By Arab News
By Dr. John C. Hulsman*
Even his enemies must grant that Donald Trump has always thrived in a state of absolute chaos. So, with his back to the electoral wall as the 2020 presidential campaign begins in earnest, it is little wonder he is using the tumult of the nationwide protests following the sickening death of George Floyd to seek decisive political advantage.
Following his administration’s haphazard response to the coronavirus pandemic and the related economic crash, the Trump White House finds itself behind Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the race for the presidency. This past week, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls, Biden has 50 percent support, comfortably ahead of Trump’s 42 percent.
More tellingly, in the battleground states that will determine the outcome, Biden finds himself with a small but consistent lead across the board. According to RealClearPolitics, the former vice president is up by three points in pivotal Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona, while he finds himself in a dead heat with the president in North Carolina. All this means, if the election were held today, Joe Biden would become the 46th president of the United States.
Almost uniquely, Trump’s political strategy since day one has been to secure his base rather than grow it. This has been borne out by the president having a remarkably stable approval rating, in the 43 to 45 percent range, though never for one day climbing to the 50 percent mark. The president’s base is remarkably loyal, but the Trump revolution has never enjoyed majority support.
All these political realities mean that ruthlessly employing wedge issues — key, controversial policy points designed to rally the Trump base, divide majority Democratic support and woo disaffected independents to the fold — is the re-election campaign’s last, best chance to overturn Biden’s lead. It is in this political context that Trump’s response to the continent-wide protests following the police brutality that led to Floyd’s death must be assessed.
In essence, Trump is revising the successful “law and order” strategy that led Richard Nixon to the White House in 1968. Following the heartrending assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, inner-city America exploded in fury. The sight of American cities burning had the effect of frightening white, moderate America into yearning for a president who would decisively put an end to disorder. Nixon adroitly stepped into the vacuum, securing a narrow election win.
While less nuanced than Nixon — who attended King’s funeral and also talked about racial healing — Trump is following the old script to a tee. For it is a political risk certainty that, the longer the protests continue, the better the law and order card will play in general. Ongoing protests leave the Democrats in danger of alienating moderates of all stripes, as they politically divide over the protestors’ radical (and utterly unworkable) push to somehow abolish the police.
Entirely aware of this trap, Trump has tweeted the outlines of his coming election strategy this past week. “LAW & ORDER, NOT DEFUND AND ABOLISH THE POLICE. The Radical Left Democrats have gone Crazy,” he posted.
The president’s Twitter strategy is more nuanced than it first appears. In the 20-plus years Gallup has asked questions about US institutions, their polling shows only three groups with consistent majority support: The military, small businesses, and the police. While the whole country was rightly sickened by what happened to George Floyd and the police brutality it laid bare, the utterly drastic overreaction of abolishing one of the few edifices of American life that is generally approved of could well alienate moderates.
Second, Trump’s tweeting tries to link Biden to the leftist protesters pushing the abolish-the-police narrative. While the Democratic candidate has carefully made clear his general support for the protesters and their aims to deal with systemic racism and police brutality, he has clearly distanced himself from the more extreme calls to abolish the police, for there is a looming political disaster there.
As the June 1 Morning Consult poll made clear, an overwhelming 71 percent of registered voters support the National Guard assisting police in quelling the disturbances, while a majority of 58 percent support calling in the US military (as Trump has suggested) to help put them down if necessary. While the leftist mainstream media might abhor these law and order tactics, it is clear the American people feel differently and that Biden is wise to try to avoid being linked to ultra-leftist demands.
Here the president has displayed his cynical shrewdness. For he is not directly saying Biden actively supports the abolition of the police; given his lifelong moderate Democratic stances, that is a charge that will be hard to make stick. Instead, the Trump election team is charging that he is too weak to stop his party’s feckless, headlong rush to the left — a campaign allegation that has the air of plausibility.
As America confronts its greatest series of protests since 1968, keep in mind that the politics of 1968 are back.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.