After struggling for much of the year to agree on a clear and concise message for re-election, President Donald Trump appears to have found his 2020 rally cry.
Four years ago it was "Build the Wall," a simple but coded mantra for white America that non-white outsiders threatened their way of life. This week, Trump has focused his campaign on another three-word phrase that carries a similar race dynamically: "Law and Order."
For much of the summer, the Republican president flirted with the bumper sticker slogan championed by Richard Nixon and George Wallace in 1968. But Trump became more focused on law and order after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. A black man who was watched several times by Blake's three children last week and caused protest-based violence.
The president toured the Midwestern city on Tuesday and met with law enforcement officials and companies affected by the protests. He largely ignored Blake's family.
Trump labeled protest-induced violence "domestic terror" while deciphering "violent mobs" that destroyed or damaged two dozen local businesses.
According to a survey by Morning Consult, Joe Biden's huge lead over President Trump among likely Generation Z voters has narrowed slightly since the August conventions. This offers both campaigns the opportunity to take advantage of this important demographic situation in key swing states. NBCLX's Noah Pransky cancels last poll.
"Kenosha has been devastated by anti-police and anti-American unrest," he said.
The president's changing message, taken from Nixon's half-century old political playbook, carries risks just nine weeks before election day.
First, it ignores the health and economic crises afflicting tens of millions of Americans under Trump's watch. Democrat Joe Biden has repeatedly accused Trump of surrendering to the pandemic, and the president's focus on isolated cases of violence amid such widespread suffering threatens to reinforce Biden's point of view. The death toll from the pandemic exceeded 185,000 Americans on Tuesday, with no end in sight.
Second, history suggests that Trump's strategy will not work due to violence taking place under his presidency.
Nixon invoked law and order rhetoric to attract white voters in 1968, but he was forced to abandon it once he became the incumbent, according to Princeton University history professor Kevin Krause. Nixon took on a new message after Republicans suffered heavy losses in the 1970 midterm elections as they sought to revive law and order as a focus.
President Donald Trump discussed law enforcement decisions in a split second where he said, "Sometimes they choke," and that's what gets all the attention, but the "tens of thousands of great things they do, no one covers that. "
Almost 50 years later, Trump's GOP also suffered deep losses in the medium term in 2018 after the president warned that a massive caravan of Latin American immigrants was attempting to cross the southern border – a variation on the same message he welcomes this year. Instead of immigrants in 2020, however, Trump's ideas of dangerous mobs are largely African-American rioters.
"The problem is when you are the incumbent, you represent the law and order," said Krause. "An incumbent who presses on the issue stands up effectively for his opponent, not for himself."
Krause noted that Biden has already checked out a page from the story to question Trump's strategy. Monday's Democratic candidate used the same "Are you better off?" Rhetoric that Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan successfully used to defeat incumbent presidents.
"Does anyone think that there will be less violence in America if Donald Trump is re-elected?" Biden asked in a speech in Pennsylvania on Monday. “He keeps telling us that if he were president you would feel safe. Well, he's president. "
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has accused President Donald Trump of encouraging violent clashes when protests continue, while condemning violence on both sides.
Trump also applies the law-and-order mantra selectively. While opposed to violence, he apologized for his mostly white supporters who clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon last weekend, saying their use of paintball guns was a "defense mechanism." And when blowing up troublemakers, he suggested that a white 17-year-old who was accused of killing two men during the chaos in Kenosha was acting in self-defense.
However, with no cohesive message other than the 2020 elections entering the final stages, Trump is betting on law and order aimed directly at the same coalition of white, suburban and rural voters that fueled his fourth White House victory in years before.
Trump's campaign in Minnesota and New Hampshire, targeting expansion in 2020, is far whiter than the entire nation with a large proportion of the suburban and rural populations. Such voters were far more sympathetic to Trump's nationalist immigration and economic policies four years ago, and his campaign believes they will now be receptive to his law and order news.
While the nation's attitudes towards racial injustice have changed dramatically after the death of George Floyd in police custody was videotaped in May, Trump's team believe months of occasional violent protests – and the President's ongoing emphasis – are the calculus for some have changed voters.
For months, Trump and his allies have tried to keep deep blue cities as a warning story for the nation. With Kenosha, they believe they have positive evidence of Trump's warning to suburban voters that their cities may be next.
Recent polls suggest that public support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which peaked after Floyd's death, has waned.
A poll by Marquette University Law School found that voter support for the protests in Wisconsin fell from 61% in June to 48% in August. Positive views on the Black Lives Matter movement also fell from 59% to 49% over the same period, although the Wisconsinites still had a positive opinion rather than an unfavorable one.
And voters weren't happy with Trump's handling of the protests: 58% disapproved and only 32% agreed, Marquette noted.
However, Trump's allies believe there has been a marked shift in the suburbs, especially among suburban men.
President Trump and Joe Biden are preparing to return to the campaign after a weekend of protests. Biden will address in Pittsburgh on Monday, while the president will bring his message of law and order to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Tuesday. The president's planned visit, which does not include a meeting with Jacob Blake's family, comes despite requests from the governor and mayor to stay away.
"The suburbs have turned against unrest," said Wes Anderson, a Republican pollster with Trump-affiliated America First Policies.
"Democrats have been touting for a year or more that Republicans are screwed because we have no answer to suburban women who have turned against us. What we have seen, however, is that we do very well with white men in suburbs and We shouldn't fear the gender gap so much, "Anderson continued." Right now, the president's advantage over suburban white men is greater than the deficit of suburban white women. "
There is reason to be skeptical that protest-related violence will continue to be a top priority for swing voters in the fall, especially as incidents of looting and violence abate in the summer, as in other cities.
But for now, Trump is betting his political future on law and order.
The people of Kenosha, he said Tuesday, "want people who will protect them, who will not have their homes broken into, where they will not be raped and murdered."
Trump added, "They want law and order."
Editor's Note – National political writer Steve Peoples has been reporting on the President's policies for The Associated Press since 2011. Miller has been reporting on the White House and AP policies since 2017.
People reported from New York. Washington associate press writer Emily Swanson contributed to this report.