Since it is considered uncouth to campaign for president on the basis of open lust for power, the premise of every presidential campaign is its candidate’s benefit to the country. He tells voters he’ll improve their lives, fix their government, and build an America they can be proud to call home. His opponent, he warns, will do none of these things, which is exactly why voters should support him at the polls.
President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden have both followed that script this election cycle, but somehow their lines aren’t landing as in years past. Where they’d normally hear a promise — maybe a disingenuous or empty promise, but a promise nonetheless — Americans are hearing this very standard campaign messaging as a threat. The music has shifted into a minor key, the politician’s grin become the extortionist’s leer.
“Causing riots then telling people you’re the only person who can prevent riots sounds like a Mafia protection scam,” an image on the front page of Reddit this week said, and the comments filled with debate over its ambiguity. “I can’t tell if this post is making fun of the Democrats or the Republicans,” one user replied. “I can come up with ways this meme can be interpreted in either direction.”
So can I, but I don’t have to, because the charge is already being hurled both ways. A Monday tweet from Biden asking whether anyone really believes Trump’s re-election will lead to “less violence in America” was promptly met with accusations of “extortion” and “blackmail” from prominent right-wing voices. “Biden literally threatening violence if Trump is re-elected,” claimed a representative post. (He literally was not.)
The extortion charge isn’t quite as explicit when directed at Trump, but the substance is nearly the same. Biden himself has said Trump is “rooting for more violence, not less” because it is a “political benefit” for him. Washington Post columnist Max Boot, who supports Biden, wrote this week that Trump is “fomenting violence” for electoral gain. “Trump’s entire pitch,” tweeted a popular gaming streamer, “is that Black people and antifa are going to burn cities and suburbs to the ground if he doesn’t win.”
A superficial explanation of unusual crises and growing polarization doesn’t seem adequate here. That’s necessary, perhaps, but not sufficient to produce allegations that major-party candidates are inciting public violence to extort votes in a brazen political protection racket. I can’t recall any recent election (not even the 2004 race, in the near aftermath of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq) featuring widespread worry that a candidate — let alone both! — was thus coercing Americans’ support. But this time we have exactly that.
If there’s daylight between the right and left variants of the extortion charge, it’s this: Republicans accusing Biden seem to think he’ll call off the riots to secure his position once he wins. (In some versions of the story, the “plandemic” will be called off, too.) Democrats have no such rosy expectation; they anticipate a second-term Trump continuing to encourage violence by his more militant supporters and the shadowy federal law enforcement squads he has deployed to several cities.
Those squads are worth noticing, because they’re the main way the president has direct influence over the violence in question. In our federalist system, most criminal justice matters — riot suppression and reform alike — are addressed at the state and local levels. As Trump himself likes to mention in partisan swipes, the mayors and governors of places where rioting has occurred this summer are far more responsible than any president for how that violence is handled. They’re the ones who decide whether and when to call in the National Guard, to abandon or protect municipal buildings or statues, to have police actively guard local businesses or cede the territory until dawn. (Voters most concerned about mob violence arguably should turn their attention to who’s running for these offices closer to home instead of focusing on the presidency.)
Of course, such direct influence isn’t all extortion accusers have in mind. Allegations from the right often imagine someone — the Biden campaign? George Soros? The QAnon-theorized cabal? — actually organizing and paying for violence: hiring rioters, transporting them to urban centers, putting them up in hotels. Multiple members of Congress have made this allegation, which is conveniently impossible to disprove.
From the left the allegation is more nebulous. It’s more about an atmosphere of normalized violence, a legitimization effort that trickles from the Oval Office down to elected officials and law enforcement officers at every level. It’s Trump’s rhetoric at least as much as policy, the bully pulpit of the presidency more than its formal power.
That rhetorical authority is the seat of Trump’s strength. But its century-long rise in importance, made possible by mass media, is bigger than any one president, Trump included. But Trump, with his constant tweets and ravening hunger for media attention, has used the bully pulpit in unprecedented ways and further escalated its importance in a manner I worry is irreversible. The way we now expect the president to be involved in everything — to weigh in on every issue (even those over which he has no real control), to offer comment on each tragedy in national headlines, to constantly provide some new stance or slogan for his supporters to champion and his opponents to decry — is what makes these extortion fears seem viable.
This year is different because a presidency which thus has a hand in ever more aspects of our national life makes plausible, for many Americans, presidential candidates who could extort a nation.