October 22, 2020

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What Is the Political Fallout of the Riots?

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Editor’s note: In this Future View, students discuss the how the riots in U.S. cities will play out politically. Next week we’ll ask, “Has the shift toward online classes made you consider how much tuition is worth? Why or why not?” Students should click here to submit opinions of fewer than 250 words before Sept. 15. The best responses will be published that night.

The Riots Loom Larger

Right after the killing of George Floyd, the left could get away with all but ignoring the riots. In the view of many progressives, there was a bigger movement going on, a national reckoning. Whatever disorder came with it was a nuisance that should never be allowed to distract from the real issue. The right, on the other hand, was quick to condemn the violence taking place in cities across the U.S. This fed the public perception that Republicans were too focused on the riots and not sympathetic enough to the causes of racial justice and police reform. People knew riots were taking place, but many seemed to think that the right was overdramatizing how dangerous and prevalent the violence was. The left had the edge.

Well, here we are, months later, and riots are still raging in some American cities. More voters now view the violence as a serious issue in the coming election. Only now are Democrats scrambling to acknowledge them, yet they still don’t seem to oppose the riots very strongly. And why would they? A lot of the rioters probably vote for them—certainly more than vote Republican. The picture doesn’t look so good for the Democrats anymore.

—Thomas Wolfson, University of Maryland, College Park, journalism and history

Law and Order Made This Mess

While conventional wisdom holds that President Trump will benefit from the current riots by promising that only he, the “law-and-order candidate,” can restore calm, it cannot be overlooked that the social unrest is happening on his watch. Further, the president’s approach—sending in federal law enforcement, siding with vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse, and claiming the problem lies only with a few bad apples on the police force—has inflamed the tension.

It is important to remember that the riots were originally sparked by the murder of George Floyd—a heart-wrenching event, captured on video, that shook a wide section of the population to its core. Every subsequent use of excessive force by police against black people is now viewed through the lens of that crime and the long history of racial injustice in the U.S.

The candidate who stands to gain the most from this unrest is the one who addresses systemic issues of racial injustice. Since the problem here is that law and order is imposed unjustly, it can’t be fixed with more of the same. It calls for thorough reform of the police and the criminal-justice system. If Joe Biden can make that point to the public convincingly, he stands to benefit.

—Nora Fellas, Vanderbilt University, English and communications studies

More Police, More Guns

The record shows that when crime is on the electorate’s mind, the right side of the political spectrum does better. A silent majority propelled Richard Nixon to victory in 1968 as Hubert Humphrey suffered from the fallout of that year’s civil unrest. Two decades later, Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush in large part because voters saw him as weak on crime. Bill Clinton learned from the shortcomings of past Democratic nominees and was twice elected in the 1990s on a strong law-and-order platform. Though crime rates have fallen dramatically since then, the lawlessness that has lately engulfed U.S. cities will again make the issue salient in November.

President Trump has tried to burnish his tough-on-crime credentials by sending in federal law-enforcement officers to troubled cities and disparaging the Democratic mayors who run them. We’ll see if those methods work. Meanwhile, Team Biden has scrambled to save face after the Democratic National Convention’s failure to address rioting didn’t go over well in the polls. Still, Mr. Biden won’t be able to talk the talk on crime without upsetting an activist base more invested in wokeness than safe streets.

Both campaigns know Americans are concerned about crime. Contrary to what anti-police crusaders would have you believe, Gallup polling released Aug. 5 found that 86% of adults want the police presence in their neighborhoods to stay the same or increase. This year has also seen surges in murders and gun sales. On public safety, the odds again favor the Republican.

—Daniel J. Samet, University of Texas at Austin, history (Ph.D.)

It’s Trump’s America

“You break it, you buy it” captures the general principle that you are responsible for the mess you create. President Trump will look to remind America of this—that Democratic policies led to the riots and left-wing mayors let them rage—but it will be to no avail. In leadership, you aren’t responsible for the mess you create, but rather the mess you fail to clean up.

President Bush didn’t cause Hurricane Katrina, but the public still held his administration responsible for the lackluster response. Mr. Trump wasn’t the cause of the riots. U.S. racial tensions long predated his presidency and will persist after it. But he will be judged for not being part of the solution. The president has failed time and again to be the unifying figure that the U.S. so desperately needs. No matter how much he tries to shift blame, Mr. Trump will have to own this. This is Trump’s America, for better or worse.

—Keith Ongeri, University of Notre Dame, law

If Only He Didn’t Tweet

The riot in Kenosha, Wis., in particular could be a boon for President Trump. While support for racial justice is at an all-time high, the average American easily distinguishes between protests against police brutality and anarchists hell-bent on destroying private property. Suburban voters are particularly opposed to rioting, and so long as Mr. Trump stays on message, he may have found his Willie Horton moment.

There is no indication, however, that the president is any good at staying on message. In fact, all the evidence is to the contrary. Right now his line of attack—“you won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America”—rings hollow, as Mr. Biden’s speech in Pittsburgh condemning the riots underscored. If the Biden campaign distances its candidate from the anarchic elements of the far left and continues to dodge and counterpunch, the former vice president should benefit from suburban discontent with Mr. Trump’s inability to get the violence under control.

—Connor Donaldson, Washington and Lee University, law

Click here to submit a response to next week’s Future View.

Wonder Land: After a pandemic, riots and everything else, the 2020 election has become a culture war between Biden and Trump. Image: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

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2020-09-08 19:07:00

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