By necessity, the 2020 Republican National Convention is different from the one the party held four years ago in Cleveland—but it’s not that different. Yes, the pandemic has required the GOP to hold a partially remote gathering, meaning no balloon drops, no raucous parties, and no washed up conservative celebrities wandering the halls of the media center in search of people to interview them and/or take their picture. (Hi, Joe Piscopo!) For another, while in 2016 the institutional Republican Party seemed to be ashamed of its presidential nominee, this year it’s fully the Trump show, to the point where the official 2020 Republican platform is, quite literally, “Donald Trump.” But here’s one thing that won’t have changed: For four nights, Republican voters will gorge themselves on an abundant diet of American carnage.
The notion that there is a mugger around every corner and a Democrat behind every mugger has, to varying degrees, been part of Republicans’ electoral pitches for decades. The party has long found it helpful to equate a vote for the GOP with a vote for safety and security. The flip side of this law-and-order leitmotif is the need to depict the world as one that is neither safe nor secure—thanks, naturally, to bleeding-heart Democrats and their soft-on-crime policies.
The dog-whistle racism of this pitch—and of the notion that the unruly “other” is coming to get you, the fearful middle-class American voter—has been made explicit in the Trump era. The president has consistently portrayed undocumented immigrants as undesirable criminals, “inner cities” as cesspools of crime and decay, “blue” lives as the only ones worth speaking up for, and, especially lately, the suburbs as embattled bastions of safety and security in a world gone mad.
The 2016 RNC was full of such loaded imagery. The convention abounded with references to Kate Steinle, the San Francisco woman who had been shot and killed in public by an undocumented immigrant. (The facts of the case were a bit more complicated than that, and in 2017 the immigrant in question was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges.) But the facts of the Steinle case were less important to the Trump campaign than its thematic relevance. “We’re going to restore law and order—we have to restore, and quickly, law and order,” then-candidate Trump said during the second night of the convention, to the delight of the crowd. It was one of the few times during that very odd week that he sounded at all like a regular old Republican.
If, four years later, law and order have still not been restored, you can bet that Trump and his adherents will accept no responsibility for their failures to follow through on their promises and instead lay all the blame on the antifa-loving, police-defunding, prison-abolishing Democrats. Already, the rhetoric we’ve heard from the party has made the infamous Willie Horton ad seem quaint. With sky-high unemployment numbers and a nation wracked by a pandemic, Trump and the rest of the GOP have scant positive accomplishments to use to argue for four more years in power. Scaring prospective GOP voters to death is just about all they have in their playbook, and they will run that play over and over and over again.
Why am I so sure? Anyone who’s been watching Fox News recently has gotten a preview of what we’re in for this week. The network has been making much of the ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere, and of an alleged rise in crime in New York and other major cities, to argue that a Democratic capitulation to antifa and Black Lives Matter has led America straight into Mad Max territory.
“Violent protests in Portland for 83 consecutive nights. What started as a peaceful demonstration Tuesday deteriorated after more than an hour,” said Melissa Francis on the Wednesday edition of the Fox News show Outnumbered, over b-roll footage of dumpsters that had been set afire. While it’s true there has been ongoing protest-related unrest in Portland, it’s largely been characterized by property damage in the city’s downtown core—and, according to many protesters and reporters, by the use of excessive force from local and federal officers. According to Fox News, though, there’s one culprit: antifa.
“I think that what people are shocked by is not that Portland is rioting. My husband used to live there. Antifa has controlled that city for a very long time—they’ve even bragged about controlling that city,” said panelist Mollie Hemingway on Wednesday. “The media are covering up a lot of the violence. You know, 30 people have been killed in these protests, in these ‘mostly peaceful’ protests.” Hemingway may have gotten that “30 people” number from this Wikipedia page that says 30 people nationwide, not just in Portland, have died during protest-related unrest since May 26; a Washington Post article that the Wikipedia page cites as a source reports that the federal charges that have been filed over protest-related violence “reveal no evidence of an antifa plot.”
Who needs evidence? Not the hosts of Fox News’ The Five. “Innocent people attacked on the street or dragged out of cars, beaten. Double-digit jumps in shootings and murders,” said Greg Gutfeld on Tuesday, in an impressive little monologue that attempted to link the excesses of cancel culture with the “mob justice” that ostensibly prevails in America’s streets. (You will also hear a lot about “cancel culture” this week at the RNC.) When the show’s designated Democrat, Juan Williams, cited statistics showing that the crime rate in America has been declining for decades, Gutfeld refused to back down. “You’re, like, saying, hey, I just noticed that the common cold is in decline, even though cancer and heart disease has jumped 400 percent,” he said. “Every liberal who downplays this should have the stones to walk through these neighborhoods when it’s dark.”
