By Susan Milligan
UNWR – President Donald Trump painted a dire picture of America under Democratic rule, casting the choice this November as one to protect the “American way of life” or to give in to “a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it.”
In a nomination acceptance speech that presaged the president’s strategy as he enters the final months of his struggling campaign, Trump told a crowd of cheering supporters – sitting shoulder to shoulder and mostly maskless – that “no one will be safe” if Democratic nominee Joe Biden prevails.
Much of Trump’s speech was aimed at Biden, with apocalyptic language describing the veteran lawmaker as a “Trojan horse for socialism” and saying that a series of boogeymen – anarchists, socialists, radicals, China – would run America if Biden were president.
Underscoring a running theme of the four-day, mostly virtual convention, Trump talked about the civil unrest over systemic racism and the death of African Americans in police custody in the past few months.
But instead of focusing on the Black deaths, Trump directed his ire at the protesters, bemoaning the violence, vandalism and looting that has occurred in some of the uprisings. Not once did he mention Jacob Blake, an African American man who was shot several times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“In the left’s backward view, they do not see America as the most free, just and exceptional nation on earth. Instead, they see a wicked nation that must be punished for its sins,” Trump said. “When there is police misconduct, the justice system must hold wrongdoers fully and completely accountable, and it will. But what we can never have in America – and must never allow – is mob rule.
“If the Democrat Party wants to stand with anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters and flag-burners, that is up to them, but I, as your president, will not be a part of it,” Trump said.
Other speakers buttressed Trump’s message. Ann Dorn, the widow of David Dorn, the retired police captain shot dead while responding to looting in St. Louis in June, said, “violence and destruction are not legitimate forms of protest. They do not safeguard black lives. They only destroy them.”
Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association of the New York City Police Department – a police force heavily criticized for use of force against protesters there – said “the radical left doesn’t want better policing. What they really want is no policing. You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”
Biden, asked earlier on Thursday about charges that people would be less safe under his leadership, said Trump was “rooting for more violence not less.”
“I think he views it as a political benefit,” the former vice president said on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on Thursday. “He just keeps pouring fuel on the fire. He’s encouraging this. He’s not diminishing it at all. This is his America now. If we want to end where we are now, we’ve got to end his tenure as president.”
The president’s remarks on the civil unrest were at odds with the display of anger and angst by Black leaders and individuals who have talked emotionally this week about the pain of feeling unsafe in their own communities simply because of their race.
At times, the disconnect between what was happening inside the convention and outside of it was stark. Thursday night’s presentation featured a montage of Trump congratulating victorious sports teams, sending a message of American as a land of winners.
Dana White, president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, weighed in on the coronavirus and lauded Trump for his desire to get professional and college athletes entertaining the American public again.
But on the same evening, players in several major sports leagues sat out their games in protest and solidarity with Blake and other Black victims of violence. In a particularly poignant moment, the New York Mets and the Miami Marlins, who were scheduled to play baseball in New York on Thursday night, instead took to the field for 42 seconds of silence, an homage to African American baseball great Jackie Robinson, who wore number 42.
When the players left the field, the only thing remaining was a Black Lives Matter shirt.
Polling earlier this summer shows strong public support for the Black Lives Matter movement. A Pew Research Center poll in June found that 67% of adults – including 60% of whites – somewhat or strongly support the movement. A Gallup poll in July revealed similar results and further found that 54% said the protests had changed their views on racial justice, and 55% said the protests will help public support for racial equality.
But those polls – taken after the shocking death of George Floyd – may not reflect public unease or fear over the extended demonstrations or additional injuries and deaths. After Blake’s shooting Sunday, protests erupted, and two young protesters were shot and killed. A 17-year-old has been charged with two counts of murder.
It’s a similar tactic to that used by former President Richard Nixon, whose 1968 law-and-order message appealed to white voters in particular during the tumultuous era, when both the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement were at their heights.
But Nixon was not an incumbent, as Trump is, and that makes it a much more delicate matter for the sitting president, historians say: How can he decry violence in the streets, claiming – as he did in his 2016 nomination acceptance speech – that he can fix it, when he’s had nearly four years to do so?
“It’s a little muddled. On the one hand, he wants to talk about the chaos that has taken hold in this country. On the other hand, he’s the one in office,” says William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
“He is doing now what he’s always done – stoking outrage. This is what he did in 2018, when he was pointing to a caravan heading north” to the border. “Now, it’s about protesters on the street,” Howell says.
The strategy did not work in 2018, when Republicans lost control of the House and lost hundreds of down-ticket races. The effort will be a tough sell, too, this year, Howell says – but not an impossible one.
“it’s not a foregone conclusion that it won’t work,” Howell says.