Why Trump can't make his anti-protest message stick

The president wants to turn civic unrest into a campaign issue. So far, voters aren't buying it.

President Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Donald Trump is a master of political demonization.

In 2016, he successfully portrayed Hillary Clinton as a corrupt and criminal Washington insider who would continue with and expand on the failed policies of the bipartisan political establishment. In 2020, Trump's re-election effort had been hoping to push a similar message rooted in fear: "It's either me or a dangerous and deranged America-hating left."

If you had told the Trump campaign six months ago that the summer leading up to Election Day would be dominated by widespread protests, severe criticism of police, a sharp spike in violent crime, and a wave of vandalism against public monuments, the candidate and his team would have rejoiced at their good luck — since the civic unrest would serve as the perfect context in which to portray the Democrats' presumptive nominee as threatening and ominous. All Trump would need to do is stoke a potent backlash against the left. That's his specialty, and under these conditions, it would dangerously weaken his opponent and empower his own campaign.

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Yet so far, the strategy has failed. The president is way down in the polls. His challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, is far ahead both nationally and in all the crucial swing states. And Trump's anti-protest backlash is nowhere to be found.

The question is why — and whether we have any reason to think things will change.

One possible explanation for Trump's failure (so far) to inspire and lead a backlash is that much of the country is so angry at Trump for his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic that people have given up on him altogether. If that's how large numbers of Americans now feel about the president, there may be nothing he can say or do to improve his prospects.

Another possibility, pushed by many on the left, is that there's been a massive leftward shift in public opinion over the past few months. On this view, Trump hasn't been able to foment a backlash because most Americans support the protesters, their aims, and their tactics — and the prospect of people who view the world as they do taking over the government in January 2021 is seen as a bonus rather than a liability.

Although it's true that polls show that support for Black Lives Matter among white Americans has increased significantly over the past couple of years, they don't provide evidence that we're living through a major ideological realignment of the electorate. Americans strongly support police reform and are more willing than in the recent past to acknowledge the reality of racial injustice. But many also express deep ambivalence about protesters taking down even Confederate statues, let alone those celebrating more widely beloved figures from the American past.

You'd think this would present an opening to a skilled populist politician seeking to use the more extreme and unpopular acts of the left to tar Democrats and their nominee, and then peel away a decent number of disaffected voters. But so far Trump hasn't been able to pull it off.

I suspect that's at least in part because growing numbers of Americans view Trump (and his horribly divisive rhetoric and actions) as the primary catalyst of the unrest, just as they appear to be blaming him for the country's failure to halt the spread of COVID-19. If this is the case, then those who do not approve of the more excessive acts of protest may have concluded that the most effective way to respond is to expel Donald Trump from the White House.

But this turn against Trump has been made possible by one additional factor — and that is the character of his opponent.

From his long track record in public life to recent official statements of his campaign, Joe Biden comes off as a moderate, decent man of the center left seeking to formulate a positive response to cries of racial injustice — a message that promises to de-escalate tensions on the streets of our cities and advance civic reconciliation by aiming to build and expand on American ideals and institutions rather than reject or tear them down. It wouldn't surprise me at all if significant numbers of voters inclined toward backlash against the protests are concluding that voting for Biden is the most reasonable way to bring them to a peaceful conclusion.

That voters are responding affirmatively to Biden's message of civic healing demonstrates the limits of an approach to politics rooted in the demonization of negative partisanship. Trump can't hope to prevail by saying, "You might dislike me, but my opponent is far worse," when Biden is both widely liked and does nothing to indicate that he supports toppling statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Walt Whitman.

That makes Biden a terrible foil for Trump. The perfect Trump foil would be an activist or professor calling for George Washington's name to be removed from public institutions or Mt. Rushmore to be dynamited and the Black Hills returned to Sioux. Some people have been making those arguments, and the right does its best to weaponize each and every example on social media and cable news in the hopes that it will stick to the Democrats' presumptive nominee. But it isn't working — because no one besides Trump's most extreme and conspiracy-addled right-wing supporters could possibly believe that Biden secretly longs to enact such an agenda.

Negative partisanship only works when demonization of one's opponent sticks — which means, oddly enough, that the candidate most likely to be hurt by it this time around is none other than Donald Trump himself. In this election cycle, Trump is so widely loathed that Biden need not even speak his name in order to gain from millions of voters thinking, "I don't especially like Biden or the Democrats, but Trump is far worse."

We may yet see an anti-protest backlash. But Donald Trump won't be the one who benefits from it.

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