Much of the recently concluded Republican National Convention looked like an advertorial written in consultation with the bosses of America’s police unions. That was, of course, entirely predictable given the chest-beating law-and-order posture the GOP has for a long time maintained. But, given the current context of mass protest against police violence and wider national reckoning with racial injustice, this year’s RNC proved even more jingoistic than usual.
The reason is partly ideological. Sections of the Republican base, while delusional, genuinely believe the country is perpetually on the verge of a coup that will see a coalition of antifa cells, BLM chapters, and woke college students violently seize power, with dull-as-ditchwater corporate Democrats acting as some sort of Leninist vanguard.
But the renewed right-wing emphasis on the supposed epidemics of lawlessness and disorder also has an obvious strategic dimension given the message Donald Trump clearly hopes will carry him to reelection in November. One passage from his recent RNC address is particularly emblematic:
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. My administration will always stand with the men and women of law enforcement. Every day, police officers risk their lives to keep us safe, and every year, many sacrifice their lives in the line of duty.
Like most of Trump’s speeches, this was text without subtext and carried a message that couldn’t possibly have been clearer: 1) there is a crisis of chaos and disorder; 2) aggressive policing is our only available defense against said chaos and disorder; and 3) a Democratic administration will actively undermine that defense and America’s streets will become even scarier and more dangerous as a result.
It’s a message obviously designed to rile up parts of the Republican base and transform the election into a referendum pitting conservative toughness against liberal servility. And with Trump currently trying to claw back federal funds for five major cities he deems have been insufficiently pro-police, it’s also a message the president plans to push using more than just words.
Given the crippling levels of unemployment, prolonged economic crisis, and climate of mass death over which he’s currently presiding, it’s no surprise Donald Trump wants to reframe the race in these terms — away from pressing questions about his own record and even further from morally necessary ones about racial injustice and police brutality. An effective Democratic response would aim to preclude him from doing so, namely by rejecting Trump’s reactionary law-and-order framing outright and offering a non-reactionary counter-narrative.
In doing so, Democrats would have ample room to maneuver. Trump may talk ceaselessly about crime and disorder, but the latest polling from YouGov actually finds “crime and criminal justice reform” ranking as least important to American voters in a field of ten issues — well behind the economy, immigration, health care, and the environment. A mere 5 percent of those surveyed, in fact, ranked crime as their most pressing issue.
Instead, what should be an election about America’s withered social fabric and the incomplete mission of civil rights is currently playing out on Donald Trump’s preferred terrain — and the Democrats appear determined to wage it on his terms. This week, team Biden began carpet-bombing the airwaves with a $45 million ad campaign designed to shore up its own law-and-order bona fides.
Featuring images of burned buildings spliced with nonspecific shots of riot police and footage from the 2017 “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, the ad opens with Biden loudly announcing: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”
Though it momentarily pivots to a short segment blaming Trump for inciting his own supporters to violence, its message is manifestly one of law and order — a cynical attempt to triangulate the current right-wing narrative and redirect it back at the president, while foregrounding the same story about violent thugs roaming the streets and committing mindless acts of violence. In Biden’s new ad, the distinction is primarily one of weight and emphasis rather than substance or message — far-right militants and Trump supporters being included alongside the “rioters and looters” so routinely condemned by the president.
Biden’s reaction isn’t all that surprising given his own past as a particularly zealous advocate for harsh policing and tough on crime policies. A man who once attacked George Bush from the right in a televised address by declaring “the president’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time” was never going to be particularly well-suited for the present moment. If Biden is offering a triangulated version of Trump’s reactionary law-and-order narrative, the most likely explanation is that it genuinely reflects his own views.
But given Trump’s strategy for reelection and the state of public opinion vis-à-vis the issue of crime, the Democratic campaign’s apparent decision to pivot toward a law-and-order message of its own is as strategically foolish as it is morally contemptible.
Donald Trump has set a trap, and Joe Biden is walking straight into it.