Why Trump is betting his political life against Black Lives Matter protests

Flames engulf the Community Corrections Division building as an American flag flutters on a pole in Kenosha, W

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Flames engulf the Community Corrections Division building as an American flag flutters on a pole in Kenosha, Wis., on Monday. (Stephen Maturen/Reuters)

The notion of an incumbent U.S. president running as the law-and-order candidate might appear fanciful in a year of surging homicide, fiery protest, looting, and gun-wielding vigilantism.

But Donald Trump is giving it a shot.

Trump will, tonight, address a Republican convention that has made clear the extent to which he sees the chaotic streets as a path to his re-election.

His bet is essentially the same he's been making since May: that, eventually, disorder will send voters into the arms of the candidate who enthusiastically embraces police.

"We will always stand with those who stand on the thin blue line and we're not going to defund the police — not now, not ever," Vice-President Mike Pence said Wednesday night in a preview of the president's message.

The message hasn't worked yet for a variety of reasons, including the growing diversity of suburbs. Yet recent polling suggests law-and-order is gaining traction as an election topic. 

Why would it work for him now?

A Pew study finds violent crime as an increasing concern on voters' minds — and that it's now nearly as important as the coronavirus, and even more important than immigration, racial equality and foreign policy.

Another shows Trump getting slightly higher marks on crime than his rival Joe Biden, and says respondents are more worried about protesters' behaviour than officers' conduct. 

Others show sky-high support for local police departments, and low approval for defunding the police: a mere 19 per cent of Black American respondents told Gallup they want less police presence in their area.

Vice-President Mike Pence draws a sharp contrast between Republicans and Democrats, saying Democratic leaders are allowing lawlessness to prevail in cities from coast to coast. 36:33

Speaker, after speaker, after speaker at this week's convention made clear it's a core part of the Republican re-election strategy.

Acts of police heroism were repeatedly flagged and the occasional few words in support of legitimate protest were drowned in denunciations of protest violence.

The party could have emphasized its own effort at police reform, had it wanted to. 

Burned-out vehicles are seen this week after fiery demonstrations in Kenosha, Wis. (Morry Gash/AP)

One convention speaker, Tim Scott, an African American senator, actually crafted a wide-ranging reform bill — a bill Democrats rejected — but he spent one single sentence discussing it in his convention speech.

Trying to tie Biden to 'defund' movement

Instead, the Republicans spent the week trying to tie Biden to unpopular opinions. 

Pence accused Biden of wanting to defund the police — that's not his position — and suggested the septuagenarian centrist was a threat to every American's personal safety. 

On Wednesday alone, the governor of South Dakota declared the American republic imperilled by mob violence; a national police-unions group made an unusual appearance at a party convention; a retired football player running for Congress decried left-wing mobs; and a young candidate for Congress, who uses a wheelchair, struggled out of that chair to stand and excoriate pro athletes who won't stand for the national anthem.

Meanwhile, outside the convention, all professional basketball games were cancelled Wednesday in an act of protest across the continent.

This after a Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back by officers — leading to protests, the torching of businesses, and deaths.

An alleged rifle-toting teenager, who praised police and reportedly sat in the front row of a Trump rally this year, was arrested after two protesters were shot and killed.

What's causing a murder spike?

It's already been a bloodier than normal year in American cities, with eye-popping increases in the murder rate this year in several U.S. cities, including Chicago, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

One well-known U.S. criminologist found a 37 per cent spike in homicides in June in 27 large U.S. cities he studied.

Richard Rosenfeld, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, and former president of the American Society of Criminology, can't say conclusively yet what's driving the trendline but he has a theory.

Call it a double-whammy of disease and distrust. 

Homicides have surged in U.S. cities. (CBC News)

Rosenfeld suspects the trendline started during the pandemic, with numerous police officers sickened or forced to socially distance.

Then he believes the public anger following the killing of George Floyd damaged trust between Black communities and police, and resulted in fewer tips from the public to law enforcement.

"Already tense relationships … become even more tense," Rosenfeld said in an interview. "People are even less likely to report a crime to the police. … There's every indication that, in city after city, communities are pulling back … 

"The perception is, 'Nobody's going to call the cops.'" 

He said two developments would help reduce the murder rate: the end of the pandemic, and reforms to policing that re-establish community trust.

How will all this affect the U.S. presidential election?

Jodi Lane, who studies fear of crime in the criminology department at the University of Florida, believes that in this polarized age it simply reinforces pre-existing opinions on the election, and the issues of race, crime, and the candidates.

"I think people are just solidifying their views, rather than opening their minds," she said.

"My sense [is] … people [are] not listening very well."

The effect on voters

There's some discussion in the punditry about whether more focus on policing issues could help Trump, as the kind of cultural hot-button issue that might drive turnout — and stir those politically disengaged, yet Trump-leaning, people who did not vote in 2016 to cast ballots for him in 2020.

There's also been impassioned debate on the left about the boundaries of legitimate protest against racial injustice and what should be off-limits. 

Flares go off in front of a Kenosha Country Sheriff Vehicle on Tuesday. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

One data analyst for a progressive organization was fired after tweeting about a study suggesting violent protest hurt progressives.

What that paper from Princeton University researcher Omar Wasow concluded: peaceful civil rights protests in the 1960s increased Democrats' support by 1.6 to 2.5 per cent, while violent protests caused counties to shift 1.5 to 7.9 per cent shift toward Republicans and handed the 1968 presidential election to Richard Nixon.

Of note: When Nixon ran as the candidate promising to restore law and order, he was the challenger, not the person sitting in the White House.

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