As fireworks soared over the National Mall and the Republican Convention ended, contrasting scenes on the two sides of the White House South Lawn fence exemplified the rival calculations Joe Biden and Donald Trump are making to win the 2020 election.
On the inside, the presence of more than 1,500 Trump supporters, most without masks or social distancing, illustrated Biden’s argument that the president is jeopardizing the nation’s health by refusing to take seriously the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the outside, the presence of several hundred protesters, some harassing departing guests including Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, underscored Trump’s warnings that the failure of Democratic-run cities to prevent violence foreshadows what will happen under a Biden presidency.
Until now, the Democratic nominee has maintained a steady lead, in large part by keeping the focus on the president’s failure to stem the pandemic that, so far, has infected more than 6 million Americans, causing 185,000 deaths and a recession that has left 13 million jobless.
But a combination of renewed riots in several cities, the stress at Trump’s convention on “law and order” and some slippage in Biden’s lead prompted the former vice president this week to respond to the issue that Trump hopes can close the gap.
“Does anyone believe there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is reelected?” Biden asked Monday in a Pittsburgh speech, declaring that, despite his promises of “law and order,” Trump “can’t stop the violence — because for years he has fomented it.”
He linked his criticism to the president’s mishandling of the pandemic, declaring, “Donald Trump failed to protect America. Now he’s trying to scare America.”
In the speech and a subsequent television ad Biden presented a carefully balanced view, condemning all sorts of violence, supporting the right to protest and praising the police. But that didn’t stop Trump from inaccurately accusing him of only criticizing “those on the right” and contending his Democratic rival and the rioters are “both on the side of the radical left.”
On Tuesday, though uninvited by local officials, Trump went to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where demonstrations and violence erupted after a white police officer fired seven bullets into a Black suspect, Jacob Blake. The president said he sees no difference between peaceful protests for racial justice and the looting and fire-bombing that has sometimes followed.
“Reckless, far-left politicians continue to push the destructive message that our nation and our law enforcement are oppressive or racist,” Trump told a community forum. Asked if “systematic racism” is a problem, he replied that the real issue is “tremendous violence.”
“That’s what you should be focusing on,” he told the reporter asking the question.
Trump’s campaign is betting that the urban violence in the wake of this summer’s widespread, mainly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests against racial injustice will help to stir fear among suburban swing voters, who polls show have been drifting away from their 2016 support of him.
In fact, one top White House adviser, Kellyanne Conway, essentially said so in a recent “Fox and Friends” interview, declaring, “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”
Biden’s response suggested he thinks she may be right, though the politics of the issue seem somewhat blurred. A pre-convention Fox News poll gave Biden an advantage on police and criminal justice issues, but an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll gave Trump the edge on crime. Both gave Biden a substantial lead in dealing with race relations.
An early August Marquette Law School Poll in Wisconsin, before Blake’s shooting, showed initial strong support for the protests has dissipated, and a slight plurality of whites now disapproves of them. And a post-convention Morning Consult poll showed Biden’s lead among suburban voters had dropped by nearly one-half.
The Democratic nominee’s speech came after Trump sought to blame disorders in Kenosha, Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., on Biden and the Democrats.
“Just look at Joe Biden’s supporters on the streets screaming and shouting at bystanders with unhinged, manic rage,” he told the a rally on Aug. 28 in New Hampshire. “They are not protesters. Those are anarchists, agitators, rioters, looters. Look at what happened in New York, look what happened in Chicago. All Democrats. All radical left Democrats.”
While confining his criticism to perpetrators of violence and local Democratic officials, Trump defended his own supporters, even when they contributed to the problem.
He described a motorcade of supporters who invaded downtown Portland last weekend and fired pepper spray and paintball guns at street protesters as “a peaceful protest,” noting the other side had guns, one of which killed a pro-Trump demonstrator. And he refused to criticize a 17-year-old Trump supporter who killed two people in Kenosha.
Biden, meanwhile, sought Wednesday to return the debate to the impact of the virus, this time on preventing normal school openings, before making his own visit to Kenosha on Thursday.
In the end, this week’s skirmishing may seem like the preliminaries on a boxing card. The main events, the three presidential debates, are nearly a month away.