WASHINGTON — The only things Americans have to fear, Vice President Mike Pence suggested Wednesday, are their neighbors and his out-of-power predecessor.
"Joe Biden would double down on the very policies that are leading to unsafe streets and violence in America's cities," Pence said on the third night of the Republican National Convention. "The hard truth is, you won't be safe in Joe Biden's America."
His remarks were delivered on the same day the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 180,000, professional basketball and baseball players forced the cancellation of games to bring attention to racial injustice, and a white 17-year-old vigilante was arrested on suspicion of intentional homicide after he is alleged to have fired into a crowd during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, earlier this week.
Pence's tack reflects a larger Republican strategy for the convention and the broader Trump re-election campaign that tries to focus voters on a generic fear of the unknown rather than problems at hand. It is, of course, Trump and Pence who have presided over the coronavirus crisis and its devastating impact on the economy, the civil unrest in the wake of police killings of Black men, women and children, and the emboldening of white supremacist militia groups.
Democrats are using fear as a political weapon, too. As Pence noted Wednesday, Biden called the current moment a "season of darkness," during the Democratic National Convention last week. Biden and his Democratic allies say voters should fear that a second Trump term will further endanger Americans' lives and livelihoods, as well as the underpinnings of democracy.
Pence countered by suggesting Biden's criticism of the administration amounts to a lack of faith in the country.
"In these challenging times, our country needs a president who believes in America, who believes in the boundless capacity of the American people to meet any challenge, defeat any foe, and defend the freedoms we hold dear," Pence said. "America needs four more years of President Donald Trump in the White House."
He also sounded hopeful notes — overly rosy in the estimation of some experts — by all but promising a coronavirus vaccine before the end of the year and referring to such a development as a miracle. It may be that Pence is right, or it may be that his words have the political value and substantive weight of Richard Nixon's "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War during the 1968 campaign.
That presidential campaign has been something of an obsession for Trump and Pence this year. Though Nixon wasn't an incumbent at the time, they have borrowed heavily from him and from the third-party candidate, George Wallace, in fomenting racial and cultural divisions while casting themselves as proponents of "law and order."
"President Trump and I will always support the right of Americans to peacefully protest," Pence said, less than two months after federal forces violently expelled peaceful protesters from outside the White House as Trump spoke in the Rose Garden. "But rioting and looting is not peaceful protest. Tearing down statues is not free speech, and those who do so will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
A few lines later, after condemning Biden for talking about implicit racial bias, Pence appeared to separate the "American people" from "our African American neighbors."
"The American people know we do not have to choose between supporting law enforcement and standing with our African American neighbors to improve the quality of their lives, education, jobs and safety," Pence said.
That division echoes the other-izing sentiments of Trump and other RNC speakers who have warned ominously of the threat of Biden gaining power, "abolishing the suburbs" and "abolishing the police." Pence, too, accused Biden of wanting to "defund the police" — a policy Biden has rejected and which is at odds with his proposal to vastly increase federal spending for the COPS program his 1994 anti-crime law created.
The "suburbs" policy Biden supports would condition federal funding for local housing authorities on making strides to allow for integration of largely segregated communities. Right now, a white teenager stands accused of leaving his home in suburban Lake County, Illinois, and fatally shooting bullets into a crowd of protesters in the city of Kenosha.
In part, Pence's plea is that voters look past the fact that Trump is in power now and base their choice on the conclusion that, amid a pandemic, a sharp downturn in the real economy and civil unrest across the country, the nation's problems should be attributed to China, the Obama-Biden administration, and Democratic officials at the state and local levels.
The other part is that Biden would, as he said, make Americans less safe, while Trump, who in Pence's estimation has handled every challenge thrown at him with fortitude and competence, would protect them from the very dangers they now face.
Perhaps it will work, and Pence seems to be comfortable with trying to make people see things that aren't there.
"Bernie Sanders did tell his followers that Joe Biden could be the most liberal President of modern times, and confirmed that, quote, 'Many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered radical, are now mainstream in the Democratic Party,'" Pence said.
Sanders never said "in the Democratic Party."
The big fear for Trump and Pence seems to be that Biden and the actual Democratic platform aren't scary enough for voters.