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Trump gambles on splitting Biden's base with riot rhetoric

Analysis: The two groups Joe Biden most needs to win the presidency are black and moderate white voters. That's reason enough for the president to divide them.
President Donald Trump
For President Trump, there is political opportunity in pitting moderate whites against African Americans this election year.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — In moments of racial, social and political unrest, presidents of the United States have almost always sought to calm the nation. Not President Donald Trump.

For him, there is political opportunity in pitting moderate whites against African Americans: They are the two groups Democratic challenger Joe Biden most needs to win the presidency in November, and they formed the core of Biden's base as he pursued his party's nomination.

That gave Trump incentive to articulate sympathy for George Floyd, the black man killed by police in Minneapolis on Monday, while also inciting racial conflict and promising to quell that conflict with force.

"These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen," Trump tweeted early Friday morning in response to Minneapolis uprisings following Floyd's killing. "Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts."

Biden's need to mobilize black voters is evident both in the drop-off of black turnout between 2012 and 2016 in key swing states and his vetting of black women as potential vice presidential picks. He didn't help himself when he said of African American voters who choose Trump over him, "you ain't black," on the radio show "The Breakfast Club."

While Trump's campaign strategy includes limiting enthusiasm for Biden among black voters, his remarks on the Minneapolis situation mostly reflect a need to persuade swing-voting whites.

"Trump won by flipping suburban white voters in 200 counties that Obama carried in both 2008 and 2012," said Alvin Tillery, director of Northwestern University's Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy. "Although these voters display less racial resentment that Trump’s hardcore Southern base, it is still a part of their ideological makeup. It is also true that these voters are less likely to see the police as being at fault in cases of brutality."

But there's also a major risk that in promoting chaos, Trump will undermine his call for order at a time when one of the chief promises of the Biden campaign is to restore a sense of calm to the nation. The president could be seen as fomenting yet another national crisis in the midst of a pandemic that has killed more than 100,000 people and led to 40 million unemployment claims.

In the span of fewer than 280 characters, Trump defended the "memory of George Floyd," who was blameless in his own death, called protesters "thugs" — a term as racially loaded as any — and suggested he would order the military to summarily execute looters. The latter claim suggests not only that theft should be punishable by death but that the purpose of the uprising is to steal.

Perhaps in reaction to a swift backlash, Trump tried to walk it back with an addendum on Twitter Friday afternoon.

"I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means," he wrote of the "looting starts, shooting starts" remark, which dates to the unrest of the 1960s. "It was spoken as fact, not as a statement. It's very simple, nobody should have any problem with this other than the haters, and those looking to cause trouble on social media."

Trump's history suggests he understood precisely what sentiments his words would evoke.

Throughout his public life, and particularly in his relatively short time as a politician, Trump has tried to turn persuadable whites against African Americans. He bought ad space to call for the execution of the Central Park Five, who were later exonerated. He backed the "birther" campaign against Obama, and he told lawmakers of color born in the U.S. to return to their supposed countries of origin. The list goes on and on.

Like Biden, he lived through the civil rights era. Back then, moderate whites became more sympathetic to civil rights when they saw images of authorities turning hoses on black children and beating marchers who sought voting rights — and they tilted toward the set of Democrats who backed making sure the basic rights white Americans enjoyed were available to their black and brown counterparts.

They voted to re-elect Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964 after passage of the Civil Rights Act and supported the Voting Rights Act enough in 1965 for it to clear Congress and become law. But by 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., subsequent uprisings in cities across the country, and a police riot against protesters outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Republican Richard Nixon's promise of restoring "law and order" appealed to moderate white swing voters.

Omar Wasow, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton and a co-founder of, recently published a paper that found a significant decrease in white support for Democrats in counties near the sites of 1960s riots.

Though those riots were widespread, and therefore more likely to affect a larger number of voters, he said there are parallels between the politics surrounding them and the challenge for Biden and fellow Democrats in responding to the Minneapolis uprising.

"One of the big lessons of the '60s is this is exceedingly hard terrain for Democrats to navigate," Wasow said in a telephone interview Friday. "Order has, for a long time, been a Republican issue."