Why Trump’s Law-and-Order Message Could Backfire

On the civil unrest, after some initial expressions of concern about police misconduct immediately following George Floyd’s killing, Trump has turned almost entirely toward confrontation with the protest movement. He has derided Black Lives Matter demonstrators and local Democratic officials with inflammatory accusations and has downplayed concerns about police shootings. In an interview with Fox News’s Laura Ingraham this week, he even likened police who shoot Black men to golfers who “choke” on a short putt. At the same time, he’s repeatedly refused to condemn vigilante violence from his own supporters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon—a choice that extremism experts say amounts to an open invitation for more of it.

“Absolutely he has legitimized it at this point,” says Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary for threat prevention at Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, who has endorsed Biden. “I have to think that, yes, we’re probably going to see more of that.”

Trump’s relentless attacks against Black Lives Matter protesters the past few weeks have unnerved many Democrats, who fear he could peel away some older and blue-collar white voters now tilting toward Biden. Although most national polls released since the GOP convention still show Biden holding a substantial lead, a Monmouth University survey showing a tighter race in the crucial battleground state of Pennsylvania sent shivers through anxious Democrats yesterday.

Craig Robinson, the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party and the founder of The Iowa Republican, an online publication, says he believes that Trump’s warnings about unrest are resonating, even in a state that has seen little of it. “I think in being the ‘law and order’ candidate, there are more advantages than in trying to carve out this nuanced position” between the protesters and the police.

Yet it’s far from clear that Trump can persuade Americans to focus on just one source of this year’s disorder—police killings and the subsequent protests—rather the other big disruptor of American life, the pandemic. Citizens experience the street protests mostly on television, whereas the coronavirus and economic crises have unsettled people’s daily lives much more intimately.

“For 99.99 percent of Americans, [civil unrest] is not a problem in their life,” says Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and an adviser to the Lincoln Project, a group of Republicans who oppose Trump. “I just think that what’s going on in your living room is going to be more vital to you than what is [happening on] television in some distant city.”

In the Yahoo/YouGov national poll, just 7 percent of registered voters said they were very worried that violence would break out in their community; almost two-thirds said they were not worried much, or at all. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll released yesterday, more than three-fifths of registered voters said crime was not increasing in their community.  

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