There were several striking things about this week’s mostly virtual Republican National Convention: the prominence of Black prime-time speakers; the efforts to humanize Donald Trump in an appeal to on-the-fence “character” voters; and the absence of face coverings (gasp) during events where people were standing fewer than 6 feet apart (including a surprise naturalization ceremony inside the White House).
That latter bit was particularly irksome to some commentators who seemed to prefer a masked and socially distanced Joe Biden and Kamala Harris awkwardly waving to a parking lot.
But the RNC’s choice was both pragmatic (the White House does employ rapid testing, rendering masks unnecessary, after all) and symbolic. The absence of masks suggested something about the president and his party that his detractors find even more annoying — that the coronavirus isn’t the scariest thing about living in America right now.
That didn’t mean, however, that Republicans declined to sow fear.
Indeed, fear will be a central part of Trump’s campaign strategy moving forward. His focus on rising crime rates and violent unrest in Americans cities will be relentless.
While any acknowledgment of the violence that has followed otherwise peaceful protests was conspicuously absent during the Democratic National Convention last week, it was a feature at the RNC, for good reason.
The Pew Research Center recently found that voters rank “violent crime” as very important to their vote, just below the pandemic (62% and 59%, respectively), and much higher than issues such as race and economic inequality.
And a Harvard CAPS/Harris poll from late July showed that more than three-quarters of Americans are increasingly concerned about rising crime in U.S. cities. Nearly half say they are worried about rising crime in their communities, even as several types of violent crime are down. Murder, though, has risen dramatically, year over year.
But crime statistics are almost irrelevant when cable news coverage — once plastered with scary footage of crowded hospital wards — is now replete with images of buildings looted and cities burning. Angry mobs surround and scream at unassuming diners, and throngs of people dressed in black commandeer city blocks and threatening anyone who seeks to enter.
Those images are powerful. The anxiety they arouse is real.
However you may feel about the behavior of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple charged with brandishing firearms when demonstrators threatened them on their own property, their convention remarks were compelling because they fulfilled a narrative that is increasingly easy to believe: that the continued protests are in large part responsible for the uptick violence. People worry that police will not come when they call, that governors and mayors in blue areas are afraid to reign in mobs, and that prosecutors are selectively prosecuting crimes for political reasons.
The fear of unchecked riots and violence, as CNN anchor Don Lemon put it, is “sticking” in a way that no other issue — including COVID-19 — seems to be.
“It’s showing up in the polling. It’s showing up in the focus groups,” he added. And “Democrats are ignoring this problem.”
Biden has not adopted the “defund the police” platform, but he’s done little to disabuse his base of the notion that major big-city police budget cuts would be a policy goal of his administration.
It was several days after the police-involved shooting of Jacob Blake sparked protests — and then riots — in Kenosha, Wisconsin, that Biden issued a mild condemnation of the violence that has ensued.
Ignoring the persistent riots is not a wise strategy for Democrats.
The irony, of course, is that cities are burning on Trump’s watch. But a suburban swing voter near Milwaukee or Minneapolis understands that their progressive mayors and governors failed to respond when the protests turned violent. If that continues, the fear strategy may well win Trump a second term.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.