Supporters of the president convened by the hundreds in a parking lot outside Portland, Oregon on Saturday. At dusk they formed a convoy and drove into the city to confront Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Before the rolling protest concluded clashes occurred in several parts of the cities. One Trump supporter was shot and killed.
The death in Portland followed just five days after Trump supporters and Black Lives Matter demonstrators confronted each other in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Two white demonstrators were killed and a third demonstrator was wounded. A 17-year-old white Trump supporter from Illinois, who wielded an AR-15, was charged with murder. The protests in Kenosha, which were fierce and caused extensive property damage, occurred after police shot a black man, Jacob Blake, eight times in the back.
It’s too early to know whether these deaths will hold the same significance and relevance to our time as the deaths of four black girls killed in a Birmingham church bombing did in 1963, or the deaths of three civil rights activists did in Mississippi in 1964. They certainly could. They clarify how deeply stirred America is about its perilous condition and the cultural fault lines that opened about how to resolve it. More than that, they illustrate the treachery and cynicism of an American president intent on fueling the flames of hate and resistance to win re-election to an office he’s proven himself to be incapable of commanding.
For the moment, President Trump’s strategy commands the messaging war. Following the Portland killing he spent hours tweeting his clear support for the convoy that steered its way through Portland. He’s traveling to Kenosha today to say something typically provocative, despite appeals by Wisconsin lawmakers to stay in Washington. Biden also is delivering a speech on Trump and violence. But in the message skirmish a response is less effective than the attack, which sets the message agenda. Trump is trying to change the story of the election, casting it as a campaign to sow fear in the suburbs about race and violence and arguing that, as he stated four years ago, “he alone can fix it.”
Violence Is A Loser For Trump Chances
My sense is the Black Lives demonstrations and the violence the president is encouraging are a loser for his campaign. Nevertheless Democrats and prominent progressive voices, mindful of Trump’s startling 2016 victory, are displaying alarm at the prospects that Joe Biden will misjudge the political threat from violence in the streets and lose in November. An example is George Packer, a great journalist, wringing his hands in The Atlantic last week: “If Donald Trump wins, in a trustworthy vote, what’s happening this week in Kenosha, Wisconsin, will be one reason. Maybe the reason.”
I am convinced it’s nonsense. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will not- repeat that – will not allow Donald Trump to reframe the election around law and order. They will not provide an opening for Trump to scare America into re-electing him to an office he is incapable of commanding. They will not allow Trump and the G.O.P. to market fiction about violence, suburban safety, and the president’s capacity to fix it.
Why? Because the president is the genesis of the violence. Look, Trump already ran on a law and order platform. In 2016 Trump opposed the nascent Black Lives Matter movement. During his nomination acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention Trump promised this: “I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country.” How’s he doing with that one?
Second, the president has been directly encouraging violence from his supporters since April. Initially it was about resistance to closing businesses and wearing masks. Recall that on April 15 Michigan’s state capital was mobbed by pickups and Trump 2020 supporters brandishing rifles. On April 17 the President issued a call to arms to “LIBERATE WISCONSIN!” Then in two more tweets added “LIBERATE MICHIGAN! ” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Ever since, as a security guard was shot dead in Michigan after urging a shopper to wear a mask, as a Trump supporting Boogaloo Movement gunman killed a California police officer in June, and as cities stirred across the country after the death of George Floyd, Trump made very clear where he stood. He supported “heritage” voters who opposed taking down confederate monuments, criticized NASCAR for banning the confederate flag, and called Black Lives Matter a “symbol of hate.”
The incidence of violence perpetrated by right wing groups escalated, according to federal and state crime reports. So did the number of videos of white Trump supporters confronting black citizens or wigging out about wearing masks. In July Trump added more oxygen to the resistance. He dispatched federal security forces to Portland and blamed what he called lackluster leadership in “Democrat-run cities.” It was an act of domestic agitation that produced the pictures Fox News loves. The federal invasion also clarified the new political strategy, and four days of fiction at the RNC telethon last week, that Trump trusts will win a second term. It goes like this: Blame Democrats and try to scare the sh** out of Americans about something else than the virus and the economy.
Trump’s Mess In His America
It will not work. Biden and Harris will make the true story clear to Americans. Unrest will not be solved by more violence encouraged by the president. The Democrats will command the message of this election, which happens to be based on facts. The election will be won on this true narrative: Trump’s treachery, cynicism, and utter lack of care for the citizens of his country are responsible for an American mess.
At this writing more than 180,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, the pandemic that Trump seven months ago called the Democrats’ “new hoax.” The economy is in a tail spin. Trump is responsible for both. He made the most dangerous presidential decision in U.S. history by abdicating leadership on the health consequences of the pandemic to states and cities. He chose instead to make the case that the economy was more important — “the cure can’t be worse than the disease,” he said in May — and that the virus would disappear and wasn’t especially dangerous. He amplified that message by encouraging people not to wear masks.
But in using masks and health safeguards as a wedge issue, Trump lost political ground. As the virus spread and the economy sank, Trump’s polling numbers also tumbled. Biden jumped to a stable lead, including in swing states.
Then came a horrible event that Trump seized on as a fresh opening to revive his campaign. On May 28, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Demonstrations have occurred every day since across the country. Many have been peaceful. Some others have caused injuries, damage to buildings, vandalism, looting, and confrontations with the police.
The president saw an opening to market a different message, one that fits his temperament – attack, lie, demean, exaggerate, foster fear, and invite his supporters to join him in an urban-rural war to “own the libs and the media.”
The next two months, as I’ve noted before, are going to be miserable and dangerous. But the president’s strategy to encourage violence will not work. Biden and Kamala Harris will make the true story clear to Americans. Unrest will not be solved by more violence and chaos encouraged by the president. The Democrats will command the message of this election, which happens to be based on facts. And two more assets: Joe Biden’s skill and experience in governing to bring an injured country back to its senses.
— Keith Schneider