Amid clashes in the streets, from Portland to the nation’s capital, President Trump has leaned into a “law and order” campaign, making the case that out-of-control looting, rioting, and death will become the norm in Joe Biden’s America.
Though polling shows Mr. Trump struggling to keep pace with Mr. Biden in the suburbs, the main target of the message, the president’s team and his backers say the clashes and violent imagery will ultimately boost him as Election Day nears.
The president on Friday vowed that federal officers will respond to the ongoing unrest in Portland with “very strong offensive force” if needed.
The Department of Homeland Security and the city recently struck a tentative deal, under which DHS agents that had been deployed to protect a federal courthouse from rioters would gradually leave if local law enforcement can keep the peace.
“If it doesn’t clean up, we’re going to do something very powerful. We have no choice,” Mr. Trump said at a White House event with law enforcement leaders from around the country. “The left-wing extremists have spread mayhem throughout the streets of different cities.”
The Justice Department recently announced that Operation Legend, a federal law enforcement initiative to stop violent crime that started in Kansas City, Missouri, would be expanding into Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee — all cities in key battleground states in the fall election.
“Peaceful protesting and discourse is part of our fabric, but when you’re burning buildings, attacking people you don’t agree with, destroying property and looting — none of that has anything to do with the protests,” said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
Mr. Anuzis said Michigan will be close, but that Mr. Trump should win the critical midwestern state by a bigger margin than in 2016 as the Democrats get dragged to the left on law-and-order issues.
Mr. Trump carried Michigan in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes or 0.3 percentage points.
“What’s happening is — this isn’t your father’s Democratic Party,” Mr. Anuzis said. “Today, I think John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King would have a hard time getting a position in the Democratic Party given their positions on peaceful protests [and] demonstrations.”
The Trump campaign had blanketed the airwaves with foreboding ads of people trying to dial 911 and getting no answer.
Liberal activists have called to “defund the police” since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a White Minneapolis police officer and the resulting widespread protests.
The Trump campaign rolled out a new ad on Friday proclaiming that supporters of Mr. Biden “riot,” “loot,” and “take over cities” overlaid with video of a burning building and clashes between police and demonstrators.
“And now the radical left-wing of the Democratic Party has taken control. Joe Biden stands with them and embraces their policies — defunding the police,” a narrator says.
“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” the ad concludes.
Mr. Trump also has hammered home the message by tweeting “law and order!” in his signature all-capital letters style.
A recent ABC/Ipsos poll found that 30% of Americans think having federal law enforcement officers respond to protests in cities makes the situation better, compared to 52% who said they think it makes the situation worse.
And 36% of Americans gave the president positive marks on promoting “law and order” in the country, compared to 50% of Americans who said he’s doing a poor job, according to a recent IBD/TIPP poll. The split was worse among suburban voters in that poll: 54% gave Mr. Trump poor marks on the issue, compared to 34% who said they approve.
Other polling has shown that Americans are indeed opposed to measures that would defund the police by taking money away from law enforcement and redirecting it to social programs.
A recent Rasmussen poll found that 66% of U.S. adults said they oppose reducing their own community’s police budget to direct the money into social services programs — a 7-point jump in a month.
“Enforcing laws and condemning violence shouldn’t be a political issue, but by painting rioters – who have destroyed private property, attacked police officers, and burned down cities — as ‘peaceful’, Joe Biden is telling the American people [that] appealing to his political base is more important than their safety,” said Samantha Zager, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Mr. Biden has labored to distance himself from the “defund the police” movement and has tried to distinguish between violent rioters and peaceful protesters.
He said Mr. Trump is determined to stoke division and chaos because his campaign is flailing.
Other critics of the president say he is getting far afield and encroaching into extraconstitutional territory with Homeland Security’s recent actions.
“I do believe the president likes to associate himself with this tough-guy myth of old-time law enforcement,” said David Chipman, a senior policy advisor to former Rep. Gabby Giffords’ gun control group. “They just want to throw resources at knocking heads, and that’s not my view of what policing should be in 2020 America.”
Mr. Chipman, a former special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said there simply aren’t enough federal agents for a massive, dragnet-type presence across the country.
“If you say I’m going to send a hundred agents to Chicago, that’s not a small number — where does that come from?” he said. “And those communities now don’t have their advisers. We used to call it whack-a-mole.”
Other Democrats say Mr. Trump is intentionally fomenting violence because he thinks it will help his re-election campaign.
“If he was the law-and-order president, then he would follow the law himself,” the Florida Democrat, who was Orlando’s first female chief of police, said recently on Sirius XM radio. “If he was the law-and-order president, he would hold his friends accountable. We know that’s not his intention.”
Some conservatives and libertarians have also questioned the administration’s incursions into various cities.
“They’re bringing violence into the situation,” said Nicholas Sarwark, a former chairman of the Libertarian National Committee. “He needs to succeed at something because he’s failing so miserably at being president.”