Trump employs violence as political fuel for reelection fight
Category: News & PoliticsVia: john-russell • 3 weeks ago • 13 comments
By: Stephen Miller (Anchorage Daily News)
President Donald Trump has reverted to using graphic depictions of violence as a centerpiece of his campaign strategy, converting his Twitter account, stump speech and even the White House lectern into platforms for amplifying domestic conflict.
His 2016 focus on Islamic radical terrorism and undocumented immigrant crime, which he credited with helping him win the Republican nomination, has been replaced by warnings of new threats, as he elevates gruesome images of Black-on-White crime, street fights involving his supporters and police misconduct riots around the country.
The pattern continued over the holiday weekend, when he tweeted video of a melee between protesters and security officers during a Texas event for a Trump-affiliated group and two celebratory videos of a Portland, Ore., protester with his feet on fire, one of which was scored to the Kenny Loggins song"Footloose" and a second that featured mocking play-by-play commentary by a mixed martial arts announcer.
"These are the Democrats 'peaceful protests,' " Trump wrote. "Sick!" On Monday, he retweeted a prediction that political unrest "could lead to 'rise of citizen militias around the country.' "
The strategy echoes the approach that fueled his rise in politics as he shocked the political world with graphic warnings about "rapists" crossing the border illegally from Mexico, welcomed the families of crime victims to speak at his events and said he favored instructing the military to target the families of Islamic extremists, a likely war crime. He also repeatedly encouraged assaults on protesters at his own events.
In each case, the unprecedented focus on violence by a major American politician allowed Trump to attract attention, turning his rallies into unpredictable and raucous affairs that were widely viewed. They also set the stage for Trump to establish his political persona as a strongman itching to dominate threats foreign and domestic if he was elected.
Nearly four years after winning that race, Trump is making the same argument, albeit about different dangers, using the specter of violence amid Black Lives Matter protests to claim his superior toughness and promising forceful resolution if he is given the chance.
"These people only know one thing, and that is strength," Trump said Wednesday in Wilmington, N.C., of the violent street protests in Wisconsin and Oregon. "That's all they know — strength. And we have strength."
He posted footage on Twitter on Monday of Black protesters in Pittsburgh screaming at White outdoor diners, drinking from their glasses and knocking over their dishes during a protest over the weekend.
"Disgraceful. Never seen anything like it. Thugs!" Trump wrote. "And because of weak and pathetic Democrat leadership, this thuggery is happening in other Democrat run cities and states. Must shut them down fast."
Amid a pandemic that has killed more than 186,000 Americans, the jarring political gambit has shifted the focus of the presidential campaign, forcing Trump's opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, to air an ad, "Be Not Afraid," focused on his own opposition to the recent violence in Wisconsin and Oregon.
"The president is on offense, and that is always a good thing," said Roger Stone, a former Trump political adviser who received a presidential commutation for seven felony convictions this summer. "The law and order issue really motivates the president's base, and it also appeals to independents."
Although Trump has seen no big boosts in polling, he unapologetically promoted a video last week of his own supporters attacking protesters in Portland, Ore., later arguing at the White House that their firing of paintball guns and pepper spray in city streets from the back of pickup trucks was "defensive." On Twitter, he explained the conflict as logical response to liberal provocation.
"The big backlash going on in Portland cannot be unexpected," Trump wrote in a tweet that included a video of the incident.
He has also returned to using his Twitter account to broadcast falsehoods that fan the flames of racial conflict. For the third time this summer, Trump retweeted a video Aug. 30 of a Black man brutally attacking a White person, this time with a caption falsely suggesting the 2019 assailant in a New York subway assault was somehow connected to Black Lives Matter or antifa.
The posts echo a 2015 Trump retweet, which showed a picture of a Black man with a gun, that falsely claimed Black people commit a majority of White homicides, a racist trope for which he never apologized. The White House argued this month, as Trump did in 2015, that he was not responsible for accuracy of his retweets.
Politically motivated street fights have become more common during his presidency, as politically motivated mass shootings in El Paso, Pittsburgh and Gilroy, Calif., among others, have rattled the nation. Recent conflicts at protests have left injuries across the country in recent weeks, from Kalamazoo, Mich., to Weatherford, Texas, to Bloomington, Ind., as protesters of police misconduct confront counterprotesters, who are sometimes dressed in Trump-branded apparel and claim to be helping to keep the peace. In one case, a gun-wielding Trump supporter was charged with murder after allegedly killing two protesters and injuring a third in Kenosha, Wis.
In the face of this, Trump has condemned the actions of left-wing rioters but declined to condemn violence by his own supporters, even as he falsely claims Biden is refusing to condemn violence on the left.
"I have the tough people, but they don't play it tough — until they go to a certain point," Trump said last year in an interview with Breitbart News when asked about fights over free speech on college campuses. "And then it would be very bad, very bad."
From his start in politics, Trump has brushed aside the idea he has responsibility for any additional violence that results from his campaign style. When a reporter asked in 2015 if he was concerned his tough rhetoric against protesters and immigrants might lead to additional violence in American streets, he recoiled at the question.
