The Memo: Trump struggles to get traction with law-and-order message

President Trump ramped up his efforts to portray himself as a hard-line law-and-order president Wednesday — but it’s a gambit that has not worked so far.

Trump is betting that voters will eventually rally around his attacks on a “radical left” that he portrays as leaving law-abiding citizens defenseless by undermining the police. In theory, the rhetoric could help restore his fortunes with the suburban voters with whom he has been struggling.

But there are real doubts as to whether that approach can gain traction in a nation where views of policing and racial injustice have changed significantly even in the past few years — and where support for the Black Lives Matter movement is higher than ever.

Trump, accompanied by Attorney General William Barr, announced in the East Room of the White House Wednesday afternoon that he was sending federal agents to Chicago and Albuquerque. Those agents will expand an initiative that has already begun in Kansas City, Mo., “Operation Legend.”

In announcing the move, Trump lambasted nameless politicians who he said had “embraced a far-left movement to break up our police departments.” He also accused parts of the left of being on an “anti-police crusade.”

“There has been a radical movement to defund, dismantle and dissolve our police departments,” Trump said.

He made no mention of Joe Biden on Wednesday, but he has previously sought to tie his presumptive Democratic opponent to this supposed radical agenda.

During one part of a contentious interview with Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday” that aired last weekend, Trump contended that Biden had pledged to defund the police. Wallace averred, correctly, that he had not done so.

Active ads on Trump’s official Facebook page on Wednesday afternoon included one lamenting how “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem.”

Appeals to law and order have been successful for Republicans in the past, one famous example being Richard Nixon in the 1968 presidential election. Trump’s tweets have at times directly copied Nixon’s appeals for “law and order” and an assertion that he speaks for “the silent majority.”

There are important differences, however — among them the fact that Nixon was running as the challenger at the end of an eight-year period when Democrats had held the White House. Social attitudes have changed vastly in the intervening half century, too.

Trump has been banging the law-and-order drum for almost two months, after protests erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis in late May.

Opinion polls suggest his appeals have mostly failed to resonate.

An Economist/YouGov poll released on Wednesday found a plurality disapproving of Trump’s approach on crime and criminal justice reform. Thirty-eight percent of Americans approved of Trump’s performance on that topic, but 47 percent disapproved, the poll indicated.

A recent Fox News poll showed public opinion heavily against Trump on the topic of race relations. On that issue, 52 percent thought Biden would do a better job and only 31 percent preferred Trump. The poll did not ask about crime or criminal justice.

A third poll in the past few days, from The Washington Post and ABC News, showed people preferring Biden over Trump on the issue of “crime and safety” by 50 percent to 41 percent.

Trump’s efforts to demonstrate his toughness on crime have also run into other kinds of trouble. 

The deployment of federal agents in Portland, Ore., has been especially controversial, accompanied by reports that protesters have been scooped up from the street by officers in unmarked vehicles, and that at least one demonstrator suffered a fractured skull.

Portland’s Mayor Ted Wheeler and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, both Democrats, have reacted furiously to Trump’s actions. During an MSNBC interview with Chuck Todd and Katy Tur on Tuesday, Brown contended that “Trump’s troops” had “substantially exacerbated an already challenging situation … This is about political points, about political theater.”

On Wednesday, Oregon sought a restraining order from a federal court against the agents. 

Meanwhile, 15 mayors, including Wheeler, Lori Lightfoot (D) of Chicago, Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) of Atlanta and Muriel Bowser (D) of the District of Columbia wrote an open letter to the Department of Justice on Wednesday in which they condemned Trump for an “abuse of power” in deploying federal forces in cities.

“Furthermore, it is concerning that federal law enforcement is being deployed for political purposes,” the mayors wrote. “The President and his administration continually attack local leadership and amplify false and divisive rhetoric purely for campaign fodder.”

The moves by federal agents in Portland are technically different from the expansion of Operation Legend announced by the president on Wednesday afternoon. But they are part of the same broad picture — one in which Trump and his allies vigorously insist they are holding back a tide of violence.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany began her Tuesday briefing with the assertion that “by any objective standard, the violence, chaos, and anarchy in Portland is unacceptable, yet Democrats continue to put politics above peace while this President seeks to restore law and order.”

So far, though, more voters appear to believe that Trump is ramping up discord than dampening it.

Unless that changes, it’s hard to see how his law-and-order approach pays political dividends.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags Chicago Chris Wallace Chuck Todd Coronavirus Donald Trump Federal police Joe Biden police reform Portland presidential election William Barr

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