For months, in the midst of protests against racial injustice and a worsening global pandemic, President Trump has sought to portray his Democratic rivals as lawless rioters bent on mob rule.
His presidency, Trump has insisted, is the only thing standing between a wave of crime and chaos. Speakers at the Republican National Convention this year – including a St. Louis couple who was charged last week with felony counts after they waved weapons at protesters – repeatedly invoked the threat of violence looming over American cities.
But Americans think otherwise. In poll after poll, a plurality – and in many cases a majority – say Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would be better equipped than Trump to handle law and order or crime and violence.
A CNN survey released last week asked respondents which presidential candidate would be better at handling crime and safety issues. Fifty-five percent chose Biden, while 43 percent chose Trump.
Pollsters for NBC and The Wall Street Journal asked who would be better at dealing with crime and violence. Biden led again, 45 percent to 41 percent. Meanwhile, 52 percent told Monmouth pollsters they were very or somewhat confident Biden could maintain law and order if he were elected; 48 percent said the same of Trump.
In a Pew poll released this week, 49 percent of respondents said they were very or somewhat confident Biden could effectively handle law enforcement and criminal justice issues; 44 percent were confident in Trump’s ability to do so.
But perhaps most damningly, 58 percent of Americans surveyed by Fox News said they thought the way Trump talks about racial inequality and the police was actually leading to an increase in acts of violence. Just 38 percent said the same of the former vice president.
Biden, in short, is beating Trump on one of the key issues on which Trump wanted to base his reelection campaign.
Both Democratic and Republican strategists said Trump’s failure to use protests that turned violent in cities like Seattle and Portland against Biden illustrates the most significant challenge Trump now faces: Unlike four years ago, Trump is not the outsider coming to disrupt the system. He is the incumbent, presiding over a deeply divided country.
“Sometimes, reality wins. It’s hard for President Trump to argue that lawless Democrats are responsible for a surge of violence that has occurred during his administration,” said Michael Steel, a Republican strategist who was the top spokesman for former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Trump has been obsessed with law and order since the 1980s, when he paid for an advertisement calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, five Black and Hispanic teenagers who were wrongly convicted of rape. He used his inaugural address in 2017 to call for an end of “American carnage,” even though statistics released by the FBI show crime rates have steadily declined for decades.
Today, law and order has come to be seen as a dog whistle, an avenue for Trump to appeal to suburban women with whom he is hemorrhaging support – “housewives,” he has called them repeatedly – whom Trump believes fear a wave of urban rioters.
Suburban communities, however, are more racially diverse than the nation as a whole.
“A lot of the stuff on immigration and race, it all feeds into the nativism, race-baiting narrative which has a narrow appeal to some of Trump’s base, but very little appeal outside of it,” said Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster.
“It’s not just law and order here. There is the racial justice element of it, obviously, but above both of them, the umbrella is the country divided,” Gourevitch added. “He’s a divider who’s in charge and the country has problems, and you’re saying four more years of this. There’s a cognitive dissonance about that.”
At the same time, views of police and racial justice are far more nuanced than they once were. The surge in support for the Black Lives Matter movement came from the very suburban white voters Trump is trying to win over.
“People support peaceful protests,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster. “There’s a recognition that people have a right to protest, and they have a reason to.”
The fact that voters give Trump little credit for being a law-and-order president also shows the pervasiveness of the coronavirus pandemic and the extent to which it has come to dominate American life.
Surveys routinely find that the virus is the most pressing concern among voters; the latest Gallup poll found just 8 percent said crime and violence was the most pressing issue facing the nation today. A quarter of respondents pointed to the pandemic, and another quarter pointed to poorly run government.
The urgency surrounding the protests – even those that turned violent in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, Washington and New York – has waned, while the threat of the pandemic has not. Images from the worst of the protests are no longer dominating nightly newscasts, but stories about children struggling to get back to school in the midst of a health crisis still are.
“The temperature seems lower, both literally and figuratively,” Bolger said of the protests. “It just doesn’t seem to be as destructive and problematic as it was.”
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.