Last week’s Republican National Convention made clear that the campaign to re-elect President Trump has found its message: The Democratic candidate Joe Biden is too weak to stand up to the radical left, which is burning down American cities and sowing violence across the country. If Biden wins, the anarchists will take over, destroying America. The only alternative to this terrible fate is to re-elect Trump, the candidate of unapologetic law and order.
Too bad the message is total nonsense. Trump is doing his best to foment and weaponize disorder in order to portray himself as the man who will save us from it — like an arsonist who sets a blaze so he can play the role of a heroic firefighter. Which means that if you really care about law and order, Trump is the last person you should be voting for in November.
Whether it comes from strategic thinking on the part of Trump and his campaign or it emerges from the president’s basest social and political instincts, the fact is that Trump seeks to win by division. Instead of trying to build the largest or broadest coalition, he aims to sow discord in his opponents and maximize mobilization on his own side.
This responds perfectly to the distinctive vulnerabilities of both parties at the present moment. The GOP is shrinking, with presidential victories increasingly dependent on the party winning narrowly in a handful of states in order to prevail in the Electoral College. To make this work, the party must be highly unified, with Republican voters maximally motivated to show up on Election Day.
The Democrats, by contrast, are a broad party, which makes them more capable than Republicans of winning popular vote pluralities or majorities. But for that to happen — and for the margin of victory to be wide enough for it to overcome the GOP’s Electoral College advantage — the party needs to be unified around its nominee. That’s challenging in a party so large and diverse in terms of ideology, race, class, and region. But it’s especially difficult with the party’s Republican opponent actively sowing division and discord in the Democratic coalition.
Trump pursues both aims simultaneously — seeking to unify and mobilize his own side while dividing and demoralizing his opponents — and a “law and order” message is perfect for that in 2020. Violent crime really does seem to be on the rise, and some on the left have indeed been acting in a highly confrontational and sometimes violent way for months now. Pointing to these examples of disorder and claiming a Biden victory will make it much worse convinces Republican voters that the stakes in the upcoming election are enormously high — and promises to weaken the Democrats by forcing Biden to take his own strong law-and-order stance, which would supposedly alienate his party’s left flank.
The Republicans unified and the Democrats divided — that’s exactly Trump’s aim. Whether it will work remains an open question. We’ll know much more about its effectiveness a week or so from now, once we have a wide range of post-RNC polling data. But acknowledging that Trump’s play might be politically effective is different than thinking it should be effective. And on that score, the evidence is plain.
There is no evidence at all that Trump genuinely wants the country to settle down — and quite a lot of evidence that he’s eager to provoke as much chaos and violence as possible. This point is distinct from the related claim of Trump critics when they argue that just having Trump in office is a catalyst for unrest. I’m inclined to think there’s some truth to this, especially when his elbow-throwing style of governance is combined with understandable frustration at the knowledge that Trump actually earns lower approval, support, and total votes than those who reject him.
But the problem goes far beyond Trump’s mere presence at the head of the executive branch. Trump and his party spent four days last week denouncing the Democratic Party in unmodulated terms, claiming it actively seeks the destruction of the United States, the imposition of socialism, and the spread of violent crime throughout the nation’s cities and its spread to the suburbs. No effort was made by anyone to differentiate between protesters seeking justice for Black Americans and troublemakers further out on the left. That’s not the behavior of a party out to foster civic unity and amity.
Since the conclusion of the convention, Trump has gone further, using his Twitter account not only to continue attacking Democrats, but also to praise the 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse (who’s accused of shooting three and killing two people at protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin last week) and to encourage the truck caravan into Portland that led a significant increase in violence in the city on Saturday night, including the shooting death of a Trump supporter. On Sunday evening, the president even retweeted a video from a white supremacist account, for what would appear to be no reason at all beyond racial incitement, of a Black man shoving a white woman on a subway platform. Trump wants to whip the right into a frenzy of fury about the left — and whites into hysteria about the threat of minorities — so he can playact the part of the country’s savior.
That’s how Trump hopes to win — by intentionally shredding the civic fabric of the nation in the name of mending it. Which means that if you really care about law and order — about bringing Americans of good will together to help solve our problems — then you will have to look elsewhere.
Joe Biden may have his flaws, but he’s the only candidate in the race for president who genuinely wants to unify the country, and who talks like someone who actually deplores the violence and hatred spreading throughout the land, as opposed to weaponizing them for personal and political gain.
Which means he’s the real law and order candidate.