How the nightly clashes on American streets benefit Trump

Demonstrators sit and kneel as tear gas fills the air during a protest Sunday in Portland.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

An eight-inch hole blown through the wall of a police precinct house in Seattle. A courthouse set on fire in Oakland and the police station vandalized. Nightly videos of demonstrators clashing violently with police. Barricades in the streets, Molotov cocktails, tear gas, slingshots.

Regardless of who you believe is most at fault, can there be any doubt that these scenes benefit President Trump’s reelection efforts?

I can already anticipate the howls of protest from my readers on the left: I’m blaming the victims. I’m not acknowledging that the worst of the violence is coming from law enforcement. Federal troops are exceeding their authority. There are just a handful of troublemakers among the overwhelmingly well-behaved protesters.

OK, maybe so. But right now, what matters most is the defeat of Donald Trump, who needs to be voted out of office before we can begin to solve this country’s problems.

The trouble is, Trump has set a brilliant trap, and it won’t be easy to end this without his reaping the benefit.

Trump first began screaming about the breakdown of law and order weeks ago during the overwhelmingly peaceful George Floyd demonstrations. He was talking about anarchists and Antifa and about a “left-wing mob” that was going to bring the “bedlam in Seattle” to every city town and suburb in the country. It was a dishonest, hyperbolic, demagogic effort to scare voters, a Nixon-like appeal to the anxieties of a silent majority.


It seemed nuts at the time, but then he exacerbated the conflict, dispatching aggressive federal troops to Portland, where they are tear-gassing demonstrators and snatching people off the streets without warrants and tossing them into unmarked cars. Protests that were dying down were reinvigorated. And news reports suggest that violence and vandalism by protesters are spreading.

“This is precisely what @realDonaldTrump and his campaign were hoping for,” said David Axelrod on Twitter. “He’s an arsonist, not a fireman. He wants to stir violent protests to fuel his ‘law and order’ campaign ads.”

I called Axelrod, who served as chief strategist to Barack Obama on the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and asked him to elaborate. Axelrod noted that while he can’t get inside Trump’s head to learn his motivations, the violent images we’re all seeing are perfectly aligned with Trump’s advertising, which paints a dystopian picture of a country overrun by lawless mobs, with Trump as the “thin blue line” between anarchy and law-and-order.

In Axelrod’s view, Trump is focusing on the violent outliers in an effort to frighten suburban voters — including “soft” Republicans, Republican-leaning independents and others who voted for him in 2016, but drifted away in 2018 — and win them back into his column.

Unsurprisingly, Trump’s campaign is already (and dishonestly) accusing Joe Biden of “siding with criminals” and aligning himself with “violent rioters.” Anarchy and chaos, Trump says, is what we should expect in “Joe Biden’s America.”

Biden needs to make it clear just how ridiculous that is.

Of course he should defend the right of Americans to protest peacefully on behalf of racial justice and he should criticize the law enforcement overreaction, including that of the uninvited federal forces.

But he must leave no doubt that he condemns violence by protesters as well.

So far, Biden — the “moderate” candidate in the primaries — has been pretty careful to remain in the mainstream of the Democratic Party. When the calls came to “defund the police,” Biden said that was going too far. He also rejected the idea that statues of the founding fathers who owned slaves ought to be torn down. Now he should condemn violent protesters, because it’s both morally correct and politically important.

The sad truth is that Trump is in a strong position: If the violence comes to an end and all the protesters go home, he can say it was his aggressive, forceful response that shut it down and saved America from anarchy. If the violence continues, well, that’s even better for him — because his fearsome narrative of societal breakdown will be easier to sell.

For the demonstrators, the goal should be to take back the protests from those whose actions undermine them. Those who truly want to fight racism and reform the police don’t need to go home. But they — and Joe Biden — need to separate themselves from the violent subset that is abetting the president in his cynical efforts to frighten Americans.