"People are getting hurt. People are being decimated by illegal immigrants. The crime is unbelievable," he said, an argument belied by statistics. "Now in my way, I don't want anybody hurt. But people are being hurt. So when you ask that question, it's very unfair."
His answer was notable for its zero-sum view: Suffering in the country was inevitable — the question was who suffered more.
Trump's return to focusing on violent threats and conflict follows a summer in which the president appeared politically adrift as a viral pandemic overtook the nation, infecting at least 6.2 million people and dampening the economy.
He initially wavered in whether to focus campaign advertising on trumpeting his pandemic response or attacking his opponent, before eventually launching attacks on Biden for his ties to China, his mental acuity and his policy positions. Biden's polling advantage widened.
When nationwide protests against police misconduct turned violent this summer, Trump's strategy shifted once again. A July 9 set of talking points distributed around the White House by Stephen Miller, the adviser who wrote Trump's 2016 nomination speech, previewed the message Trump would settle on for the final push to the convention.
The solution Miller described, which Trump soon incorporated into his rhetoric and advertising, was to paint Biden as a fundamental threat to public safety. "No one will be safe in Joe Biden's America," the document read. The Democratic nominee, Miller's document continued, "will surrender America and its citizens to the violent left-wing mob" and "abolish the American Way of Life."
The shift sought to rehabilitate Trump's political message of dominance and shift the discussion away from the pandemic, which public polling showed had become a drag on the president's support.
"You can't really tell people that there is no covid crisis because they are surrounded by it. The only thing you can do is make something else louder," said Harvard political scientist Matthew Baum, who studies political persuasion and misinformation. "You don't have to persuade people. All you have to do is say, 'Don't look over there. Look over here.' "
Biden has argued that Trump is trying to distract Americans from his inability to better address the health, economic and race-relations crises facing the nation.
"The whole country is up in flames. Everything is burning, law and order, because he doesn't want to talk about anything, anything at all, about the job he hasn't done," Biden said Sept. 4 during a news conference in Wilmington, Del.
Biden has mocked Trump's effort to cast him as responsible for any street violence, no matter the alleged perpetrator.
"Ask yourself: Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?" Biden asked during an Aug. 31 speech in Pittsburgh. "I want a safe America. Safe from covid, safe from crime and looting, safe from racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops. Let me be crystal clear — safe from four more years of Donald Trump."
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said Trump is focused on helping the communities affected by the violence. "These riots are destroying the life's work of Black, Hispanic and Asian business owners, and they have to stop," he said.
Expressions advocating violence were central to Trump's early political endeavors.
"I'd like to punch him in the face, I'll tell you," Trump said about a protester at an event in Las Vegas. When a nonviolent Black protester was beaten at a rally in Birmingham, Ala., by a White crowd, Trump responded the next day, "Maybe he should have been roughed up."
He argued repeatedly at rallies for the extrajudicial abuse or even murder of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had left his post in Afghanistan. "Thirty years ago, he would have been shot," Trump said. At another event, he said of Bergdahl's capture by the Taliban: "They beat the crap out of him, which is fine."
Rather than recoil, his crowds embraced the tough talk, and Trump delivered more as president. After a Montana congressional candidate, Greg Gianforte, physically attacked a reporter in 2017, Trump turned the event into an applause line. "Any guy that can do a body slam, he is my type!" the president said.
When Trump addressed a law enforcement group in 2017 in Long Island, N.Y., he urged incaution in policing.
"When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just seen them thrown in rough. I said, 'Please don't be too nice,' " he said.
The new threat Trump has focused on is no less ominous than his previous targets and is similarly inflated with rhetoric that mixes descriptions of actual events with conspiracy theories for which he offered no evidence. In recent days, he has described "rioters, anarchists, agitators and looters" who he claimed in a Fox News interview, without evidence, have been traveling the country in commercial planes to create havoc and are funded by "people you have never heard of" who operate in "dark shadows."
He has also tried to adjust the historical record by claiming federal actions he instigated have already proven that his solution of physical toughness and law enforcement domination is responsible for clearing streets of violent protesters. On a visit to Kenosha, Wis., he claimed his push to deploy the National Guard saved the city from further rioting after the police shooting in the back of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man.
"If I didn't INSIST on having the National Guard activate and go into Kenosha, Wisconsin, there would be no Kenosha right now," Trump tweeted last week. Federal officials did work with local law enforcement in quelling the protests, but Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers had ordered the guard to the city a day before Trump's public call for their deployment.
Pollsters have noted a shift in polling around the Black Lives Matter movement, which was initially broad and bipartisan in the wake of the George Floyd killing by Minneapolis police in May. Support for the movement in Wisconsin, according to the Marquette Law School poll, fell from 59% to 49% between June and August.
But national polls continue to show that Biden leads Trump on questions of which candidate would make the country safer. A recent national Quinnipiac poll found that 50% of likely voters said Trump made them feel less safe, compared to 35% who said he made them feel more safe.
By contrast, 42% of voters said Biden would make them feel more safe as president, compared to 40% who said they would feel less safe.