Will “Law and Order” Save Trump?

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S1: The violent aftermath of a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, continues to hover over the presidential race. Joe Biden spoke in Pittsburgh Monday. He denounced the chaos that followed protests last week.

S2: Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting against lawlessness, plain and simple.

S1: Biden’s speech was at least partly a response to critics who had called for a forceful denunciation of violence. But then Biden swivel to assess the president’s role in the turmoil.

S2: Donald Trump looks at this violence and he sees a political lifeline.

S1: President Trump’s turn to address the events in Kenosha came Tuesday. He spoke after taking a tour of the city. He was surrounded by local officials.

S3: Well, thank you very much, everybody, for being here. He praised the local police chief. And the sheriff has been ravaged by antipolice and anti American riots. They have been hit so hard.

S1: And he did not mention Jacob Blake, whose shooting by police set off the protests. Trump did not voice support for protesters seeking an end to racism and police brutality. He referred vaguely to police who make bad decisions on the job.

S3: And a lot of them can’t make that right decision. It’s a very tough thing to do.

S1: A reporter brought up the nonviolent protests from throughout the summer, pressing for an end to systemic racism. The president insisted the topic of the day was not racism, but violence.

S3: Well, you know, you just keep getting back to the opposite subject. We should talk about the kind of violence that we’ve seen. And you have anarchists and you have the looters and you have the rioters. You have all types. You have agitators. And that’s what you should be focusing on with your question.

S4: But what we’re seeing is Donald Trump, the incumbent, is trailing in the polls, he has a major issue working against him, which is the coronavirus that has killed so many people and the attendant economic catastrophe that’s resulted from that. Will Saletan is a writer for Slate. And so he’s trying to gin up another issue in the form of all this violence in certain cities that he can use against Biden.

S1: Presidents often go places where there’s been civil disturbance, natural disasters, unexpected deaths. What’s different and what’s the same about Donald Trump heading to Kenosha?

S5: What’s different in this case is this is not a natural disaster. This is a manmade disaster. It’s human beings who are causing the strife and the violence and the president himself as 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.

S6: On today’s show, the paradox of President Donald Trump pointing to strife during his presidency and saying, this is the America you’ll get with the other guy. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S1: 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 President Trump is making to voters.

S5: Now, this is part of a strategy that the White House has been working on basically ever since the uprising over the death of George Floyd. There obviously have been protests around racial injustice and some of those protests have turned into something being co-opted or however you want to put it. But there has been violence around them, looting, arson, and that the Republicans looked at and realized could be their salvation because the entire Trump re-election strategy was based around a normal incumbent strategy of peace and prosperity. And then the virus hit when the virus hit that wiped out the whole Trump plan. And at that point, the Trump people looked around and asked, how can we run in a country that is suffering massive unemployment, that is suffering terrible health effects, that is suffering 180000 deaths. And what they saw was that they could run on this theme of law and order. And so they have been working ever since to try to play up the idea of unrest in this country, violence, and that we need a strong conservative president to control that. And so Kenosha is exactly what they wanted and they would love to have more kenosis if they could get them.

S1: In 1968, Richard Nixon ran against disorder during his various third party runs. George Wallace ran against disorder. But the thing that they had in common is they weren’t incumbents. Is it strange to see an incumbent president running against disorder?

S5: It’s very strange now. It’s not strange. It’s strange from the standpoint of, as you said, if you look at previous presidents, but if you look at Donald Trump, it’s not strange at all because he has never wanted actual responsibility. He is a politician or a demagogue. He wants to run against an existing government and claim that it is messing everything up and that if he were in power, he would make everything better. And of course, the problem is that he is in power. So it’s thoroughly consistent with his strategy. What he desperately needed was to be able to find somebody else whom he could claim was in power. That is the incumbent. And Donald Trump is the savior running from outside against those people. And the people he has chosen are Democratic mayors, to some extent, Democratic governors, people who in, as Trump puts it, run these cities where the violence is happening. So he is positioning himself as the outsider who is coming from Washington, from America, to save you from the incumbent mayors of these Democratic cities.

S1: Are people buying it? Can a sitting president, one who has often insisted on the central city of himself, the importance of his own brand and his own presence in the Oval Office? His status is the straw that stirs the drink. Can he plausibly run as an outsider from the Oval Office?

S5: Well, it’s a little crazy, as you’re saying. It’s it’s you’re asking people to maintain these two thoughts in their mind at the same time. One is that Donald Trump is the president. He’s leading us. He’s done all these great things, all the great things that happened in the economy for the last three years where his doing and that somehow that magically stopped in January when the coronavirus came in. And 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 sort of spatial relationship where there’s Trump’s America, where crime has gone down, and then there’s this sort of Democrat run, as he puts it, America or the Joe Biden’s America. Never mind that during this entire time, Trump is saying that Joe Biden is locked in his basement and sort of not doing anything and yet somehow is manipulating crime in this sort of democratic America. Will it work? I think I think basically it won’t work. There is a little bit of evidence, just preliminary evidence that it’s not working. There have not been many polls conducted since the Republican convention, but there are a couple there is a morning council poll taken in the three days after the convention that showed no net effect in the Trump Biden race. There was also a ledger or a ledger poll, a Canadian poll, but it’s a poll of Americans also taken in the same time frame they asked people. Which leader between Joe Biden and Donald Trump do you think can do a better job of handling in? One of the questions was police and law enforcement. So that is as direct a measure as we have of the effects of the Republican convention on that question. And the answer is Biden leads forty four to forty one. Americans say they trust Biden to do a better job of handling police and law enforcement in politics.

