In Depth

Does a ‘law and order’ election better suit Donald Trump or Joe Biden?

Wisconsin has become an unlikely election battleground amid national unrest

As the US faces the fallout from a series of protests in cities nationwide, voters are preparing to choose whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden should lead the push to restore peace.

Democratic presidential candidate Biden has criticised his Republican rival for backing the use of force against demonstrators, instead opting for a softer pledge to help “heal” the country.

But as the unrest continues following the police shooting of a black man in Wisconsin last month, the Biden campaign is adopting a tougher tone. In a new television advert airing this week, the former vice president says: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

So which candidate stands to benefit most through their response to the crisis ahead of what commentators are describing as a “law and order election”. 

What is happening?

The US has been gripped by racial tensions since the killing of George Floyd in late May. The fatal shooting sparked Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in cities in both the US and other countries worldwide, with activists calling for police reform and an end to systemic racism.

The protests appeared to be winding down until a fresh wave of anger was triggered by the police shooting of another black man, Jacob Blake, in the Wisconsin city of Kenosha on 23 August. During the subsequent protests, a white teenager, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, was arrested for allegedly shooting and killing two BLM activists.

As the media spotlight shines on Kenosha, the city has now become the unexpected epicentre of both Trump and Biden’s campaigns in the run-up to the November election.

What are the rival parties’ tactics?

For the Republican Party, the strategy is obvious: go all-in on a message of “law and order”, promising a forceful antidote to the violence, and accuse the Democrats of encouraging lawlessness.

With the Trump administration facing widespread criticism over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, focusing on the unrest in America is, as former US labour secretary Robert Reich puts it, an easy “distraction”.

The sitting president “kicked his crime-focused re-election strategy into overdrive” this week during a campaign stop in Kenosha during which he branded rioters “domestic terrorists”, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

“If you look at the black community, they want the police to help them stop crime. The hispanic community, they want police,” Trump said before he left for Wisconsin. “They don’t want crime. They don’t want to be mugged. They don’t want to have any problems, and it’s just a shame.”

Biden is also heading to Kenosha, where he is meeting Blake’s family.

“There’s been overwhelming requests that I do come,” Biden told reporters this week. “Because what we want to do is we’ve got to heal. We’ve got to put things together. Bring people together. And so my purpose in going will be to do just that.”

Biden’s visit comes amid reports that Trump campaign officials believe that “images of police grappling with angry protesters” would “play to their advantage”, says The Christian Science Monitor.

“Some Democrats have begun worrying about the same thing, and implored Mr Biden to take a stronger stance against the looting and burning of stores and other businesses,” the news site adds.

Who could benefit most?

The Republican Party has pushed “law and order” candidates multiple times in the past, with Richard Nixon using the slogan in his successful 1968 bid for the White House.

But Vox suggests that campaigning on such a platform is an unusual tactic for Trump, as the incumbent president.

While he also “promised four years ago to restore safety and bring law and order to our streets”, says the news site, “today he’s a candidate with a record. A record of rising crime and urban disorder, and a record that makes it clear he has no idea how to make any of it better - and is intervening in several ways to make it worse.”

Given those failures, the Democrats may be on to a winner with Biden’s focus on “the necessity of constructive, nonviolent protest against systemic racism and police brutality”, says Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Washington D.C.-based Niskanen Center think tank, in an article for The Guardian

But the former VP’s new tough-on-crime advert may worry some of his supporters, because law and order politics has a “racial dimension”, Kabaservice adds.

Biden has long had the backing of ethnic minority voters in the US, with CNN reporting late last month that he had a 71-point lead over Trump in some polls of black voters - a margin that could see the Democrat over the finish line if minority turnout is high.

But the Biden camp may consider alienating some black voters with tough language to be a risk worth taking, as he also a considerable lead in most national polls. According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, Biden is seven points clear of Trump across the 50 states. 

And with 53% of respondents saying they remain sympathetic to the protesters and their cause, it appears that the Republican Party may be wasting energy - and more crucially, time - on a non-issue for the American electorate.


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