The Memo: Trump's law and order bet falling flat

The Memo: Trump's law and order bet falling flat
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President TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE’s bet on hard-line “law and order” rhetoric isn’t paying off — so far.

Nearly five months before the election, the president has been leaning into the law enforcement message though his poll numbers have recently gone down.

Trump blasted protesters again on Twitter Tuesday. He said that there would never be an autonomous zone in the nation’s capital — akin to one that has been set up in Seattle — while he is president. He pledged that anyone who sought to set up such an area would be “met with serious force!”


That implicit threat was enough for the tweet to be marked as having violated Twitter’s rules about abusive behavior. But it is also consistent with the president’s overall approach.

Trump infamously used the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” regarding protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.

One of the single most controversial events since then was the forced removal of protesters from Lafayette Square, adjacent to the White House. The protesters were moved by law enforcement personnel spraying a form of tear gas. A short time later Trump crossed the square and held a Bible aloft outside St. John’s Episcopal Church.

But if the president is hoping that such shows of force — rhetorical or actual — would deliver a political boost, he appears to be mistaken.

A number of polls show Trump’s response to the protests meeting with broad disapproval. There also appears to be a significant reservoir of support for the underlying aims of the protesters.

An Economist-YouGov poll released last week found Trump’s response to the protests getting the thumbs-down from 53 percent of Americans, while only 34 percent approved.


A partisan breakdown in those responses was predictable (only 10 percent of Democrats approved, whereas 70 percent of Republicans did so), but the results in terms of other demographics were more ominous for the president’s reelection hopes.

Trump’s response was judged more harshly by women, with whom he already has significant political problems, than by men. Among young voters, the response was disastrous for Trump — 60 percent of the under-30s disapproved, and only 20 percent approved. And even a plurality of whites disapproved of Trump’s response, 47 percent to 40 percent.

Republican allies of Trump are concerned about the direction of his campaign as he is struggling in the key battleground states that he won in 2016.  Kimberly Strassel, a member of The Wall Street Journal editorial board and a Fox News contributor, penned a column earlier this month titled, “Trump is beating Trump.” Strassel stated that Trump needs to make the election a choice between himself and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Senate parliamentarian nixes Democrats' immigration plan Biden pushes back at Democrats on taxes MORE instead of a referendum.

Trump’s foes are adamant that he has misjudged the mood of the nation.

The Rev. Al Sharpton told The Hill that Trump’s response “is way out of step. I think he has not looked at the reality that a lot of the people protesting with us are white and younger. A lot of these voters [who voted for him] in 2016, he is calling their kids ... anarchists and thugs. I think he is misreading the demographics of the protesters.”

The civil rights activist, who is also an MSNBC host, has tangled with Trump plenty of times in the past, of course. But there is more than one poll that suggests Trump may indeed be out of step.

A Fox News poll last week found that 57 percent of registered voters had a favorable view of the protests that have followed the controversial killing of Floyd, for which a now-former police officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second-degree murder. Just 35 percent disapproved. By contrast, in the same poll 31 percent approved of Trump’s response, while 56 percent disapproved.

Those numbers suggest Trump is choosing tactics from an out-of-date playbook.

Past Republican presidents, or presidential candidates, used similar rhetoric to their political advantage.

The most obvious example is President Nixon. Trump’s rhetorical promises of “law and order” and his proclamations that he is giving voice to the “silent majority” closely echo the kind of language used by Nixon as a winning candidate for the White House in 1968.

Long before winning the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan had burnished his law-and-order credentials by taking a hard line against student protesters during his time as governor of California.

But it is a very different world now — partly because of social and demographic changes that have occurred across decades and partly because there appears to have been a startling and rapid shift in views of issues like policing and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There is no question that social attitudes have changed and seem to have changed remarkably rapidly in response to recent events,” said Allan Lichtman, a history professor at American University and one of the few experts to correctly predict Trump’s 2016 victory.

Lichtman said that, while it was obvious most people did not support violence or vandalism, “I’ve been quite amazed by the degree of support for the goals of the protesters and for the idea that there is systemic racism in policing and systemic racism afflicting non-white people throughout society.”

All of this could change. The protests could take on a more violent air than before, and cause a backlash, handing Trump a political gift. There could be a single inflammatory incident that shifts public opinion in a more conservative direction. Or the outrage that followed Floyd’s killing could simply ebb away.

But even Sharpton, who first rose to prominence in the 1980s, says he is struck by how much broader the support is now for the kind of goals he advocates.

“It has very much increased and it is something I have not seen in my career,” he said. “It began to grow over the last decade — I saw it grow under President Obama and all the way to now.”

Sharpton added, “Over time, there is a cumulative effect and people start to say, ‘This is just too much.’ ”

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