“Pray for Portland,” said co-host Jesse Watters later.
Pray for New York City too, the president’s hometown, which according to Fox News has all but devolved into a scene out of Death Wish 3. “Thanks to Democrats and BLM, New York City is looking like it did in the pre-Giuliani era, where even the most depraved criminal acts were met with a shrug,” said fill-in host Raymond Arroyo on the Aug. 13 episode of The Ingraham Angle. His guest, former NYPD commissioner and convicted felon Bernard Kerik, blamed New York’s “radical left-wing mayor” for the “riots that have devastated the city” and announced that “people are moving out of New York City because they’re scared to death.” Kerik cited no evidence for his claims. While gun violence has surged in New York this summer, a recent New York Times analysis found that “the state’s new bail law and the mass release of inmates from city jails in recent months because of the coronavirus outbreak played almost no role in the spike in shootings.”
Publicly stoking suburbanites’ fears of the city and the “thugs” therein has been one of Trump’s favorite tactics since at least 1989, when in the wake of the “Central Park jogger” case he placed reactionary newspaper advertisements saying “BRING BACK THE DEATH PENALTY AND BRING BACK OUR POLICE!” and arguing that New Yorkers were experiencing “the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.” Thirty years later, Trump’s tactics haven’t changed.
And if you think New York is bad? Allow Fox News to tell you about Baltimore.
“Murders rising, violence spiraling out of control, community suffering—look at the city of Baltimore,” said Sean Hannity on Tuesday. “Five years after the anti-police case with Freddie Gray riots, Baltimore keeps getting worse and worse, run by liberal Democrats for decades and decades.” Hannity then played a campaign ad by Republican congressional candidate Kimberly Klacik, in which the candidate blamed Democratic policies for the boarded-up houses, “crumbling infrastructure,” and alleged blight in the neighborhood she was using as a backdrop.
The Klacik ad, which also deemed Baltimore one of the “top five most dangerous cities in America,” has been getting a lot of airtime on Fox, as has the candidate herself. Gutfeld also mentioned Klacik’s ad on the Tuesday episode of The Five. “She did a campaign ad for herself, just by walking through Baltimore. She just walked through Baltimore to show you the consequences of liberal rule,” he said. In a recent editorial, however, the Baltimore Sun called it “ludicrous and overly simple to blame the city’s ills on party affiliation” and noted that the ad was intended to cast Baltimore in “the role of Urban Horror and to scare people who have never been here, will never visit and likely will never realize that, overall, average household income in the 7th District is above the national average.”
But accuracy isn’t the point, as the Sun notes. “Ms. Klacik’s part is to be a political stalking horse, to at least blunt Black support for Democrats on behalf of Mr. Trump,” the editorial board wrote. And, sure enough, Klacik will speak during the first night of the RNC. “So, in other words, you’re going to offer a warning: If you want what happened to Baltimore to happen all across the country, elect Joe Biden, is that you’re gonna say?” Steve Doocy asked Klacik on Fox & Friends on Monday. (“Uh, pretty much, yeah, basically,” Klacik said.) She is scheduled to speak alongside such other law-and-order luminaries as Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple who pointed guns at peaceful protesters during a march earlier this summer; and Andrew Pollack, whose daughter was killed in the Parkland school shooting two years ago.
Pollack recently tweeted that “@JoeBiden doesn’t care about your children. He wants criminals walking the same halls as them. He wants to take cops out of schools to leave them defenseless. @realDonaldTrump is the only thing standing in the way of stopping school shootings. Watch me on Fox & Friends.” I did. He told Pete Hegseth that “teachers and students would be a lot safer with a President Trump for another four years.”
Fox News hasn’t just been testing out these grim themes for the GOP. It’s been working them out with the president himself. “You see Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco. One thing they all have in common, Mr. President, is they have been run by liberal Democrats for decades,” Hannity told Trump during an Thursday interview on his program. “And the last time you were on this show, you said you’re begging them to help restore law and order. What’s the status?”
“We could do it so quickly,” said Trump, going on to talk about violence in Portland and how cops across America have been hamstrung by Democratic diktat. “And you talk about suburbia. You know, we’re all saying about suburban women. The fact is, they’re going to really want to support me, because we’re for law and order. We’re for safety and security. And Biden is not.”
There’s the cloddish desperation of the strategy, summed up by its designer. Fear of the other, illustrated by ghoulish warnings of urban chaos, are about all the Trump campaign has to offer at this point. In a rational world, not even the lowest-information voters would find this case persuasive. After all, Trump and the Republicans are currently in power and thus ought to be held accountable if the world has indeed gone to hell under their watch. But this is not a rational world. The GOP will depend on this strategy anyway: It’s worked before, after all. Lock your doors, Americans; you’re in for a bloody week.