It’s a depressing but inescapable fact that riots and politically motivated violence in America are now a key theme in the 2020 presidential election.
Donald Trump and Republicans are counting on fear of chaos to be a winning strategy as they accuse Joe Biden of being so beholden to the far left that he can’t forcefully denounce violence linked to this summer’s anti-racism protests.
In fact, Biden made his strongest statement yet on Monday in a campaign appearance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, saying: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. … It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.” He added that violence is “wrong in every way.” And he hammered on the fact that this violence is happening in “Donald Trump’s America” right now, not in the “Joe Biden’s America” of Trumpian fearmongering.
But is that enough, and will the backlash against the riots hurt the Democrats?
Biden is correct that Trump’s presence in the White House makes Americans less safe. He did not mean, as some conservatives suggest, that his supporters will riot if he doesn’t win (most of the violent leftists probably hate him as much as they hate Trump). His point was that Trump continuously pours fuel on the fire. Being a provocateur is his brand.
On the day of Biden’s Pittsburgh speech, Trump was on Fox News comparing cops who shoot unarmed people to golfers who “choke” and “miss a 3-foot putt.” No wonder the authorities in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shaken by riots after the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, weren’t keen on a Trump visit.
Biden is indisputably much more capable of using moral authority to defuse an explosive situation. He has credibly separated himself from the extremists, stressing that “most cops are good, decent people.”
Nonetheless, the Democrats have baggage that could hurt them, especially if there is more escalation of violence. Some progressives are still skittish about condemning rioters and looters. Last week, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) deleted a tweet condemning police brutality, vigilantism, and “looting and property damage” after blowback for supposedly equating property with lives. Add to this the perception that Democratic mayors in progressive cities like Seattle and Portland have been spectacularly ineffectual in dealing with violence.
Nor does it help that some mainstream media, widely seen as being in the Democratic camp, have downplayed violence by referring to “mostly peaceful” protests. The protests in places like Kenosha and Minneapolis have been “mostly” peaceful only in the sense that COVID-19 is “mostly” a minor illness: the bad may be a fraction of the whole, but it’s devastating. Right-wing media may wildly exaggerate the mayhem, but progressive media tend to minimize it.
Political violence in the United States has gotten to a dangerous point. In late August, a 17-year-old militia member in Kenosha shot three people, two fatally; while video suggests a case for self-defense, no sane person can think he should have been there. In Portland, a Trump supporter was fatally shot in clashes between far-right and far-left groups; there is footage of leftists congratulating themselves for “taking out the trash.”
Biden will likely have to address this issue again. He could be even more explicit in condemning violence on the left; he should also talk about specific victims of violence by looters or far-left protesters as much as he has talked about victims of police brutality. He should address irresponsible media coverage.
But mostly, he is already on the right track — if he can lead his party in the same direction.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.