Two things can be true. The death of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer who appeared to perform this heinous act with malice in his heart is an egregious violation of the social compact and evidence of broader racial inequalities. Much of the violence that followed that event is also counterproductive if our collective goal is the pursuit of justice.
The conditions that have led to angry clashes around the nation are not binary or mutually exclusive.
Like the demonstrations in Minneapolis, which were composed of (mostly peaceful) protesters and rioters alike, the conditions that have led to angry clashes around the nation are not binary or mutually exclusive. For the purposes of electoral politics, however, they must be made binary. There can be no nuance if these events are to be exploited for maximal political gain. And, it being an election year, that’s President Donald Trump’s objective.
“These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won't let that happen,” the president tweeted on Friday morning. “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.”
This rather ominous threat to restore order by force is detached from the president’s capabilities as the chief executive of the federal government and is, thus, best understood as a political statement. If and when the national guard is deployed, as it has in several states already, it will be operating at the direction of state-level authorities. The president’s effort to insert himself into these events is indicative of his political instincts.
The president has long presented himself as a champion of law and order, and demonstrations that turn violent provide him with the opportunity to try to burnish those atrophied credentials. He referred to himself as “the law and order candidate” in 2016, and the tensions between black Americans and police that regularly erupted in the preceding years left little room for interpretation as to which side of those conflicts Trump came down on. But unlike 2016, the last three years have not been characterized by Baltimore, Ferguson, Chicago and Milwaukee from 2014 to 2016. The resurrection of this 2016 theme is, therefore, a gamble. But will it work?
For those who believe the president is onto something, the argument goes a little like this. Though the universe of polite opinion on the left and the right was horrified by the conduct that led to the killing of George Floyd, Americans collectively are not sympathetic toward rioting, no matter who is behind it. In the wake of the confrontations that followed the shooting death of Missouri of Michael Brown Jr., for example, polling found sharp racial and political divides about whether police actions were justified and the validity of the protests that followed. No survey ever found a majority support among Americans, white or black, for street violence. That is not a sentiment that is well represented in the press, but it has a long historical trail.
Frustration and exhaustion with urban chaos contributed to a public backlash against the Democratic Party in 1968, which settled on the belief that policing was the cause of and not the solution to these conditions. The voting public disagreed.
We were reminded of this reality again during the 2016 elections, which took place before a similar backdrop. As New York Magazine columnist Jonathan Chait observed at the time, rather than having the “compensating virtue of easing the way for more progressive policies,” rioting promotes a “regressive backlash.” This conclusion was buttressed by a study conducted by Princeton University associate professor Omar Wasow, which found that episodes of looting and violence in the late 1960s preceded a decline in Democratic votes whereas civil disobedience did not. In sum, Chait noted, “riots make America more conservative.”
By declining to allow tensions in Minneapolis and elsewhere to cool entropically, the president is taking advantage of conditions that contributed to his 2016 victory. Moreover, his intervention in the conflict is likely to produce a counterreaction on the left that could lead them to wrap their arms around demonstrator and rioter alike, which could advance the president’s argument. A failure on the part of Democratic leaders to highlight the distinctions between violent and nonviolent protesters would not merely be a moral lapse, it would be political malpractice. But the impulse to err on the side of opposing Trump even at the risk of moral clarity could prove inescapable. At least, this is how the president’s supporters see it.
This case for Trump does, however, overlook the myriad factors that pertain to this unique political moment and this particular president. Trump supporters in positions of authority are far more capable of making the case for this president than is the president himself. As Trump’s menacing tweet last week suggests, his unrefined communications strategy has as much potential to energize his voters as it does his opponents. And with voters heading to the polls in six months, a cascading series of disasters is not something that will necessarily benefit the incumbent.
As the unfolding pandemic has demonstrated, the reservoir of sympathy for this president among the voting public is not deep. Amid a once-in-a-century pandemic and an unprecedented economic crisis, Trump has experienced one of the shallowest and shortest-lived job approval rating bounces in the Western world. Polling around his performance in office has, in fact, remained relatively static despite the wildly dynamic conditions the country has endured in 2020.
As the unfolding pandemic has demonstrated, the reservoir of sympathy for this president among the voting public is not deep.
It’s telling that the general sentiment toward Trump remains as polarized today as it was in the absence of cataclysmic public health and economic conditions. The introduction of racially polarized violence into this mix is unlikely to appreciably alter that dynamic. These are conditions that wouldn’t benefit any incumbent, much less Trump.
The fundamental bargain to which supporters of this president subscribed is one typified by tradeoffs. Trump’s often reckless comments, gratuitous insults and heedless provocations could be stomached as long as he delivered results. And for years, this presidency was characterized as much by Trump’s scandalous personal conduct as it was relative geopolitical stability abroad and growing prosperity at home. That bargain has been broken.
All voters may not equally assign blame to this president for the conditions that currently prevail — a health crisis, an economic downturn that will only be fully felt when federal efforts to mitigate the pain expire in the fall, and, now, yet another city pushed to the boiling point after alleged police brutality. But it would be a monumental feat of cognitive compartmentalization for a critical mass of voters to ratify these circumstances with a vote in favor of the incumbent. Whether Trump is to blame for these unendurable hardships or not, he nonetheless presides over them. And that may be enough.
This dynamic may change if stores and restaurants continue to be set on fire in American cities throughout the summer, blotting out the pandemic and associated economic crisis as voters’ chief concerns. If that is the case, and if Democrats fail to balance the concerns of both the overpoliced and those who perceive themselves to have been abandoned by authorities, Trump may indeed reap electoral benefits. But if this contributes merely to a general atmosphere of instability and precarity, it would take a lot for voters to head to the polls in November and vote for four more years of this.