If the protesters swarming the streets of Portland, Oregon, and other cities really want to defeat President Trump, they might want to consider this suggestion: Go home.
By continuing their demonstrations, by confronting the federal forces Trump has sent to “dominate” them, they are giving him a gift-wrapped political present: a campaign issue that could fragment and frighten voters while shifting their focus away from Trump’s monumental failure to handle the country’s most pressing problem — the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m furious that Oakland may have played right into Donald Trump’s twisted campaign strategy,” that city’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, told The New York Times. “Images of a vandalized downtown is exactly what he wants to whip up his base and to potentially justify sending in federal troops that will only incite more unrest.”
The Washington Post editorial page sounded a similar alarm, calling Trump “a master of distraction and misdirection” who has gleefully and gratefully “seized on the disorder in Portland to deflect attention from the pandemic and to exploit the country’s deepening tribal divisions, which have served his political purposes so well.”
The outpouring of outrage that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman highlighted the endemic racism that still pervades American society and the officially sanctioned violence many Black people face every day.
But that vital cause is in danger of being undermined. Agitators from the left and the right seem determined to hijack peaceful demonstrations. Defacing a federal building in Portland, smashing a Starbucks in Seattle or burning a dump truck in Richmond do not contribute to the goal of racial justice. Those actions do, however, add ammunition to Trump’s campaign arsenal.
E.D. Mondaine, the president of Portland’s NAACP branch, wrote in the Post that “the president and his allies want spectacle ... What is happening in Portland is the fuse of a great racist backlash that the Trump administration is baiting us to light. We cannot fall for that deception.”
The protesters are clearly winning the moral argument against Trump and his troopers. Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is correct in calling the president’s actions “a deliberate effort to provoke.” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is justified in branding his campaign to squash dissent “textbook despotism.”
But the election is less than 100 days away. What’s the value of winning the moral argument while losing the political argument and giving Trump four more years in power?
And make no mistake, Trump is doing everything possible to foment that backlash against Democrat Joe Biden that Mondaine warns about. The New York Times reports that in the last three weeks, the Trump campaign has spent almost $20 million on campaign ads that employ “exaggerated images intended to persuade viewers that lawless anarchy could prevail if Mr. Biden won the presidency.”
No matter how low Trump sinks in the polls, he has a huge war chest and a vast social media network primed and ready to spread his insidious message. As Democratic strategist Pia Carusone put it, the president’s aim is to “scare the living hell” out of white voters, especially seniors and suburbanites.
Those of us old enough to remember 1968 know enough to take Trump’s game plan seriously. Richard Nixon used the identical slogan Trump now employs — “law and order” — to demonize antiwar demonstrators, counter-culture “hippies” and “uppity” minorities while praising patriotic “hard hats” who battled the “lawless anarchy” of his enemies.
Nixon was probably the least likeable politician of his age, and yet he won the White House — twice — using the same approach Trump is now adopting, and ushered in a generation of Republican domination.
America is a very different country today than it was 52 years ago. The legacy of Rep. John Lewis — who helped spur the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and then spent 34 years in Congress before his recent death — testifies to those changes, and to the rising power of nonwhite voters, who now comprise about 30% of the electorate.
But remember: The Voting Rights Act also helped drive the South into Republican hands. And in 2013, a Supreme Court dominated by Republican-nominated justices gutted the measure that Lewis and many others fought so hard to enact. And the same country that elected its first president of color also elected Trump to succeed him.
The president might be trailing badly right now, but he remains a very shrewd and totally unscrupulous candidate. Protesters who take his bait and stay in the streets could be giving him a chance — perhaps his only chance — to revive his floundering campaign.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.