S1: It’s always the case that you’ve got, in effect, two orbiting bodies and they can have effects on each other, like almost like gravity or magnetic power, or they can sort of move in isolation to each other. The president has been trying to get Joe Biden to play on his field, and there have been repeated calls from Republican leaders and opinion makers. Why is Joe Biden silent on the violence? Why is Joe Biden allowing this to continue without talking to his people about the violence, reinforcing that idea that somehow these are the people who are in sympathy with him who are causing all the trouble? Then the former vice president came out and made a fairly unequivocal statement. He said rioting is not protesting. Burning down buildings is not protesting. 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?

S5: Well, Biden did a surprisingly good job from my point of view. I thought that Biden would come out and essentially just play defense, just play the Republican game and say, look, I’m not a commie sympathizing anarchist sympathizing open the jails. Leftist Biden did say he did say what Trump was daring him to say. He said he rejected. He said rioting is not protesting. Looting is not setting fires. And he said those who who do it should be prosecuted. Those are Biden’s words on Monday. So he did play that defensive game, but he also went right at Trump. First of all, 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 out Donald 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 to the Trump administration. He said, when I was vice president. Violent crime was down 15 percent under Donald Trump. The murder rate is up. And 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 is what they call the daddy party, the strong party, the party that will fight off the bad guys. And Biden said Trump doesn’t fight off the bad guys. Trump he wouldn’t stand up to his own militia supporters, to his 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. So it’s a much broader portrayal of Donald Trump as a weakling.

S1: It goes right at Trump’s strong point, given the president’s established argument about who’s causing the violence, what the sources of the violence are, who’s countenancing the violence, would it have been risky to be seen to scold people who are on your own side? You know, those people who jumped in to pickup trucks in Clackamas and rode into Portland with American flags and Donald Trump 20-20 flags flying? Those are unquestionably his people. He said that shooting paintball at protesters is not a problem, that it was a peaceful protest on the pickup truck crowd’s part. Is there a risk in scolding militia members, guys in camo where they are fifteens, who are going to confront the protesters in places like Minneapolis and Portland and Kenosha and on and on and on?

S5: Yeah, well, Ray, this is one of those questions where there’s just this weird disjunction between asking it in the context of a normal Republican president and asking it about Donald Trump. I mean, the answer to your question is a normal Republican president would say this is a no brainer. This is just a no brainer. I’m going to be the candidate of the the center right, the mainstream right. Not the crazy right. And they would just disown these people and reject them. But 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. I mean, that’s that’s if he were to reject them, he’d be going right at his own base. And so he didn’t he wouldn’t.

S1: 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 militiamen. He’s doesn’t he have some wiggle room there? Isn’t there a nuanced way of still winking at the guys in the pickup trucks while doing a sort of bland presidential, totally conventional condemnation of violence?

S5: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Now, the question you’re asking, is it possible to do that? Absolutely. And another politician would have done that. The question is, can this guy do it? It can be done. Can he do it? And I think the answer is no. He doesn’t temperamentally have the ability to see it. The way you’re describing, Trump is just viscerally resistant to any sort of nuance on this. And and that is a terrible political weakness. It’s a moral weakness, but it’s also a political weakness. It’s like a basketball player. If you shoot him to his right, he can’t go left. Trump cannot distance himself from these people. He had a press conference on Monday night. He on Monday evening, he couldn’t. Not bring himself on when asked twice, the reporters gave him two two opportunities, one was about the paintball in Portland, the other was about Kyle Rittenhouse shooting people in Kenosha. And and neither question could Trump bring himself to reject the person he saw as supporting him simply because they supported him. A man comes in from out of state with a rifle. He shoots people. The all Trump hears is that this guy is sort of one of his people and is attacked by the other side. And Trump cannot bring himself to say the words that you correctly identify. He should say that he disowns this particular this extreme level of vigilantism.

S1: Saletan says the president hasn’t disowned the vigilantism because he thinks it’s politically useful.

S5: It advantages him because it gives him this alternative crisis to the covid crisis that he can continue to talk about. And he could make it. I don’t want to say he could make it go away. If he dealt with the underlying racial grievances, that would help. I don’t expect that of him. But even if he were just to do what Joe Biden has done, if he were to come out and say, you know, everybody calm down, you know, we’re going to deal with this, go home, we’re going to deal with this. That’s, of course, not the approach he’s taken. 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. Right. We have to act. And the local government is not doing anything. So somebody has to do something. Well, 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. So he is doing what you would logically expect someone to do who had no morals and just wanted to perpetuate the struggle, the strife over this over race and violence in these cities. Will it work? I assume that he will be able to to keep this going in one city or another for the next two months. I don’t think it’s enough to get him re-elected, but unfortunately, I don’t think it can be stopped if the president continues to foment it.

S1: One of the hallmarks of this election season has been, well, even one of the hallmarks of the Trump presidency really 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 at all is his approval rating, which has stayed within a fairly narrow range over three and a half years. What does that tell us about the next 60 days?

S5: I think it’s encouraging because it’s negative and the approval rating is negative. He has a very high, pretty high disapproval rating, enough to lose the election. And he he needs things to change. It’s like watching a sports contest where, you know, you’re going this team is going to lose unless they can do something dramatic to shake things up. And their inability to do so so far bodes ill for them. The the 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 sort of paint him as a radical leftist. They tried to go after his son and Ukraine. They tried to tie him to China. They’ve done all this. They’ve done focus groups. Nothing that they’ve used against Biden has worked. So this attack based on crime in the cities, that this attempt by the 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.

S6: Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology for Slate, and he’s the author of Bearing Right, and it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Del Rey, thank you so much. This was great. That’s the show. What Next is produced by Danielle Hewitt, Jason de Leon, Mary Wilson and Ilana Schwartz, where led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. I’ll be back tomorrow.