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The extraordinary response to the killing of George Floyd has completely dominated the national conversation over the past two weeks. Protests that started in Minneapolis and spread to cities across the country show no signs of letting up. Even if they do, the issues of police violence and civil unrest are likely to be at the center of the upcoming presidential election, which is less than five months away.
The two candidates have taken drastically different approaches in their responses to the protests. President Trump has repeatedly called on authorities to “dominate” demonstrators, going so far as to suggest invoking his authority to deploy the U.S. military in American cities. “I am your president of law and order,” Trump said in an address last week before leaving the White House to walk to a nearby church in an area that had recently been cleared of peaceful protesters by police and the National Guard.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has attempted to strike a more unifying tone, while speaking out about the need to address “systemic racism” in the country. He has visited protests in several cities and met privately with Floyd’s family in Houston on Monday. “I won’t traffic in fear and division. I won’t fan the flames of hate,” Biden said during a speech last week.
Why there’s debate
The last time the country experienced such widespread unrest was in 1968. That year’s presidential election took place during one of the most chaotic periods in American history, marked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and deadly riots in several cities. Republican Richard Nixon emphasized a return to “law and order” en route to a decisive win over Democrat Hubert Humphrey.
By echoing Nixon’s message, Trump could appeal to voters who crave a return to stability. The intense focus on police violence also draws attention away from the administration’s response to the coronavirus, which voters largely see as a failure, according to polls. The coming months may also provide the president with an opportunity to capitalize on divisions within the various wings of the Democratic Party, such as the debate over defunding the police.
Skeptics argue that an election 52 years ago shouldn’t be treated as indicative of what might happen today. Besides, Nixon in 1968 was running to replace a Democrat in the White House. It’s much more difficult for a sitting president to make the case that he’ll bring a return to normalcy when he’s been in charge the whole time, some pundits argue.
Even if a “law and order” message could be effective, Trump is the wrong candidate to capitalize on that opportunity given the upheaval he’s brought to Washington during his presidency, political analysts argue.
It’s too early to know how the ongoing unrest will affect voters come November, but early polling suggests that Trump’s response is hurting, rather than helping.
Advantage for Trump
Trump’s appeal to order could be convincing for some voters
“Trump has a new front to fight on. ... Its appeal is understandable. To the progressive minded, law and order are code words for racial intolerance. But others hear in them an echo of their desire for a life of peace and quiet.” — Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune
Biden’s history makes him a poor messenger for police reform
“Biden is a Democratic Party war horse with a record of past support for causes that have become anathema to new generations — in his case, punitive criminal justice measures such as the 1994 bill he shepherded through the Senate.” — Charles Lane, Washington Post
The focus on race relations turns attention away from the coronavirus
“The President’s play is clear. He is betting that suburban voters disgusted that he ignored the coronavirus pandemic until it was too late, will swing right as he invokes the specter of lawlessness and race riots and social turmoil.” — Stephen Collinson, CNN
Trump can blame Democratic leaders for issues in their cities
“Not unhappily for Trump, Minneapolis is a largely Democratic city in a reliably blue state. He will campaign now on the failure of Democratic state leaders to answer the needs of black voters.” — Timothy J. Lynch, Conversation
The unrest presents a huge opportunity for Trump
“That a wave of ‘race riots’ has broken out as Trump is in the throes of an existential fight to stay in power has to be looked on as a gift from heaven by many in his camp.” — Ed Kilgore, New York Magazine
Trump will have the chance to reverse opinion about his response once the protests peter out
“There are already signs that Trump’s response to this viral violence will mirror his response to COVID-19. That is, he’ll seek to exploit the tragedy for political gain, wait for the peak to pass, then claim victory.” — Steve Almond, WBUR
Advantage for Biden
The ‘law and order’ message doesn’t work for an incumbent
“I don’t buy the political analysis that any of this is going to help Trump. When Nixon ran in 68, he wasn’t president. Trump is president, and people can see the way he contributes to chaos and discord.” — Vox editor Ezra Klein
Biden is in a better position to win on a message of stability
“The president’s struggles are providing Mr. Biden with an opportunity to show an anxious nation how he might lead during these twin crises of civil unrest and a health emergency.” — Adam Nagourney, New York Times
A focus on race cast Trump in a bad light
“The more that the protests highlight the need to improve the country’s ruptured race relations ... the more it is likely to harm the president’s odds of reelection.” — Michael Tesler, Washington Post
Trump lacks the discipline to maintain a focused message
“In the end no strategy, regardless of how carefully they had worked it up or invested money in, could survive such a direct conflict with Trump’s instincts as that which was provoked by the demonstrations.” — Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine
Trump is too inflammatory to appeal to moderate voters
“Unlike any Republican president before him, Trump is risking the consequences of being openly racist. Nixon — and even, in his 1968 and 1972 presidential runs, George Wallace — at least paid lip service to the goal of racial justice. That’s because even white people who regularly said and did things harmful to Black Americans didn’t want to believe that association with a particular candidate marked them as racist.” — Rick Perlstein, Mother Jones
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