For Donald Trump's America-on-fire campaign strategy to work, he needs violence to boil in cities right up until Election Day, or at least for enough voters to believe the nation is spiraling into an abyss of chaos and savagery.
That brought the extraordinary spectacle Monday of a president -- who would by tradition call for calm at a time of civic unrest -- justifying violence by his supporters and all but excusing a pro-Trump vigilante who allegedly killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. At the same time, in the White House briefing room, he minimized police brutality against African Americans that sparked a summer of protest and agony. In a Fox News interview, the President callously compared police officers who shoot Black men in the back to professional golfers who "choke" over a three-foot putt. His word choice was particularly ugly given the death of George Floyd, who stopped breathing with a police officer's knee on his neck in Minnesota in May.
Trump's inflammatory behavior on Monday came on a day that could come to be seen as critical for the destiny of the White House after Democratic nominee Joe Biden launched a counterattack, warning no one was safe in "Trump's America" -- which he said was hobbled by disease and fear.
It also unfolded on the eve of Trump's visit to Wisconsin, which local leaders pleaded with him to cancel to avoid exacerbating tensions. Instead, the President gave every indication that he plans to use the trip to troll his critics with his claims of a nation on the edge from a platform in a key swing state.
Dismissing the notion that his appearance at a raw moment might increase violence, the President said, "it could also increase enthusiasm and it could increase love and respect for our country."
Trump's provocative appearance represents a bet that a hardline "law and order" campaign can drown out the pandemic that he has badly mismanaged, that has killed more than 180,000 Americans and on Monday crossed the 6 million mark in known infections. No one doubts that protests and violence rattled US cities from Minnesota to Wisconsin and Washington, DC, to Chicago this summer -- amid a national epiphany on race caused by the death of Floyd.
The spectacle of a "strong" President vowing no tolerance for rioters may be an attractive one to many voters. But the situation is far more complicated than the idea that left-wingers and "terrorists" who support Biden are going on the rampage. There is evidence that far-right groups and other extremists are also involved. Most protests have been peaceful and violence has often been sparked by opportunists. And even cities like Portland, Oregon, are not perpetually in flames as Trump claims. CNN law enforcement correspondent Josh Campbell, a former FBI agent, said that Trump's claim that Portland was "ablaze" was a lie. He wrote in an email to CNN reporters on Monday that he stopped at a Starbucks, had lunch from a food truck and went to a mall: "Portland is not a city under siege."
"They want to destroy our country. They're going to destroy our suburbs," he said during an appearance in the White House briefing room mislabeled as a "news conference," not even bothering to hide his goal to scare voters in affluent White areas around swing state cities into believing that Biden would bring political unrest that would shake America to its foundations.
In his Fox News interview with Laura Ingraham, which at times verged on unscripted paranoia, Trump also claimed without evidence that "thugs" wearing "black uniforms with gear" got on a plane from a "certain city" and headed to the Republican National Convention last week. He refused to give details, claiming the case was under investigation.
Distracting from the pandemic
Trump's day of fury reflects how he has now firmly settled on a campaign of demagoguery to save his presidency.
In a characteristic piece of projection, he accused Biden -- who earlier condemned violence from all sources -- of using Mafia talking points and Democrats of stirring disorder with "dangerous rhetoric."
On Tuesday he portrayed protests at the White House after his convention speech on Thursday night -- in which Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and his wife were harassed -- as if they were among the most flagrant examples of disorder in modern US history.
"It was a terrible, terrible thing to witness," Trump said. His alarmism was expressed in a rant that resembled a highlight reel of conservative media buzz words and conspiracy theories including "radicals," "maniacs," "Antifa," "looters," "arsonists" and "fascism."
In a classic authoritarian tactic, Trump also vastly over stated the extent of lawlessness and political violence, then promoted himself as the kind of strongman needed to restore order. And he tipped his hand over his new campaign tactic by opening his appearance with a boast about the stock market and a perfunctory mention of the pandemic that brought the country to its knees. Then it was on to his real topic: "left-wing political violence."
In one sense, Trump's gambit has already succeeded. He has moved the ground of the election away from the Covid-19 crisis and the multiple political corruption scandals that have clouded his term from day one. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, however, made an attempt to wrest the conversation back to Covid-19, using an interview on MSNBC to accuse the President of saying to Americans "choose me over your child" as some kids go back to school without the testing infrastructure and needed safety precautions.
On Monday, Biden left his campaign-from-home bubble in Delaware to travel to Pittsburgh to parry Trump's attacks amid increasing nervousness among Democrats that the President's hardline approach could lift him back into a race in which he is trailing.
The Democratic nominee pointed out the flawed logic behind Trump's approach, given that the unrest hitting cities in Minnesota, Oregon and Wisconsin is unfolding, after all, on the President's watch.
"The violence you're seeing in Donald Trump's America. These are not images from some imagined 'Joe Biden's America' in the future. These are images from Donald Trump's America today," Biden said.
In a sign that he intends to maintain his aggressive push back -- and that he has no intention of being "swift boated" as happened to 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry -- Biden's team said that he hoped to travel to Kenosha soon.
How Kenosha frames the stakes in the election
Biden also used his speech to move beyond the issue of violence in cities in an attempt to frustrate the President's effort to make law and order the key issue in the election. While accusing Trump of "rooting for chaos and violence," Biden said Trump's failings on the pandemic, on foreign policy and even on Social Security had made Americans much more vulnerable.
"Do you feel safer and more secure now?" Biden asked in a repeating refrain.
A Biden trip to Wisconsin would bookend Trump's own visit to the Badger State. The White House has said that it has tried to make contact with the family of Jacob Blake, the Black man shot seven times in the back by police in an incident that triggered unrest last week. Blake is still in hospital and local police have offered few explanations for the incident. The fact Trump and the family have not connected appears to indicate there is no desire to meet the President. Biden and his running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, have spoken at length with Blake's family over the telephone.
The President plans to meet law enforcement officers in Kenosha and to survey damage from nights of unrest. He is claiming he ordered National Guard troops into the city to quell rioting and restore order. But in reality, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers had already activated the troops before Trump called for their intervention.
The political controversy over Kenosha is turning into a microcosm of the election in one of the most hotly contested districts in one of the most contested states.
Biden, who on Sunday condemned the killing of a Trump supporter in clashes in Portland, sought to capitalize on Trump's news conference, in which he defended supporters for shooting paint balls at protesters in the city.
"Once again, I urge the President to join me in saying that while peaceful protest is a right -- a necessity -- violence is wrong, period. No matter who does it, no matter what political affiliation they have. Period," Biden said in a statement.
"If Donald Trump can't say that, then he is unfit to be President, and his preference for more violence -- not less -- is clear."