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The violent aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, continues to hover over the presidential race. When Joe Biden spoke in Pittsburgh on Monday, he denounced the chaos that followed protests last week—and then swiveled to assess the president’s role in the turmoil. Donald Trump then addressed the events in Kenosha on Tuesday. When a reporter brought up the protests pressing for an end to systemic racism, Trump insisted that the topic of the day was not racism but violence, blaming the unrest on Democrats and their presidential nominee. But there’s a fundamental paradox in Trump pointing to strife during his presidency and saying that this is the America you’ll get with the other guy. To figure out what Trump’s strategy is here, I spoke with William Saletan, Slate’s national correspondent, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Ray Suarez: Presidents often go places where there’s been civil disturbance, natural disasters, unexpected deaths. What’s different, and what’s the same, about Trump heading to Kenosha?
William Saletan: What’s different in this case is this is not a natural disaster—this is a man-made disaster. It’s human beings who are causing the strife and the violence. And the president himself is a factor this time. Presidents don’t cause hurricanes, but presidents can contribute to violence by humans against other humans. And that is what this president has done.
You wouldn’t think a sitting president would seize on social unrest as a reason he should remain in office. But that’s the pitch Trump is making to voters right now.
This is part of a strategy that the White House has been working on ever since the uprising over the death of George Floyd. There obviously were protests around racial injustice, and some of those protests were co-opted, but there was violence around them that Republicans looked at and thought could be their salvation. Plus, when the virus hit, Trump people looked around and asked, how can we run in a country that is suffering massive unemployment, terrible health effects, over 180,000 deaths? What they saw was they could run on this theme of “law and order.” So they have been working ever since to try to play up the idea of unrest in this country and that we need a strong conservative president to control that. Kenosha is exactly what they wanted, and they would love to have more Kenoshas if they can get them.
In 1968, Richard Nixon and George Wallace ran against disorder. But the thing they had in common was they weren’t incumbents. Is it strange to see an incumbent president running against disorder?
If you look at Trump, it’s not strange at all because he has never wanted actual responsibility. He wants to run against an existing government and claim it is messing everything up and that if he were in power he would make everything better. And of course, the problem is he is in power. So what he desperately needed was to find somebody else whom he could claim was in power and pitch himself as the savior running from the outside against those people. The people he has chosen are Democratic mayors and, to some extent, Democratic governors—people who, as Trump puts it, run these cities where the violence is happening.
Are people buying it? Can he plausibly run as an outsider from the Oval Office?
Well, he’s asking people to maintain two thoughts in their mind at the same time. One is that Donald Trump is the president: He’s leading us, all the great things that happened in the economy for the past three years were his doing, and somehow that magically stopped in January when the coronavirus came in. At that point everything was the fault of the opposition party or China. In the case of crime, he’s also got to construct this weird spatial relationship where there’s Trump’s America—where crime has gone down—and then there’s Joe Biden’s America. Never mind that during this entire time, Trump is saying that Biden is locked in his basement not doing anything and yet somehow is also manipulating crime in this Democratic America.
Will it work? I think, basically, it won’t work. There is a little bit of preliminary evidence that it’s not working. There have not been many polls conducted since the Republican convention, but there are a couple. There was a Canadian poll that asked Americans which leader between Biden and Trump do you think can do a better job of handling police and law enforcement. That is as direct a measure as we have of the effects of the Republican convention on that issue. The answer is Biden leads 44–41. Americans say they trust Biden to do a better job of handling police and law enforcement.
The president has been trying to get Biden to play on his field, and there have been repeated calls from Republican leaders and opinion makers: Why is Biden silent on the violence? Why is Biden allowing this to continue without talking to his people? This is reinforcing the idea that somehow the people who are in sympathy with Biden are causing all the trouble. Then the former vice president came out and made a fairly unequivocal statement. Has he been forced to play Donald Trump’s game, or did he completely sufficiently respond to that original charge that he wasn’t saying anything?
I thought that Biden would come out and just play defense on the protests. He did play that defensive game a bit, but he also went right at Trump. First, he went right at that contradiction between Trump saying there’s this terrible crisis in America of violence and Trump being president at the same time. Biden simply pointed at it: Trump is the president. This is happening on his watch. He is contributing to it. And Biden wasn’t shy about comparing the crime statistics under the Obama-Biden administration with that of the Trump administration. He said, when I was vice president, violent crime was down, and under Trump, the murder rate is up. Biden also escalated this into a much broader attack on Trump, that Trump is a coward—and this is really important because Republicans like to run as the strong party that will fight off the bad guys. Biden said Trump doesn’t fight off the bad guys. He wouldn’t stand up to his own militia supporters on the right who are contributing to the violence. He doesn’t stand up to Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t even fight the virus, really. It’s a much broader portrayal of Donald Trump as a weakling.
Given the president’s established argument about who’s causing the violence and what the sources of the violence are, would it have been risky to be seen as scolding people who are on his side? You know, those people who jumped into pickup trucks in Clackamas, Oregon, and rode into Portland with American flags and Donald Trump 2020 flags flying? Those are unquestionably his people.
For Trump, his base is so far over there, and his brand is that he never apologizes. So for him, there is a risk because the people he’s alienating, the crazies—if he were to reject them, he’d be going right at his own base. And so he didn’t. He wouldn’t.
Is that a trap of his own making, or a choice? He didn’t condemn, for instance, Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people and grievously wounded a third in Kenosha, and he then went on to defend these militia men.
Trump cannot distance himself from these people. He had a press conference on Monday night, and reporters gave him two opportunities to do so. One was about the paintballers in Portland. The other was about Rittenhouse shooting people in Kenosha. In neither question could Trump bring himself to reject the people he saw as supporting him simply because they supported him. A man comes in from out of state with a rifle and shoots people, and all Trump hears is that this guy is one of his people and is being attacked by the other side.
So the president hasn’t disowned the vigilantism because he thinks it’s politically useful.
It advantages him because it gives him this alternative crisis to COVID that he can continue to talk about. The approach he’s taken is to say every day, The people on the other side from you are dangerous, we have to stop them, the local government is not doing anything, so somebody has to do something. That is exactly what you would say if you wanted a bunch of vigilantes to go into Kenosha or Portland or any other city and create more confrontation, which is what has happened. He is doing what you would logically expect someone who has no morals to do, who wanted to perpetuate the strife over race and violence in these cities. Will it work? I assume he will be able to keep this going in one city or another for the next two months. I don’t think it’s enough to get him reelected. But unfortunately, I don’t think it can be stopped if the president continues to foment it.
One of the hallmarks of this election season, and Trump’s presidency, has been the stability of the polls. People may dismiss the president as erratic and unpredictable, but one thing that’s been very predictable and not very erratic is his approval rating, which has stayed within a fairly narrow range over 3½ years. What does that tell us about the next couple months?
I think it’s encouraging because it’s negative. He has a pretty high disapproval rating, enough to lose the election. He needs to do something dramatic to shake things up, and his inability to do so, so far, bodes ill for him. This violence that Trump is trying to stoke, it’s not that this is necessarily going to work—it’s that nothing else is working. They’ve tried everything on Biden. They tried to paint him as a radical leftist. They tried to go after his son in Ukraine. They tried to tie him to China. Nothing that they’ve used against Biden has worked. So this attack based on the cities, this attempt by Republicans to scare you about crime and people who don’t look like you, is a residual effect of Trump’s failure to move the polls.