Make no mistake, if you give power to Joe Biden, the Radical Left will defund police departments all across America. They will pass federal legislation to reduce law enforcement nationwide. They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon. No one will be safe in Biden’s America.
This would be a highly effective message if your only target was Democrats in Washington, who cower in fear at the thought that Republicans will criticize them for being “soft on crime.” But is it actually going to change anyone else’s mind and turn Biden voters into Trump voters?
The simple answer is of course that we don’t yet know. But the evidence we do have suggests that it will be extremely difficult.
The presumption on which the strategy is based is that when people are fearful, they will turn to a strongman candidate promising to suppress the threat with violence of his own. And there are some studies showing that threatening information can push people toward conservative candidates. The Trump team no doubt has in mind previous campaigns such as those of Richard Nixon in 1968 and George H.W. Bush in 1988, which used highly racialized threats of violence to portray Democrats as agents of chaos and death.
So the message repeated over and over at this year’s Republican convention was not only that American cities are currently in flames, but also that this mayhem is sure to come to your town and threaten your life and the lives of your family if Biden is elected.
But for it to be persuasive, voters have to believe every part of that argument. If instead they believe the violence is isolated; or that it’s a result not of liberal indulgence but of anger at police misconduct; or that Trump makes it worse rather than better; or that the election of Biden, someone with a reputation as a moderate and who is currently campaigning on national unity and a return to normalcy, would not actually result in a total societal breakdown — if they believe any of those things, then the Republican argument collapses.
And it’s important to keep in mind that while Republicans have now elevated the fear of widespread rioting to their primary campaign theme, they’ve been saying it since pretty much the moment protests began following George Floyd’s killing on May 25. We were told that antifa, anarchists, and the “radical left” were looting and rioting across the land. Just a couple weeks later, Tucker Carlson was telling his audience that “violent young men with guns” would soon be taking over the country.
Not long after, Trump added to this toxic brew the idea that the suburbs were under dire threat from both leftist mobs and racial integration. He said he would “protect the suburbs from being obliterated by Washington Democrats, by people on the far left that want to see the suburbs destroyed and want them to “go to hell.” Trump also debuted the term “suburban housewife”:
Yet polls have shown Biden leading Trump among suburban voters by an average of around 15 points.
As Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg says, “there’s no monolith of white women in the suburbs who are like locking their doors and putting on their burglar alarms, scared of invading hordes. It’s just not the way they think about their lives.”
And critically, Greenberg argues, they see Trump’s rhetoric less as a response to actual events and more as part of his long-standing attempts to sow fear and racial division. When it comes out of Trump’s mouth, people see it for what it is. The message cannot be separated from the messenger.
Of course, just like anything else, that could change. But even as White approval for Black Lives Matter has fallen recently, that hasn’t altered the overall picture of the race, which has been remarkably stable. In the most recent FiveThirtyEight poll average, Biden leads Trump by nine points. One month ago, Biden led by eight points, two months ago by nine points, and three months ago by six points. The race just hasn’t moved very much.
Without knowing exactly what has convinced the Trump campaign that this is the winning formula, I’d guess that as much as anything else it’s familiar territory for them, and for Trump himself. Stoking fears of chaos and violence is something they’re pretty good at, and have done many times before.
But it doesn’t always work; you may remember that before the 2018 election, Trump made a huge deal out of “caravans” of criminal immigrants who were coming from Central America to invade our country and rampage through the land. The voters didn’t buy it, and Democrats won a huge victory.
While there’s still time for this race to change, we haven’t yet seen any evidence that voters are convinced by Trump’s terrifying picture of every town and city in flames. He may have to come up with yet another message to make people recoil from Biden.