We can also stipulate something relatively noncontroversial: The president of the United States is, as of writing, Donald J. Trump.
In other words, the violence that has occurred has occurred with Trump in the White House. Which makes it quite hard for Trump to argue that the United States must reelect him in November so that he can constrain the violence. If it unconstrained currently, and he is president currently, and it’s not clear how his being in the White House necessarily makes things better.
If we take Trump’s frequent argument at face value, he believes that Democrats embrace violence because they think it hurts him politically. That is, that Democratic mayors and governors allow people to set buildings on fire because this reflects negatively on Trump. (We can also stipulate, by the way, that these cities are generally run by Democrats, in large part because most cities are.)
By itself, this also is not a very compelling election pitch: Why wouldn’t Democratic mayors and governors continue to allow this violence if Trump won in November?
The assertion being made depends both upon the idea that Democratic mayors and governors have control over the situation that Trump doesn’t and that they are sufficiently indifferent to their constituents and their own political careers that they figure a few destroyed business districts are worth it to harm Trump. If those are the case now, why would they change next year? Both of those ideas also conflict with claims Trump and his team have asserted: Trump’s past insistences that the president (when it was Barack Obama) was too weak to shut down acts of violence and White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s apparent acknowledgment last week that acts of violence aid the incumbent.
Asked whether Trump was “rooting” for more violence Monday, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that he wasn’t, and that “no one wants to see the violence that we’ve seen in our cities.” It is nonetheless the case that Trump and his campaign have repeatedly tried to use violent incidents as an indictment of Biden. It was a central theme of the Republican convention last week, with multiple people facing criminal investigations or charges alleging that Biden would be soft on crime.
In several recent tweets, Trump has said that Biden is accepting crime broadly because it’s necessary for his holding support from voters on the far left, including those who backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primary. If Biden goes soft on crime, Trump said Sunday, those voters would vote for Trump because of his position on trade.
So in other words, Sanders supporters vote mostly on trade but, more importantly, on the ability to get away with crime.
The most generous way of interpreting Trump’s position is that Democrats, including his general election opponent Joe Biden, are wary of criticizing protesters because those protesters support Biden and Democrats more broadly. Black Lives Matter protests are supported widely be Democrats and by Black voters in particular, so it’s true that a Democratic mayor might be less willing to deploy police or the National Guard to crack down on a protest that didn’t include looting and arson. They may be more willing to find a compromise that acknowledges the protesters’ anger, instead of simply dismissing them all as “thugs,” as Trump did last week in New Hampshire.
This sets up an obvious middle line: Support the protests and condemn the violence. So that’s what Biden’s done, repeatedly, with Trump and his allies often later claiming either that Biden never condemned the violence or that he didn’t condemn it in the right way.
Speaking in Pittsburgh on Monday, Biden condemned criminal acts that have occurred: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawless. It’s plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.” In short order, the Trump campaign criticized him for not condemning “the left-wing mobs burning, looting, and terrorizing American cities,” for failing to “condemn Antifa” — a loosely organized group that’s emerged as a favorite boogeyman for Trump — and for not speaking out about other cherry-picked examples of purported pro-crime rhetoric.
This is just bad-faith goalpost-moving, as bad faith as the Trump campaign’s excerpting Biden quoting Trump and presenting them as Biden’s own words. Insisting that Biden answer for any of a spate of comments serves to elevate the allegations and to impugn Biden — but it also hopes to suggest that Biden has some ownership over antifa, some need to criticize those to whom he bears some sort of purported loyalty.
It’s also ironic, given the White House’s disinterest in condemning actions taken by people who are demonstrably Trump supporters or specifically acting in support of him. It was less than two weeks ago that Trump was asked to denounce QAnon, a movement that is explicitly centered on Trump as a heroic figure and which was included in an FBI warning about domestic terrorism. Trump played coy.
On Monday, McEnany was asked whether Trump would criticize Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who allegedly shot two protesters to death in Kenosha, Wis. McEnany said that Trump didn’t want to “weigh in” on it. Asked why Trump liked a tweet promoting a series of claims defending Rittenhouse, McEnany said that the president “just wanted to bring some attention to some of the details that aren’t as well known in that case” — details that would apparently be considered exculpatory for Rittenhouse.
Rittenhouse attended a Trump rally in January.
McEnany was less circumspect when it came to the shooting death of Aaron Danielson in Portland over the weekend. In that situation, she said, “an antifa individual took the life of an innocent Trump supporter” — an allegation she offered without qualification. Trump also retweeted a tweet blaming antifa for Danielson’s death.
All of this derives from one central tension: Violence is occurring while Trump is president. As with everything else, Trump insists it’s not his fault, just as the faltering economy is the pandemic’s fault and just as the pandemic is China’s fault. Since it’s not his fault, it has to be someone else’s, and it’s useful to say that the fault lies with Biden and the Democrats.
Again, no one argues that violent acts have occurred. Where disputes arise is in scale: Trump and boosters such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson often conflate violence and protests broadly, while Democrats draw distinctions. Disputes also arise in regards to culpability. Trump claims that there’s nothing he can do about the violence and a lot that Biden can, so the president argues that he should be reelected so that he can do something about it while Biden wouldn’t.
That position seems somewhat untenable.