Gloves come off in US election battle over ‘law and order’

In a week that saw the Republican Party convention and more unrest on America’s streets, the law and order issue is shaping up to be a crucial factor in the outcome of November’s bitterly contested presidential election. Foreign Editor David Pratt reports

If recent polls were anything to go by, it appeared almost all over bar the shouting. But then again US presidential election campaigns often have a habit of throwing up the unexpected.

Certainly there has been no shortage of noise this past week within the American political arena. Shouting his message from the platform of the Republican convention, White House incumbent Donald Trump warned delegates and the country that his rival Joe Biden was the “destroyer” of American greatness and would “demolish” the American dream if the Democratic Party candidate won the race for the White House in November.

Meanwhile, away from the clamour of the convention, other American voices were shouting in an effort to make themselves heard, as anti-racism protesters stayed on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, following a wave of deadly unrest that began when Jacob Blake, a black man, was shot seven times point-blank in the back by a white policeman.

Responding to the protests, a group calling itself the “Kenosha Guard” posted on Facebook a “call to arms” in the Wisconsin city, a move that prompted the social-media platform to remove the page saying the post violated its policy against “militia organisations”.

The situation was only made worse after a seventeen-year-old “vigilante”, Kyle Rittenhouse, was charged on Thursday in Wisconsin with killing two people protesting in support of Jacob Blake.

Right there in this series of events, both the Republican convention messaging and in the unrest that grips Kenosha, lie clues as to how this November’s election might very well play out.

For Trump, who was recently trailing badly in the polls, the unrest has been a political godsend. It has given him a message that is effectively clear and unequivocal, and one that has proved an election swinger in the past for Republican campaigns.

The results of a new Pew poll will only add to Trump’s law and order message. In the poll, 59% of US voters said violent crime was “very important” to how they will vote, making it a top five issue, compared to the 2016 election when it wasn’t even in the top 10. “Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans, or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists, agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens,” intoned Trump in a speech on the South Lawn of the White House last week.

“And this election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life, or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle and destroy it. That won’t happen,” Trump added, signalling the battleline on which he will doubtless concentrate his campaigning forces between now and November.

Using the tens of millions of dollars at its disposal for advertising, the Trump campaign seems set to attack what it sees as Biden’s political Achilles’ heel, insisting that he is simply a hostage to the “radical left”.

Last Thursday, during the convention, Trump previewed the message that we can come to expect repeated in the next two months.

“Just imagine if the so-called peaceful demonstrators in the streets were in charge of every lever of power in the US government,” he warned, in an attack that some political analysts think might be starting to get through to some voters.

The extent to which ongoing social unrest might aid the Trump camp was highlighted last week in an op-ed piece written for the Financial Times by Dan Senor, who served in the administration of George W Bush and was also an adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

Senor outlines that while Trump was already counting on a message about the threat of social disorder to help him reach undecided and moderate voters, events in Kenosha have only helped underscore that message.

According to Senor, the protests that have gripped a number of American cities and a reported sharp rise of homicides in many of them, come at a time when some Democratic mayors, city council members and progressive protest movements are calling for cuts in police department funding and personnel.

The former Republican party adviser also points in the article to a surge in gun purchases with many first-time buyers reportedly “concerned because of the riots, upheaval, protests and talk of defunding the police”.

All this, of course, will be music to the ears of today’s Republican campaign advisers and Trump himself, while posing a tricky strategic challenge for the messaging of his Democrat rivals Joe Biden and vice-presidential running mate Kamala Harris.

The demarcation lines between Republicans and Democrats across which the election is increasingly being fought have led many observers to draw parallels with that of 1968.

Then, too, there were mass demonstrations in the streets amid heightened concerns over racism and police brutality with crackdowns on protesters. Also back then there was a “law and order” Republican in the shape of Richard Nixon who in a now-famous television advertisement declared: “So I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.”

As political reporter Hans Nichols of the American news website Axios observed last week, “neither campaign can control the events – or root causes – driving America’s summer of unrest. But they both want to control the narrative”.

But there are other historical parallels that indicate the sort of counterstrategy Biden might adopt in response to accusations that he is allied to the “radical left”.

It was back in 1992, after what is known as a “Sister Souljah moment”, that then Democratic candidate Bill Clinton took a public stand against a black rapper Lisa Williamson who had called for violence.

In one decisive move, Clinton distanced himself from what were perceived to be extreme voices in his party and shut down claims that he wasn’t strong enough to stand up to what some saw as the far left.

