As we hurtle as a nation toward what promises to be the most divisive presidential election in modern history, apparently someone forgot to declare we’re in the throes of a civil war being waged on our city streets.
It is this social unrest, seemingly nationwide, with visible displays of lawlessness and disorder — burning businesses, looted stores, ransacked institutions, beheaded monuments and the killing and roughing up of fellow citizens — that may make this a single-issue presidential contest.
For a certain kind of voter aghast while watching the news, no platforms or policy planks will be necessary. Just make the images of shots fired, rampaging citizens and burning cars go away.
Last week’s Republican National Convention portrayed the United States as the set piece for a horror film. Violence was on a revolving loop. As if the optics couldn’t get worse, the fear factor was not helped by another police shooting of a Black man — on Aug. 23 in Kenosha, Wis. — followed by more protests in various cities and the killing of a white man in Portland, Ore.
For many living in red or swing states, or white suburban voters who liken cities to mugging mosh pits, “Making America Great Again” is going to need more than just a wall this time. Given today’s anxieties, greatness also will require doing something about the mayhem unleashed from and on these often-peaceful protests.
Law enforcement is at the very center of the maelstrom; indeed, its members are being blamed for it. There are daily referendums on how the police should do their jobs, or whether police officers should even have jobs. But if safe streets become the singular issue, then those calling for defunding the police are wielding the most insurmountable wedge issue of all.
If safe streets become the singular issue, then those calling for defunding the police are wielding the most insurmountable wedge issue of all.
On this, Republicans are united: The police are essential to maintaining law and order. “Make America Safe Again” soon may festoon the latest campaign cap. For those inside the Beltway, the political refrain will not be “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” but “It’s the Rioting.”
Democrats, especially their candidate for president, Joe Biden, find themselves in a quandary. When it comes to the cause and effect of these protests, Democrats are not united. Among progressives, the police are racist oppressors shooting from the hip whenever a Black man is near. The irony is that in high-crime areas where many Black people reside, Black lives mattering can’t possibly depend on the police being disarmed.
President Donald Trump, the “Great Simplifier,” found his solo campaign issue for 2020. The May 25 death of George Floyd became fodder for Trump’s longstanding marketing savvy. Blood was on the streets, but he immediately sensed blood in the water, replenished with ongoing racial unrest in such far-flung cities as Minneapolis, Seattle, New York, Los Angeles and Kenosha.
Suddenly, Trump’s chaos playbook had a new game plan — courtesy of the Democratic Party. “Socialism” no longer was whispered in polite circles. Political correctness migrated from the college campus to the public square. The killing of Michael Brown in 2014 gave birth to Black Lives Matter. Floyd’s death, however, revealed some of the Marxist politics and thuggish tactics of the movement — just in time for the presidential election.
Violence and vigilantism might hand President Trump a second term. The coronavirus, recession, surging stock market and Russian and Chinese meddling in our political and economic lives may end up as forgotten side issues.
The coronavirus, recession, surging stock market and Russian and Chinese meddling in our political and economic lives may end up as forgotten side issues.
The Democratic Party literally is playing with fire, given the number of arsonists having their way in Wisconsin last week after the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Remember the infamous Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) op-ed in the June 3 New York Times calling for military intervention to quell the violence after the Floyd killing? Polling showed that a majority of Americans endorsed that view: 58% of registered voters supported using the military to control protesters, Forbes reported on June 2, citing a Morning Consult poll. Many more might offer their assent now.
Yet, The New York Times, which officially apologized for the op-ed and underwent a housecleaning of editors who oversaw its publication, is showing no regret for stifling the debate, and is unlikely to run many editorials critical of protestors and supportive of the police.
Americans are having two separate conversations, seemingly in different languages, and with varying degrees of intensity. The voice among progressives is strident, confident and coercive, and Trump is helping to amplify it. Why not? Progressives are making his case for reelection.
The progressive case begins and ends with an indictment: The U.S. is a white-supremacist nation; bigotry infiltrates every aspect of American life; the Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments to the United States Constitution produced nothing; the civil-rights statutes of the 1960s and Affirmative Action resulted in nothing; the two presidential terms of Barack Obama were symbolic of nothing.
Biden, Obama’s vice-president, must realize a majority of Americans never will accept these extremist, hopeless conclusions about their country. America seen through this false light is unrecognizable to all but those who wish to undermine the United States.
Unless Biden can impose discipline over the progressives, not only will he lose the election, he will have hastened the departure of moderates breaking ranks to form their own party, perhaps finding common cause with Never Trumpers, who will need some reinforcements for his second term.
If Biden doesn’t repudiate the violence — forcefully and unequivocally — he’ll own it. So far he has acknowledged and condemned the violence but assigned the blame elsewhere. Democratic voters with their eyes open and worried about violence will look elsewhere, too — and may choose Trump. Ironically, Biden was chosen to lead his party over more inspiring candidates because he was perceived as an electable moderate who could defeat Trump. Now, he appears to be the trump card this president has been looking for all along.
Of course, progressives might secretly hope that Trump remain in office. How else to explain their self-sabotaging timing? Violence in the streets is never a selling point.
After all, Trump’s policies and practices — the reckless tweeting and occasional overtures to the alt-right — has favored them with legitimacy. All along, they have shown themselves to be far more interested in occupying Wall Street than the White House. Perhaps they fear a Biden presidency will leave them on the outside, once more looking in, but this time, without cause for upheaval.
Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro College, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.”