The Chaos Candidate Leans into the Whirlwind

Welcome back to Flux, a weekly newsletter from GEN about the powerful forces reshaping America. I’m Garance Franke-Ruta, executive editor of GEN.

The essence of propaganda is that it includes just enough truth to make a big lie believable.

This week the conversation about the future of New York City, the national debate over policing and racial justice, and the uproar over the shooting of James Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were all rolled up into an argument for reelecting Donald Trump by speakers at the Republican National Convention.

Never mind that the unparalleled collapse of the economy and upending of every kind of normal order in New York is 100% thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, which Trump-era federal disease prevention officials still have failed to contain, blocking a return to regular living. Never mind that the confrontations in the streets between left-wing activists and federal officials are fueled substantially by the overreaction of militarized police and even border forces that have now been turned against rights-bearing U.S. citizens, or that the some—though by no means all — of the worst acts of violence on the most inflamed nights of protests have come in the form of right-wing extremist attacks like the one perpetrated in Kenosha by teen Trump supporter Kyle Rittenhouse.

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“The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety, and law and order,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Thursday on Fox and Friends.

This many months into the pandemic — with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issuing orders against widespread coronavirus testing in clear contradiction of every recommendation for bringing the pandemic under control, and the Food and Drug Administration hyping the unproven treatment of convalescent plasma and setting up a show vaccine hearing for October — it has all come to feel intentional, as if 2016’s chaos candidate in 2020 is manipulating the organs of state to foment chaos, fear, and disorder in hopes of strengthening his hold on power and creating a political dynasty.

Trump, having run the country into a ditch, now poses himself as the savior from the resulting disorder. Stymied as to how to go after Joe Biden directly, Trump has pivoted to running against the movement for Black lives, left-wing activist groups, Democrat-run cities, and fears of urban crime. These points were driven home again and again at the RNC through speeches and the choice of speakers. “Law and order are on the ballot,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday night, echoing Richard Nixon’s campaign slogan of 1968. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani decried the current mayor of New York and the increase in shootings in the city. New York City police union president Pat Lynch declared Democrats “have walked away from police officers and they have walked away from the innocent people we protect. Democratic politicians have surrendered our streets and institutions.”

“No one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Trump warned.

President Donald Trump after delivering his acceptance speech for the Republican Party nomination for reelection on the South Lawn of the White House. Photo: Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images.

Campaigning on racial grievances and fear of crime is a tried and tested playbook for Republicans, from Nixon to George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads and the “Hands” advertisement of Jesse Helms. Trump trotted it out in 2016, as well; the little-remembered first night of the RNC that year was devoted to the theme, “Make America Safe Again” and selling Trump as, you guessed it, the “law and order” candidate.

The key difference this year is the extent to which the federal government has been dragooned into the pitch. Trump’s speech at the White House, followed by a fireworks show behind the Washington Monument, was itself a lawless act, made possible by countless violations of the 80-year old “Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”—the Hatch Act—prohibiting the use of federal property and civil service workers for campaigns. One after another, the agencies of government have been bent to Trump’s will, undertaking efforts designed to prosecute his interests rather than uphold their foundational mandates.

The Department of Homeland Security, now led by an acting commissioner who may lack the legal authority to direct it, is snatching dissidents—as we’d call them in any other country —off the street in unmarked vans for questioning, all while talk of the risk of white supremacist extremists is suppressed. Bill Barr’s Justice Department, working to quash investigations into Trump and launching an investigation of his rivals. The CDC. The FDA. The U.S. Postal Service. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which just this weekend declared it will no longer brief Congress on election security and foreign meddling.

Polling by Morning Consult showed a small convention bounce for Trump; Biden got no bounce from the Democratic convention, but still maintains a lead. Of course, we know national polls are not the metric when it comes to winning those crucial swing states. Even before the GOP convention, Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan had a warning for Biden. “Law enforcement and support of law enforcement is an issue I am seeing in the suburbs [and] is an issue we really do need to pay attention to,” she told Yahoo News’ “Skullduggery” podcast.

After three months of protests, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has declined nationally from the rapid peak it reached in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. In Wisconsin, white approval of the movement and protests shrank by August, and in no subset of those surveyed did a majority back calls to defund the police. And while crime remains low across the country, the disturbing truth is that shootings and murders are up in New York (along with 35 other major cities), which also looks more bedraggled than it did six months ago and is set to face a massive budget crisis that will take years to recover from.

Joe Biden, who needs the support of disaffected suburban voters to win, has pitched his campaign as “a battle for the soul of America.” Watching Trump’s theatrical shock-and-awe on Thursday night, I couldn’t help but feel like the battle is one we already know the outcome to.

Maybe Biden does too: He’s now set to give a speech on Monday condemning the violence in the streets, and, most likely, once again reiterating his opposition to activist calls to defund the police.

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