by Michael C. Dorf
When the speakers at last week's Republican National Convention were not trying to persuade America that there exists a hitherto-unseen Donald Trump who is a competent and compassionate human being, they were mostly issuing a not-at-all-veiled warning to suburbanites that Joe Biden's America will feature widespread and nonstop violence. As numerous commentators observed, the message is odd. Trump is warning that what people are seeing on the news from Portland, Chicago, Kenosha, and other "Democrat-run" cities will happen if Biden is elected, but of course, the people are seeing what's happening now, in Donald Trump's America (except for the video clip of Barcelona in 2019 that the RNC aired).
Trump came into office promising to end "American carnage" that did not exist. He's running for re-election warning that his opponent will bring about carnage even as he himself has done just that. Who would possibly buy that argument?
Here I want to suggest--worry might be a better word than suggest--that millions of Americans might buy it. Do you remember your President Nixon? He ran for office in 1968 in an extraordinarily violent time because of high-salience assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy as well as an upward trend in violent crime, punctuated by civil unrest and violence sparked by institutional racism and police misconduct (as detailed in the Kerner Commission Report released that year). It is easy to see how Nixon's tough-on-crime message as part of his "Southern Strategy" resonated with white voters. It's harder to see why Trump's 2016 racist message on crime did, in light of the fact that crime rates were very low during the Obama years.
But I'm not interested now in contrasting Nixon's 1968 campaign with Trump's 2016 campaign. Instead, I want to compare their messages in, respectively, 1972 and 2020. One might well think that voters would have punished Nixon in 1972 for the failure of his get-tough approach. After all, violent crime continued its steady rise from Nixon's inauguration in 1969 through the election in November 1972 (and beyond). And yet Nixon won re-election in a landslide. Did voters stop caring about crime? That's highly doubtful. A more plausible explanation is that bad as crime was under Nixon, voters worried that it would be worse under McGovern.
Michelle Obama said at the DNC: "If you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me—they can, and they will." She's surely right about that. Trump is a lawbreaker and norm buster now, when he is somewhat restrained by the need to garner enough support in the election to keep it close enough that he can maintain the backing of GOP officials while contesting a losing result with bogus claims of voter fraud. Imagine Trump unshackled, issuing pardons to his cronies and Cabinet filled with Acting secretaries. You think he won't sell Yellowstone for a pittance to the Trump Organization? You think he and Bill Barr won't bring brazenly politically motivated prosecutions? Who or what will stop him?
But here's the thing. Trump, Kushner, and the other amoral cynics running the re-election campaign are also counting on a things-can-always-get-worse logic. Here is how I imagine they gamed it out, in the form of a dialogue between Trump's campaign manager du jour (until he's fired or indicted) Bill Stepien and, oh, I don't know, let's say Socrates:
Socrates: Wait, the violence is happening now, on President Trump's watch. Isn't that an argument for Biden, who, after all, was VP during a period of calm?
Stepien: No, first of all, anything good that happened from 2009 to 2016 was because of Republicans in control of Congress. Biden is responsible for only the bad things.
Socrates: I don't see how that works, but even if so, high crime rates and riots were not a bad thing that happened when Biden was VP.
Stepien: Right, but last time Biden was in power, he didn't step into an explosive situation.
Socrates: Well, the Obama administration did step into the Great Recession. And they did an imperfect but in retrospect pretty good job preventing a complete economic meltdown. Anyway, as I said, the explosive situation into which Biden would be stepping was created by Trump.
Stepien: That's where you're wrong. It was created by AOC, Black Lives Matter, and Crazy Socialist Bernie. Also by the Democrat Mayors of the cities tolerating the violence.
Socrates: The adjective is "Democratic," not "Democrat." Even I know that and my mother tongue is Ancient Greek. More importantly, BLM, AOC, and Sanders have all renounced violence. As has Biden, loudly, clearly, and repeatedly.
Stepien: But they want to defund the police.
Socrates: Again, Biden doesn't. And those that do don't want to eliminate all constabulary forces. "Defund the police" is a slogan for the notion that we address too many social ills with force when we should be using more constructive approaches.
Stepien: That's not what our ads say.
Socrates: But those ads are false.
Stepien: No they're not. And you're fake news.
Socrates: What? I'm not a journalist. I'm a philosopher who died over 24 centuries ago. Anyway, let me see whether I understand the case you're making. It's that Biden is beholden to the left of his party, which is not going to crack down on violence that sometimes accompanies protests. Is that right?
Stepien: That's part of it. The other part is to make clear that the violence is happening in Democrat
Stepien: run cities that mostly have a bunch of minorities and avocado-toast-eating white liberals living in them, but that if you let the 2020 Democrat
Stepien: Party into power in Washington, the Upper Peninsula will look like Detroit. I mean, Kenosha is in a Republican district that used to be represented by Paul Ryan. Our message is: this is coming for real Americans too.
Socrates: Let's put aside the racism. Again, if your point is that it's already in places where white voters for Trump live, doesn't that undermine the idea that this is something that might happen under Biden and reinforce the idea that it's already happening under Trump?
Stepien: Nope. It's like Michelle Obama said. You ain't seen nothing yet.
Socrates: I think I'll take that cup of hemlock now.
Is pseudo-Stepien persuasive? Well, yes and no. If you think that the reason there is violence in Portland, Kenosha, and elsewhere is that the police haven't cracked enough heads, then yes, you'll think that bad as things are, they'll be substantially worse in an America that takes police excessive use of force seriously rather than standing with police, regardless of what they've done. That belief is foolish, of course. As we saw in Portland and as we've seen in other places at other times, crackdowns tend to lead to escalation. A policy of addressing the underlying problems and de-escalating in the moment would almost certainly lead to less violence.
Maybe Americans who think that the way to deal with civil unrest that includes violent lawbreaking is to crack heads don't amount to a majority of Americans. But Trump doesn't need the people holding that particular delusional belief to be a majority. He just needs a big enough minority to come close to winning the swing states by sabotaging the mail, intimidating voters, and then, if he still loses but it's close, making bogus claims of voter fraud.
The strategy is cynical. It's racist. And it relies on belief in the efficacy of what will very likely be a counterproductive policy. But it just might work. If it does, go long on hemlock futures.