photo: Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If Joe Biden maintains the eerily stable lead he has built in the presidential campaign, Republicans will say it was the coronavirus that ended Donald Trump’s chances of winning a second term. The pandemic (or, to be precise, Trump’s shambolic response thereto) certainly hurt. But there is an equally strong — or even stronger — case, that Trump has been done in by a wave of police violence that he not only has failed to restrain, but hasn’t even tried.

Biden’s lead over Trump began to grow in the spring, but it only spiked to its highest level in June, three months after the coronavirus hit. That is when the grisly murder of George Floyd set off national protests, which themselves were met with frequent outbursts of police brutality, some of them captured on video. When Trump dispatched police to clear protesters from a park outside the White House, beating and teargassing the peaceful demonstrators gathered there, he set off a national backlash. Michiah Prull, CEO of Avalanche polling, told Peter Hamby, “I had never in my research career seen public opinion shift on the scale in this timeframe.”

Princeton Government professor Omar Wasow has found that in the 1960s, peaceful protests pushed public opinion to the left, while riots and violent demonstrations had the opposite effect. Wasow’s theory for this effect is simple: The public reacts in opposition to whichever side is seen as initiating violence. The sight of cops clubbing nonviolent demonstrators created a backlash against the authorities enforcing segregation; burning and looting stores triggered a reaction.

Wasow’s theory would explain the findings of a new experiment by a trio of academics, Kevin J. Mullinix, Toby Bolsen, and Robert J. Norris. The researchers conducted an experiment using text and video messages reporting two episodes of police violence — against Timothy Harris and Philando Castile. By comparing the views of respondents who received messages and video about these episodes with those who didn’t, they found “a remarkable effect on citizens’ beliefs about police.” People who saw these cases “expressed far lower levels of approval of and reduced trust in police, greater skepticism about the degree to which the police protect people’s rights, and increased levels of concern about whether the police make decisions that are right for people in their communities” and came to “view use of force as more frequent, raised questions about the adequacy of police training, reduced confidence that officers face appropriate consequences, and raised concerns that they or someone they know might be more likely to be the victim of police use of excessive force.”

To be sure, the experiment was conducted last year. But its findings confirm through direct observation the same intuitive conclusion that Wasow observed in the data 50 years before. Americans recoil from one-sided violence against innocent targets.

The political ramifications of Joe Biden’s response to rioting and other violent outbursts that have accompanied some Black Lives Matter protests has been the subject of widespread debate. Biden’s position is clear: He has directly condemned rioting, looting, and attacks on police. Trump’s stance has drawn somewhat less scrutiny, probably because nobody holds him to Biden’s standard. The president has refused to condemn even the vigilante violence carried out by right-wing militia members loyal to him. He has said almost nothing to restrain the police who have frequently acted like just another armed gang.

It’s impossible to pin any single case of police abuse on Trump. Cops have been abusing their authority as long as there have been cops. But the president has repeatedly goaded police to step up their levels of violence. He urged a police convention to rough up suspects, and halted the Obama-era reforms designed to curtail excessive force. The message cops have gotten throughout Trump’s presidency is that he wants them to do their jobs however they see fit, and will have their back regardless of the price it carries. Whether George Floyd or Jacob Blake or any other victim would have been spared but for Trump repeatedly signaling the gloves were off is unknowable.

But he did order the politically devastating Lafayette Square operation. And he has not seemed to question the fundamental assumption that drove him to do it, that the public would reward him for a display of dominance. Trump continues to think like a strongman, believing his only task is to quell the protests with ever more unrestrained force. Hardly any of his allies even seem to be entertaining the possibility that police violence constitutes an important political problem for the Republican Party.

Conservatives have repeatedly analogized Trump’s strategy to Richard Nixon’s “Law & Order” slogan in 1968. But, in addition to the fact he wasn’t the incumbent, Nixon had another advantage: He was positioning as a middle ground between disorder and the vicious authoritarianism of George Wallace. As Wasow notes, Nixon placed himself ideologically in the center:

Trump is attempting to mimic Nixon’s outcome, but he’s actually running Wallace’s campaign.

Liberals have experienced the disconnect between concern over Biden’s response to looters and anarchists and Trump’s non-response to militants and thuggish cops as a kind of unfairness. What it actually demonstrates is that the Democratic Party still has a healthy internal culture that allows for criticism of the left. If Biden were following the norm many progressives demand of refusing to condemn violent protest, he might have forfeited an advantage. Instead he has positioned himself as the one candidate opposed to violence in American streets across the board. Trump is so committed to his strategy of recapitulating Nixonism, and so ensconced within a media bubble that flatters his biases, that he cannot even discern the biggest cause of his deficit.

Stoking Police Violence May Have Cost Trump the Election