Steven Roberts: The warning of history

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 4, 2020

By Steven V. Roberts

“I want to be very clear about all of this,” Joe Biden said in Pittsburgh this week. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

If the Democrats really want to defeat Donald Trump, that statement should be repeated, frequently and forcefully, between now and Election Day. And not just by Biden, but by everyone who supports him. If they don’t, they’re playing right into Trump’s hands and providing him a chance, probably his only chance, of reviving his campaign and winning in November.

Of course, Trump is inflaming tensions, not calming them. Of course, the turmoil he denounces is happening on his watch, not Biden’s. Of course, he’s exploiting a few isolated incidents for callous political purposes. Of course, Biden was absolutely right when he said on CNN, “These guys are rooting for violence. That is what it is all about.”

We know all that. But the goal of Trump’s opponents should be to win the election, not the argument; to be politically smart, not morally superior. And vigorously condemning lawbreakers is only the start of what Democratic strategists should be doing. They should also be telling protesters to go home, to deprive Trump of the oxygen his campaign desperately needs.

That’s what happened this week in Kenosha, the Wisconsin city Trump visited after the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, ignited waves of protest. The Washington Post reports that the Rev. Jesse Jackson shrewdly told a group of local Black activists, “Trump is coming to town to use us as a prop in his commercial to scare white people to get votes. He wants to see us and the red caps on two opposite sides. Let Trump swing in the wind.”

We know exactly what Trump’s strategy is because his senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, told us on Fox: “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order.”

As a Washington Post editorial put it, “The president’s weekend tweet storms — toxic eruptions of personal attacks, conspiracy-mongering, vicious threats and false accusation — serve his election strategy of deepening the nation’s divisions. They perfectly distill the idea of an us-vs.-them United States that he believes will galvanize his base and frighten suburban swing voters into his camp.”

Anyone who thinks that strategy cannot succeed has not consulted or comprehended history. Richard Nixon used the same language Trump now employs to demonize antiwar demonstrators and counter-culture “hippies,” creating an “us-vs.-them” dynamic — a division that pitted order against disorder, and patriotism against protest. And it worked — not only for Nixon, twice, but for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, and George Bush 41 in 1988.

There are signs that the Nixon/Trump strategy could be working again. Biden’s overall lead in national polls has dropped to an average of 6.2 points, according to RealClearPolitics, but the Democrat’s margin in battleground states is only 2.7. A Morning Consult poll found that after the GOP convention, Biden’s lead among critical suburban voters shrank from 14 points to 8 points, while Trump’s margin among whites rose from 2% to 8%.

The New York Times, no friend of Trump’s, published a report from Kenosha with this headline, “How Chaos in Kenosha Is Already Swaying Some Voters in Wisconsin.” The story quoted James Wigderson, a conservative editor who’s been critical of Trump, saying the president’s attacks on Democrats were hitting home with some voters: “Whether it’s fair or not, they see this all as one monolith: From Biden on down to the guy throwing the brick at the cop. As a result, they are more motivated not to let those people win.”

Waitress Priscella Gazda, who voted for Barack Obama in 2008, added: “I am going to vote for Trump. He seems to be more about the American people and what we need.”

The Democrats cannot allow Trump to brand them as the party of chaos. They cannot allow him to avoid the subject of COVID-19, since 63% of Americans tell ABC that they dislike Trump’s performance on that issue. Above all, they cannot repeat the mistakes of four years ago, when they went into Labor Day with a big lead and ran a smug and stumbling campaign for the next two months. If they ignore the warning of history, they could lose again.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. Email him at