It’s not hard to figure out what Donald Trump is up to at the moment: He’s making every effort to stir up racial tension and provoke violence after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. What’s harder to figure out is why.
Today, Trump is traveling to Kenosha, over the objections and pleas of the governor and mayor (both Democrats), who say he will only make the situation worse, which is probably the goal anyway. Yesterday, he passed up an easy chance to condemn violence on all sides—just as he’d dared Joe Biden to do, and as Biden had happily done—and defended Kyle Rittenhouse, who was charged with two murders in Kenosha last week. He denounced the Black Lives Matter movement, compared Blake’s shooting to missing a putt, and turned down a meeting with Blake’s family. For good measure, he also offered up a pair of bizarre, baseless conspiracy theories during a prime-time Fox News interview.
Perhaps Kenosha will prove a turning point for this presidential campaign, but if it does, it’s far more likely to be because it has turned voters against Trump than because it has rallied them to his support.
There’s an intuitive logic to the idea that protests, rioting, and racial tension will benefit President Trump’s reelection effort. Trump seems to thrive on chaos, and his 2016 election was driven in large part by racial resentment and fear among white voters. Therefore, ginning up white racial resentment now might be one thing—perhaps the only thing—that can save the president’s foundering campaign. A parade of pundits, generally of the center-right or moderate, Trump-skeptical variety, emerged late last week to demand that Biden denounce violence forcefully (he had, and has again since) or deliver a “Sister Souljah moment” (however misleading that shorthand is) or else risk losing the election.
There isn’t much up-to-date polling to go on so far, and the story is still developing, but Trump’s decision to stoke racial tension earlier this summer has been the one thing that has managed to shake up an otherwise very stable presidential race. The president’s impeachment, the ravages of the coronavirus, a vast economic collapse—none of these has done much to change either the dynamics of the Biden-Trump race or the president’s approval rating. The one exception came in June, amid massive, nationwide protests that followed the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks at the hands of police. Trump’s numbers tumbled, driven by voters—especially white voters—panning his handling of racial justice and the protests.
Between then and Blake’s shooting, on August 23, the protests simmered down nationwide, and the gap between Biden and Trump narrowed from more than 10 points to about six, right about where it was at the end of May, per RealClearPolitics’ average. What happened? The country’s racial division receded somewhat from focus, sharing the spotlight with other stories, and Trump avoided the topic. The fact is that voters don’t like the way the president talks about race, and the moments when his disapproval spikes are often those when he is stoking racial division, such as in June or after the violent white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Yet Trump is now determinedly forcing the national conversation back to the topic on which he fares worst. His words the past two days show why it tends to backfire. Even Americans who might be rattled by the prospect of rioting, and therefore susceptible to a more disciplined (if no less practically racist) argument from Trump, react poorly to the things he actually says when he tries to seize the moment of political opportunity.
The president has declined to even speak Jacob Blake’s name. While Biden has already spoken with Blake’s family, Trump was slow to set up a conversation, and then pulled out when the family requested that a lawyer listen in on the call. During an interview with Fox News last night, Trump compared an officer shooting Blake seven times in the back, paralyzing him, to bad luck on the links: “You know, there’s a whole big thing here, but they choke. Just like in a golf tournament, they miss a three-foot putt.” Even the sycophantic Laura Ingraham was taken aback. “You’re not comparing to golf, because, of course, that’s what the media would say,” she interjected. But of course, that was precisely what he was doing!
(Elsewhere in the same interview, Trump insisted that Biden was being controlled by “people you’ve never heard of, people that are in the dark shadows.” Once again, Ingraham tried to save him from himself: “What does that mean? That sounds like a conspiracy theory.” He also made a bizarre claim about “thugs” that matches an old, false Facebook rumor.)
Compare this with the way Trump has handled the case of Rittenhouse, the white 17-year-old charged with shooting two people in Kenosha a week ago. Earlier today, the White House press secretary tried to avoid the issue, telling reporters that the president wasn’t weighing in on it. Then Trump spoke later and not only didn’t condemn Rittenhouse’s actions, but defended him.
“He was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like,” Trump said. “I guess he was in very big trouble. He probably would have been killed.”
The gulf between Trump’s indulgent view of Rittenhouse and his swiftness in defending police prerogatives in the Blake case is enormous and easy to interpret. Partly, he loves to stir up racial tension for political gain; partly, he has long taken a dim view of Black people, especially in legal matters; and partly, he cannot bring himself to criticize anyone who has been friendly to him, whether that’s Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, or Rittenhouse, an avowed supporter of his.
This causes Trump endless problems. His campaign dared Biden to denounce violence, and though Biden had already done so, he did so once more in a speech today. “Looting is not protesting,” Biden said in Pittsburgh. “Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change; it will only bring destruction.”
Biden also took the opportunity to throw the challenge back to Trump, and asked him to condemn violence. This should have been a softball, but instead Trump took the strike looking, declining the easy swing. He refused to even acknowledge any violence by people aligned with him.
Americans aren’t blind. They can see the violence, they can see that Trump won’t condemn it, and they can see that Biden has. As the former vice president said today, “Ask yourself, do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really?”
It’s a good line. Biden doesn’t fit the type, and the ill-conceived 1994 crime bill that he shepherded—so damaging to him in the Democratic primary—may actually help inoculate him against Trump’s attacks now. Yet despite all this, Biden had to be practically dragged into talking about the protests, and has resisted calls to go to Kenosha.
Meanwhile, Trump is eagerly seizing onto an issue that seems to harm him. Even though each previous round has ended poorly for Trump, he keep doubling and tripling down on exacerbating racial tension. Maybe once he goes big enough, it will work for him. Or maybe Trump, a man who went bankrupt running a casino, just isn’t all that clever a gambler.