They are the constituency no one wants, the crowd of “peaceful protesters” who aren’t all that peaceful. The one that does more to hurt than help even as both major political parties worry incessantly about how they can turn out voters ahead of an election billed, yet again, as "the most important in U.S. history.”
Maybe it is because they have a bad habit of looting liquor stores, torching businesses, and throwing rocks at cops. They are the mob, an amorphous rabble that has destroyed blocks’ worth of buildings from Minneapolis to Portland this summer, rioting and looting and turning November into a referendum on mob politics.
This disturbing factor in an already complex election environment has Joe Biden exasperated. The Democrats’ presidential nominee has denounced violence in assorted statements and speeches, always defending the right to peacefully protest while also condemning the destruction of property and attacks on the police. His campaign still worried that the message wasn’t sticking, especially as Republicans ratcheted up their criticism, so on Monday the former vice president gave a full-throated rebuttal.
“You know me, you know my heart, you know my story, my family story,” Biden said from the floor of a Pittsburgh steel mill. “Ask yourself, do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters? Really? I want a safe America, safe from COVID, safe from crime and looting, safe from racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops. Let me be crystal clear, safe from four more years of Donald Trump.”
He views the violence as wanton destruction, Biden insisted, and worse -- a wasted opportunity for reform. Trump, he argued, looks at the exact same carnage “and he sees a political lifeline.” Four hours later, the president responded.
“Biden is using mafia talking points: The mob will leave you alone if you give them what they want,” the old New York real-estate tycoon explained. “The mob will leave you alone, but it does not work that way. Once you give to them, they keep taking -- what happens is you give and give, and they no longer respect you.” And that, the president told reporters, “is what happened with the Democrats.”
Ever since George Floyd died while handcuffed and under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May, both political parties have been careful to say that they support peaceful demonstrations. But Republicans have repeatedly highlighted the protests that turned violent, and have tried to pin the blame on Democrats. Trump has made this argument in the White House briefing room, on Twitter and at his own convention.
He summed up the better part of three months of argument with two simple sentences: “They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon. No one will be safe in Biden’s America.”
The latest public opinion surveys suggest a basic logic behind this line of attack: Recent polling by Pew Research found that 59% of registered voters said addressing “violent crime” was very important to their 2020 election decision. It ranked fifth on a list of issues. Coronavirus, by comparison, ranked fourth. But it is still an unorthodox approach for an incumbent. Donald Trump is the president. Biden is not. How can Trump blame an out-of-office challenger for mob violence happening under the current administration’s watch?
“When protesters were laying siege to monuments in our nation's capital,” Vice President Mike Pence responded when RealClearPolitics put that question to him, “Joe Biden sent out a press release. President Donald Trump sent in the National Guard.” And in terms of curbing the violence, he said the administration “will continue to call on Democratic mayors and governors to do their job.”
Some state and local Democrats certainly have let the situation deteriorate under their watch, and just last week Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler penned an open letter declining additional law enforcement from the federal government as riots continue in his city. What does that have to do with Biden? He hasn’t been in public office since he left the White House behind as vice president in January 2017.
“‘You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,’” an incredulous Biden said Monday, parroting Trump’s argument back at him. “And what’s their proof? The violence we’re seeing in Donald Trump’s America? These are not images of some imagined Joe Biden America in the future. These are images of Donald Trump’s America today.”
Trump’s next rebuttal will come on the road. He will travel Tuesday to Wisconsin where violence has erupted after a police shooting in Kenosha. If any city is under threat, Trump vowed at the White House, “whenever you're ready, we will solve your problem of violence. We will solve your problem of violent crime.” Then the president argued again that Biden was “surrendering to the left-wing mob” and that his opponent would give “them control over every lever of power in the United States government.”
Voters will decide whether that is partisan conjecture. What is undeniable, however, is that Biden campaign staffers donated to a bail fund that helped spring people charged with serious crimes -- including sexual assault and murder -- from jail as violent demonstrations were raging in Minneapolis. At least 13 members of the campaign contributed to the fund, many of them advertising their donations. Before her nomination, Kamala Harris urged her followers to “chip in now.”
These are the sort of facts that Republicans will play up in the coming weeks. The Grand Old Party was given a gift after a low-energy speech from the president capping their convention. He had delivered what sounded like a traditional State of the Union address, not his normal fire-breathing. But it was punctuated unintentionally, and to the benefit of Republicans, when the guests filed out of the White House -- where angry protesters were waiting.
All of it was rowdy, some of it frightening. Sen. Rand Paul and his wife were caught in a scrum outside the executive residence. The demonstrators crowded around the Kentucky senator and screamed that he “say her name,” a reference to Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman fatally shot by police executing a no-knock search warrant. Police intervened. None of the assembled seemed to know that Paul had personally authored legislation outlawing the “no-knock” warrants that led to Taylor’s death or that he named the legislation in Taylor’s honor. Also lost in the scrum of mob logic: The fact that Sens. Paul and Harris co-authored a bipartisan bill to end cash-bail.
Today, the only thing that either side can agree on is that mob violence is bad, and the other side is the cause. Biden blamed Trump for “poisoning our very democracy.” Trump countered that, if Biden is elected, more violence would follow, and “if the mob rules, democracy is indeed dead.”