The Republican National Convention is taking place amid deadly clashes in Wisconsin after a new police blunder. With “law and order” as its slogan, Trump’s campaign team is trying to make voters forget about the disaster of the pandemic.
On the left side of your screen, a Midwestern city under curfew, to which federal forces have just been deployed to reestablish order after nights of chaos and violence that left two fatally shot and several seriously injured. At the same time, on the right side of the same screen, the Republican National Convention is calmly rolling out the virtual program of its third night all in praise of Donald Trump, presented at once as the president of law and order and a man whose human qualities are too often ignored.
On Monday evening, this surreal contrast was once again offered to American voters. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, the police eventually arrested a young white man, age 17, whom the entire country watched via social media, parade, automatic weapon in hand, through confrontations between racial justice protesters and heavily armed white supremacists. The adolescent was seen tripping and, while falling, firing several bullets, then walking away past law enforcement officers with no problem, despite the victims on the ground.
These images are even more forceful because they offer another contrast, this time with the circumstances under which Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black resident of Kenosha, was seriously injured after seven shots to the back, fired three days earlier by a white police officer, as his children looked on.
Deeper than ever, the divisions in American society are regularly revived by viral images of these repeated tragedies. The death of George Floyd, who was suffocated by a white police officer during his arrest three months ago, set off a vast protest movement against racism and police violence which now finds itself revitalized and spreading to major sports leagues, notably the National Basketball Association.
Team Trump, which is running for a second term on Nov. 3, however, only wishes to recognize one single version of this American malaise: the violation of law and order. “The violence must stop,” ordered Vice President Mike Pence. By violence, he is referring only to “rioting, looting” and “tearing down statues.” Not a word was mentioned about the victims of law enforcement officers or of the openly racist far right or the over-arming of its militants.
Paradoxically, this new outbreak of violence was a welcome distraction for Trump’s campaign organizers, as the number of deaths from COVID-19 approaches 180,000. The disastrous management of the pandemic and its serious economic consequences have made the president vulnerable to his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. Returning to the realm of law and order, a traditional Republican theme, gives the White House a beneficial respite from this catastrophe.
But Trump can’t have it both ways. He cannot soften his image as the intractable president, an attempt to seduce female voters by highlighting, as he did on Wednesday night, speakers who extolled his sense of empathy with personal anecdotes, or to get back into the good graces of Black voters with the remarks of a few rare representatives of that community, while at the same time remain silent about the reality unfurling every night under the eyes of Americans. Even virtually, the myth of regained greatness is increasingly difficult to defend.