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Trump hopes law and order bluster will be his salvation

Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON — As street violence erupts over racial injustice in cities like Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis., President Donald Trump is seizing on the theme of law and order to cast Democratic nominee Joe Biden as a “puppet” of left-wing radicals, warning of the “anarchy” that would engulf “Joe Biden’s America.”

Yet the violence is erupting in Donald Trump’s America. Biden has condemned violence by increasingly militant and armed extremists on both the left and the right. On Sunday he castigated all shooting and looting while accusing Trump of “fanning the flames of hate and division in our society and using the politics of fear to whip up his supporters.”

Biden cautioned: “We must not become a country at war with ourselves; a country that accepts the killing of fellow Americans who do not agree with you; a country that vows vengeance toward one another. But that is the America that President Trump wants us to be, the America he believes we are.”

On Monday Biden took his message to Pennsylvania, his birth state, initiating a new strategy from the stay-home approach dictated by the coronavirus pandemic. In a speech at a Pittsburgh steel mill, the former vice president called Trump “a toxic presence” inciting violence and looting in urban hotspots for his own political gain.

Coming down hard against street lawlessness, the former vice president said: “I want to be very clear about all of this: rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”

At the same time, he pushed back against Trump’s attempt characterize him as a left-wing radical leading the Democratic Party further down the path to socialism. “You know me, you know my heart,” he said. “You know my story, my family’s story. Ask yourself: Do I look like radical socialist with a soft spot for rioting? Really?”

Biden said: “Donald Trump wants to ask the question: Who will keep you safer as president? Let’s answer that question, When I was vice president, violent crime fell 15% in this country. We did it without chaos and disorder,” though he had little to do with that outcome. He went on: “I want a safe America. Safe from COVID, safe from crime and looting, safe racially motivated violence, safe from bad cops. Let me be crystal clear: safe from four more years of Donald Trump.” He mentioned Trump’s name 32 times in his speech, asking again: “Will we rid ourselves of this toxin? Or will we make it a permanent part of nation’s character?”

Trump meanwhile defended a truck caravan of supporters in Portland who fired paintballs and sprayed mace at Black Lives Matter protesters, saying at a White House press conference: “Paint is a defensive mechanism. Paint is not bullets.”

In a television interview, he sought to compare unjustified police shooters to golfers who sometimes “choke” under pressure. “People choke, and people are bad people. You have both,” Trump said. “You could be a police officer for 15 years, and all of a sudden you’re confronted. You’ve got a quarter of a second to make a decision. If you don’t make the decision and you’re wrong, you’re dead. People choke under those circumstances, and they make a bad decision.”

It’s hard to see how this is relevant, since the officer who shot and paralyzed Blake in Kenosha had fired into his back seven times.

Concerning the ongoing political campaign, the Biden campaign apparently has concluded it can no longer yield to the president the advantage of direct contact with voters around the county, and especially in the Midwestern battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, where Trump won his Electoral College winning margin in 2016.

Trump visited embattled Kenosha on Tuesday despite a plea from the mayor that he not come, fearing his presence would only heighten tension and generate more street violence. He went against the express wishes of Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Kenosha Mayor John Antaramian, both Democrats. The mayor said: “You have a community that’s in the process of trying to heal. … It would have been nice if it (the visit) had waited a while.”

Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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