Election 2020

The October Surprise Is Already Here

A new upsurge of racial unrest during the RNC could define Trump’s 2020 campaign.

U.S. President Donald Trump
A screen displays a video of U.S. President Donald Trump as he delivers his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination on the South Lawn of the White House on Aug. 27. Alex Wong/Getty Images

During the four days of the Republican National Convention, U.S. President Donald Trump and his supporters cast about wildly for new ways to knock down his opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who is consistently leading in the polls. And finally they found one, banking on the latest upsurge in protests against racial injustice and violence in response to yet another police shooting of a Black American, which occurred the same week as the RNC. 

Their message is: If you think America’s a dangerous place now, just wait until Biden becomes president. “No one would be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump said in his acceptance speech Thursday night as he praised the nation’s law enforcement officers, saying “we have to give [them] back their power” and “we can never allow mob rule” in “Democrat-run” American cities.

Your vote will decide whether we protect law-abiding Americans, or whether we give free rein to violent anarchists and agitators and criminals who threaten our citizens, Trump said in his speech on the White House grounds. Make no mistake. If you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will defund police departments, all across America. They will pass federal legislation to reduce law enforcement nationwide. They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon, where Black Lives Matter protests have snarled the city for weeks.

Vice President Mike Pence hit the same theme hard the night before, seeking to define Biden as a frightening choice for voters on Nov. 3. “Joe Biden would double down on the very policies that are leading to unsafe streets and violence in America’s cities,” Pence said on the third night of the convention, and he too repeated the new Republican mantra: “The hard truth is, you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”

The timing of the protests and violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin—a key battleground state—don’t quite add up yet to an “October surprise,” the unforeseen twist of events that some desperate presidents try to introduce as a losing election comes down to its final months. But for Trump, the latest violence in an American city appears to have arrived like a malign gift from the political gods. After a week in which he began his convention by giving prime time to Patricia and Mark McCloskey, the gun-wielding St. Louis couple who took aim at Black Lives Matter protesters in late June—and called the demonstrators “Marxist liberal activists” and “criminals” in their speech on Monday—the new protests engulfing an American city are encouraging Trump in his ongoing effort to paint Biden as a leftist who would only promote further violence. Biden’s policies are “the most extreme” of any major party nominee ever, Trump said in his acceptance speech, even though in fact the former vice president has laid out a mostly moderate platform, repeatedly condemned violence in the cities, and does not support defunding the police. 

Trump blamed America’s current problems, including the nation’s pandemic-induced economic distress, on “the last 47 years” that the Delaware Democrat was a U.S. senator and vice president, although Biden’s been out of power and it’s Trump who’s been in charge for the last four years. 

Speaker after speaker at the RNC, including Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., declared that the centrist Biden has been captured by Sen. Bernie Sanders, his chief rival in the primaries, and his “radical left-wing” politics, which the Republicans suggest is encouraging violence in America’s largely Democrat-run cities. Biden himself said plainly that it’s clear Trump thinks he can ride the latest unrest to reelection. “He’s rooting for more violence, not less,” Biden told MSNBC. 

One of Trump’s chief advisors, outgoing strategist Kellyanne Conway, suggested that Biden’s analysis was correct. “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,” she said Thursday on Fox News. Since the George Floyd protests earlier this summer, Trump has lumped together anti-racism protesters and rioters, sending federal agents to several protest-wracked cities. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers had accepted his offer to send federal law enforcement into Kenosha. “These are Democratically led cities and most with Democratic governors,” Conway said. “It’s not Donald Trump’s watch.”

Never mind that the unresolved tensions between minority communities and law enforcement throughout the nation have worsened on Trump’s watch as president, especially since Floyd’s killing in late May, or that the president has been widely criticized for his slow and hesitant response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 180,000 Americans dead so far, representing a disproportionate 22 percent of the total number of global deaths. Trump is now placing himself as the lone barrier to more death and chaos.

Key RNC speakers on Thursday such as Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, also hammered away at the law-and-order theme. The Democrats, McConnell said, “want to defund the police and take away your Second Amendment rights.” Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani demonized the Black Lives Matter movement, saying “all lives matter” and the violence in American cities is a “vision of the future under Biden.” A vote for the Democrat, Giuliani said, “creates the risk you will bring this lawlessness into your city, into your town, into your suburb.”

Some Democrats are skittish about Bidens vulnerability to the new tack, and whether Trump is doing a better job of defining his opponent rather than the other way around. “It could work if the protests remain violent and destructive and Trump’s mendacity penetrates deeply enough,” said Matt Bennett of the Third Way, a center-left think tank. “The Trump team is simply lying about Biden’s (very appropriate) response to Kenosha, and it might be tough for the truth to catch up to the lie. If voters in swing states believe Trump’s nonsense about Democrats being too close to Antifa [a militant anti-fascist movement] to stop the violence, that could have an impact.”

Biden himself was having none of it. “Is Donald Trump even aware he’s president?” Biden said in a statement Thursday. “These are not images from some imagined ‘Joe Biden’s America’ in the future. These are images from Donald Trump’s America today. The violence we’re witnessing is happening under Donald Trump. Not me. It’s getting worse, and we know why.” 

Some political experts like Bennett say Biden’s response will resonate with a lot of voters: “The problem for Trump is that he is an incumbent, not a challenger (like Nixon in 1968). And someone who ran claiming ‘I alone can fix it’ could have a tough time claiming that violence on his watch would be worse under his opponent’s.” Trump is especially focused on winning over suburban women, but Bennett said based on focus groups and polling “women don’t think Trump is the solution to unrest like this—they think he’s the cause of it.”

Even so, he said, “This will be a real test for the Biden campaign. It is very hard to battle against an opponent who makes things up out of whole cloth, as John Kerry discovered with the Swift Boaters” who unfairly attacked his Vietnam War record in the 2004 election. Under Trump, the Republican Party has not even bothered to adopt a different platform from 2016, as if he were still running as a challenger, not an incumbent.

The incident in Kenosha, in which Jacob Blake, a Black father, was shot seven times in the back as he fled police and tried to get back into his car where his children were sitting, has reopened ugly and unresolved tensions that have simmered since Floyd was suffocated to death on video by a police officer in Minneapolis in May. And while Trump sought to widen his appeal to Black and Latino Americans during the convention—with several giving speeches supporting him—his campaign appears to be mainly resolving itself around the fear factor in white America. 

Most of the Kenosha protests have been peaceful, and the highest-profile incident of violence has come from the other side: On the third night of demonstrations, a 17-year-old white boy who claimed he was there to guard buildings allegedly fired on protesters with a semi-automatic rifle, killing two and seriously injuring a third. Some right-wing commentators such as Tucker Carlson of Fox News later appeared to praise the suspect, Kyle Rittenhouse. “Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?” Carlson said on his show on Wednesday night. “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”

The boy was said to be a Trump supporter and an admirer of police officers, and he had earlier posted a Facebook photo of himself with the “Blue Lives Matter” logo. Right-wing Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar called Rittenhouse’s actions “100% justified self defense” in a tweet, and a former major league baseball player, Aubrey Huff of the Baltimore Orioles, tweeted that “#KyleRittenhouse is a national treasure.” He later deleted the tweet. 

Correction, Aug. 28, 2020: The gun-wielding St. Louis couple who took aim at Black Lives Matter protesters in late June are Mark and Patricia McCloskey. A previous version of this article contained a misspelling of their surname.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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