WASHINGTON — In 2018, the chosen narrative was a caravan of muscular young Latin men in “gangs” preparing to overrun the U.S. border. In 2020, the portrait features “thugs” operating in “dark shadows” waiting to control Democratic nominee Joe Biden if he’s elected president.
This summer, President Donald Trump has taken a page from his old playbook in warning of nefarious actors plotting to “do big damage” to the country, playing on fears of crime and racial tensions in an attempt to motivate Americans to vote Republican.
“The president is nothing if not consistent in his messaging and approach to politics,” Whit Ayres, a leading Republican pollster, said. “The president’s campaign is making a bet that fear of domestic violence spreading into suburban areas will be more potent than fear of the pandemic.”
Trump said Monday on Fox News that Biden is controlled by “people that you’ve never heard of — people that are in the dark shadows,” calling them “people that are controlling the streets.”
He claimed without evidence that “thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms with gear” had traveled on an airplane to the Republican convention “to do big damage.”
The remarks echoed his message in October 2018, while speaking to the same interviewer, Laura Ingraham, about travelers from Central America who reportedly wanted to apply for asylum in the United States. “When you look at that caravan and you look at largely — very big percentage of men. Young. Strong,” Trump said. “A lot of bad people. A lot of bad people in there. People that are in gangs.”
The strategy fell short in the midterm election in battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where suburban defections led to statewide Democratic victories. It failed in Arizona, where Republicans lost a Senate race for the first time in 30 years.
Trump's wager — this time, with his own political future on the line — is that it'll be more successful now.
Polls show a steady Biden lead
New post-convention polls indicate that the country isn't currently sold. The latest surveys suggest crime ranks low on the minds of Americans, and that most are sympathetic to protests against racial inequality after high-profile police shootings of Black men.
Three new national surveys released Wednesday show the presidential race remains fairly static: Biden led Trump by 7 points in a USA Today/Suffolk poll, by 7 points in a Reuters/Ipsos poll and by 8 points in a Grinnell College/Selzer poll.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll found that just 8 percent of Americans listed crime as their top issue, while a majority cited the economy, jobs or health care. In addition, 62 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans said crime was not rising in their communities.
Trump is seeking to elevate worries about crime with a pair of new ads in Wisconsin and Minnesota that fault Biden as being soft on violence. His gamble is that he can use the issue to motivate the white voters without college degrees who formed the heart of his 2016 coalition and win back suburban and college-educated voters who hold the keys to his re-election hopes.
“It's all a balancing act. The trend of rural and small town areas becoming more Republican and suburban areas becoming more Democratic was accelerated in 2018 compared to 2016,” Ayres said. “Suburban areas are larger and faster growing than rural areas.
Asked about the polls Wednesday, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said Biden's behavior shows he's worried about being seen as "weak and afraid to stand up to the leftist job."
"He knows he has been defined," Murtaugh said. "He has been defined as a tool of the radical left who is too weak to stand up to the anti-police wing."
Contrasting messages on protests, violence
Biden, who has offered praise for peaceful protesters, gave a speech in Pittsburgh earlier this week denouncing violent actors. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It's lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted,” he said.
He followed that up with a $45 million broadcast and digital ad buy to run a spot featuring his denunciation of the looters, spliced with footage of rowdy Trump supporters at recent protests and white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Biden said Trump has "fomented" violence and is too "weak" to stand up to his own violent supporters.
NBC News asked Murtaugh if Trump or his campaign would condemn the actions of Kyle Rittenhouse, a pro-police 17-year-old charged with homicide for killing two people during the Kenosha, Wisconsin, protests.
Murtaugh said Trump "does not believe that people should take the law into their own hands — that is the job for law enforcement. We want the police to be doing the police work and for people not to insert themselves into those kinds of situations."
During a visit to Kenosha on Tuesday, Trump suggested that Rittenhouse only acted due to fear of his life and defended police as “incredible people” with “some bad apples.”
He dodged a question about whether systemic racism is a problem in the U.S. and chided a reporter for asking about nonviolent protests for justice.
“You may have protesters. But you have some really bad people too. You have anarchists. And you have the looters. You have rioters. You have all types — you have agitators,” Trump said. “And that’s what you should be focusing on with your question.”
On Wednesday, Biden accused Trump of fabricating an opponent because he doesn't want to face the real one.
"As much as he'd like to be running against somebody else, he's running against me, Joe Biden," Biden told reporters at a press conference in Wilmington, Delaware, after a speech on schools.