Some political journalists including Chris Truax, a columnist with the American daily USA Today, now see this as similar testing moment and both a “threat and opportunity” for the current Democratic presidential hopeful.

“As the situation in the streets appears to be degenerating once again, Biden has been handed his own Sister Souljah moment,” wrote Truax in the newspaper on Friday.

“We do need law and order in America, but it needs to be based on respect, integrity and personal responsibility rather than intimidation.

“Biden can articulate that. Trump can’t,” observed Truax.

Though a Republican spokesman for law and order himself, Truax went on to posit the question that if Trump’s answer to violence is more violence, while Biden’s is insisting on respect both for the law and each other, who’s the law and order candidate now?”

For his part, Biden and his campaign team will be all too aware of the potential political trap that Trump is laying for them following events in Kenosha and elsewhere.

Last week, after the shooting of Jacob Blake, Biden and his vice-presidential nominee, Senator Kamala Harris, released statements expressing outrage. Within days a Biden spokesman also released a statement opposing “burning down communities and needless destruction”.

Then on Thursday, Biden hit back accusing Trump of making an already bad situation even worse.

“He views this as a political benefit to him,” Biden said of the president. “He’s rooting for more violence, not less, and is clear about that. And what’s he doing?

“He’s kept pouring gasoline on the fire. This happens to be Donald Trump’s America.”

Biden was clearly picking up on remarks earlier that day from Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s outgoing counsellor, who said the president stood to benefit politically from the kind of unrest that has engulfed Kenosha.

“The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Conway was quoted by The New York Times as saying on the television news programme Fox & Friends.

Whatever choice Americans make in November’s election, events in Kenosha and other areas of unrest will have a profound bearing on the outcome. As many observers point out, though, what has occurred in these areas does not happen in a vacuum.

Kenosha is in southeastern Wisconsin, a region that has witnessed more than its fair share of problems around race.

Denise Lockwood is a journalist who has covered southeastern Wisconsin for over 20 years and currently owns and runs the local independent news website, Racine County Eye. She told CNN that such areas all share the same social problems including large prison populations, high infant mortality, lack of mental health care access, unequal education, unemployment and drug abuse.

“The black incarceration rate in Racine County remains one of the biggest issues,” Lockwood wrote last week on CNN’s website, giving some idea of the underlying issues the area faces.

“The percentage of Black people incarcerated from Racine County represented 53% of the of the jail population in 2017 even though Black people represented only about 11% of the population of Racine County during that same time,”

If such places have increasingly become the faultlines in a divided America then so, too, have they become the places that will likely determine the outcome of an election many say will be one of the most significant in recent US history.

Whether voters believe Trump is worth re-electing in a country wracked by a mess of largely his own making remains to be seen. In the law and order debate, Trump knows he has found a potential weakness in Biden’s Democratic campaign that he can exploit.

As The New Yorker columnist Susan B Glasser highlighted in the wake of the Republican convention, Trump attacked Biden 41 times in his prepared remarks last week.

“He is a pawn of China and the radical left, ‘a Trojan horse for socialism’, a representative of a ‘failed political class’, and a loser on the wrong side of history,” observed Glasser, in a scathing piece on the president’s performance.

“He and his party will ‘demolish the suburbs’. They will ‘confiscate your guns’. Biden, in short, will end America as you know it,” she added, capturing the tone of the campaign to come as Trump embarks on his own “Project Fear” with Biden in the role of bogeyman.

Four years ago, Trump was able to tap into the fears and concerns of suburban swing voters helping him to prevail in the presidential contest. Only the foolhardy would rule out him doing the same again.

He may have botched the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in which a staggering 180,000 Americans have succumbed to the disease, but the law and order ticket might yet prove his own political get-out-of-jail card.

Writing in the Atlantic Magazine last week, George Packer, the American journalist novelist and playwright, laid bare the conditions under which he could envisage Joe Biden losing his bid for the White House.

“Here is a prediction about the November election: If Donald Trump wins, in a trustworthy vote, what’s happening this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will be one reason. Maybe the reason. And yet Joe Biden has it in his power to spare the country a second Trump term,” wrote Packer.

He called for Biden to visit the “burned out streets, without a script, and speak from the heart, calling for justice and safety, for reform and against riots”.

Only then, said Packer, might Americans not have to live with four more years of Trump.

One can only guess whether Joe Biden is listening to such advice and indeed whether Americans in turn will listen to him.