President Trump kicked his crime-focused re-election strategy into overdrive Tuesday during a campaign stop in Kenosha, Wis., blaming “domestic terrorists” for the unrest that has ensued there after a police officer shot a Black man seven times in the back.
Trump never mentioned Jacob Blake, the man wounded last month, by name and abandoned plans to phone Blake’s family after they asked a lawyer to listen in to the call. Instead, Trump insisted that he would heal the nation’s racial divide through “law and order.”
“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.”
Trump previewed his re-election strategy of stoking fears of rampant crime at last week’s Republican National Convention, a strategy complicated by the fact that crime isn’t rising — it’s falling.
Violent crime dropped 51% nationally from 1993 to 2018, according to the FBI. Property crime dropped 54% during the same period.
“Sure, there are hot spots in some cities, but overall, crime now is in a place like it was in 1964,” said criminologist John Roman, a senior fellow at NORC, a nonpartisan think tank at the University of Chicago.
So why do politicians exploit fears of crime? Because it has a good chance of weaponizing the deepest anxieties of many Americans. In most of the 22 polls that Gallup conducted from 1993 to 2018 on crime issues, at least 6 in 10 Americans said there was more crime in the country than the previous year — even when crime had dropped.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, exacerbated those fears, Roman said.
“In the aftermath in 9/11, you had all of these signs everywhere saying ‘If you see something, say something.’ You had people asking, ‘What’s the terror threat color today?’” Roman said. “It has made Americans fearful that they’re at risk all the time, even when they’re not.”
Trump isn’t the first national politician to poke at those anxieties. George Wallace, Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all raised fears of crime, said Jeffrey Butts, who directs the Research and Evaluation Center at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Trump is just the latest to try it. As top adviser Kellyanne Conway said last week, “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.”
It remains to be seen whether those anxieties will flip votes to Trump, Butts said. “It probably makes the base more excited, but it turns off people in the middle — especially if you’re over 40 — because you’ve seen this happen before,” Butts said. Nevertheless, “politicians are willing to do this messaging way past the time when data would support it.”
Trump is adding his own twist — pointing to crime spiking in “Democrat-led” cities like Portland, Ore., where protests over racial injustice have been a nightly event downtown for more than three months. On Sunday, a member of a far-right group was shot to death after a pro-Trump caravan drove into the city. His killer has not been found.
Homicides are up slightly in Portland this year, said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst and co-founder of consulting company AH Datalytics. There were 25 killings through July, compared with 22 by the same time last year, Asher tweeted Tuesday, but “Portland’s murder rate was below the national average for 19 straight years from 2000-2018.”
Nationally, Asher has looked at the publicly available violent crime rates of the biggest U.S. cities with Republican mayors. It is roughly the same as the rates in Democratic-led cities, he said.
“The available evidence shows no relationship between the mayor’s political party and a city’s murder trend in 2020,” Asher told The Chronicle in an e-mail.
Trump and other Republicans are using the specter of rising crime to try to win back suburban women and seniors, two groups of once-supportive voters that have drifted away from him.
At the Republican convention, Patty McCloskey of St. Louis, who was charged with a felony along with her husband when they pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home, said Democrats “want to abolish the suburbs altogether.”
On Monday, Trump told Fox News that if Joe Biden wins, Democrats will bring low-income housing to the suburbs.
“You know who’s going to be in charge of it? Cory Booker,” Trump said, referring to the senator from New Jersey — a Black man whose name the president has often invoked when warning suburban voters of the dangers Democrats supposedly pose.
Trump’s message is anything but subtle, said A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge, an organization that recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.
“This is some straight-up dog whistling,” said Gholar, who formerly was the deputy director of African American engagement for the Democratic National Committee. “Shoot, this is dog hollering that he is doing.”
Gholar said that “in Trump’s America, suburban equals white. He is talking about white people. And the fact is, there are plenty of people of color who live in the suburbs.”
Nevertheless, Trump “is saying to his base, ‘Look at me. I’m keeping your neighborhoods safe. I’m keeping your quality of living up,’” Gholar told The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast Tuesday. “ ‘You’re not going to have to do your white flight again.’”
She added, “It is this narrative that he has that ‘only I can keep you safe because things have gotten so bad.’”
Trump’s narrative leaves out a key fact, Gholar said.
“You’re the president, homie,” she said. “You caused all of this.”
Biden said Monday in Pittsburgh that social-justice protesters are different from the people who brought destruction to Kenosha after Blake was shot. “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting,” he said. “Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted. Violence will not bring change, it will only bring destruction.”
What Trump is trying to do, said Gholar, is paint any opposition against him as being based in anarchy. But protest is a part of “this country’s history going back to the Boston Tea Party,” she noted.
“This is how we get change,” Gholar said. “The people who don’t like the protests, who have never liked the protests, it’s because they’re not comfortable with the change. They’re not excited about what the change will mean for this country or what the change will mean for them.”
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Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @joegarofoli