Some voters think Trump is trying to quell riots but Democrats insist on watching things burn.
Observers on the left note wryly that President Trump is effectively trying to run against events of his own administration. He’s an outsider insider? Incumbent insurgent? Some terrible things have happened on his watch, and he warns us that in order to stop the madness we need to return him to office.
The element of paradox is present, but it isn’t particularly difficult to see the logic in some voters’ minds: Vote Trump to oppose the rioting. To put things in terms the Left tends to use, some voters see Trump as taking the morally correct position in a fraught moment. His messaging — that Democrats are burning down businesses in Democratic cities while Democratic mayors and governors cringe and shuffle and study their feet — was amplified by Portland mayor Ted Wheeler, who after three solid months of bedlam pointedly and loudly rejected Trump’s offer of federal law-enforcement assistance. Trump can fairly argue that he isn’t stopping the disturbances because Democrats won’t let him, and “blame Trump” as a reflexive response to anything that goes wrong doesn’t work so well when Trump is trying to quell unrest and Democrats insist on watching things burn.
There is little doubt where Trump is in relation to the rioters: He’s strongly against them. Joe Biden is . . . weakly against them. As Kenosha erupted in flames, he initially responded by denouncing “systemic racism” then took several days to issue a tepid suggestion that the riots were not a good idea, via a Twitter video from his basement: “Burning down communities is not protest; it’s needless violence. Violence that endangers lives. Violence that guts businesses, and shutters businesses, that serve the community. That’s wrong.” Oh.
Anecdotal evidence suggests Wisconsin voters might be inclined to punish Biden, a man who has held no office for four years, rather than the president for the rampage in Kenosha. Biden’s party, perhaps encouraged by the media’s presentation of the matter, has allowed itself partially to internalize the notion that, among things that matter, you have to choose between black lives and buildings. A Philadelphia newspaper editor lost his job for running the headline, “Buildings Matter, Too.” Kamala Harris’s initial response to the chaotic events in Minneapolis was to help bail out people arrested in them.
“The Democratic agenda to me right now is America is systematically racist and evil and the only people who can fix it are Democrats,” an Obama-supporting ex-Marine named John Geraghty told the New York Times. “That’s the vibe I get.” Geraghty added, “As of now I’m really not happy about how Democrats are handling any of this.” James Wigderson, a conservative journalist who runs the Right Wisconsin website but has criticized Trump, told the paper, “Whether it’s fair or not, they see this all as one monolith: from Biden on down to the guy throwing the brick at the cop. As a result, they are more motivated not to let those people win.”
To put it another way Democrats might understand: Trump had nothing to do with the white-nationalist murder in Charlottesville in 2017, but there was a widespread impulse to punish him for the perception that he was at all with the wrong side that day. Voters are not especially rational, but they can and do vote out of a sense of rewarding what’s right and punishing what’s wrong. A YouGov poll released Saturday that questioned the same voters it had polled a month earlier found Biden’s margin over Trump cut from nine points to six, as the perception of Trump as “strong” ticked up from 33 to 38 percent. While Biden has been playing prevent defense, polls from the right-leaning Trafalgar group have suggested Trump leads in Michigan (two points), Wisconsin (one point) and is in a virtual tie in Minnesota. A win in even one of these states would likely mean Trump gets reelected. Biden’s lead in battleground states has eroded from 6.3 points on July 24 to 2.7 on August 29. No wonder even Biden fans are starting to sound nervous. The betting market thinks Trump is in his strongest position since early June and gives him a 49 percent chance of victory.
Additionally, Biden could find himself on the wrong side of another pressing issue. His argument that Trump has bungled the response to the coronavirus will become less and less salient if the virus continues to wither. The United States is an intrinsically forward-looking, optimistic country and the Biden–Harris ticket’s bet that its stance of extreme caution will maintain appeal will look less and less attractive if the second wave of infections fades out. Biden has suggested calling for a second lockdown while his running mate speculates about a nationwide mask mandate. These positions are likely to be far more popular in the blue states that were hit hardest than in the swing states. Maybe they’ll help Biden run up his 38-point lead in Massachusetts. But I doubt Biden’s Fearful Forever platform is going to play too well in the South and Midwest unless the virus kicks up again.